The stakes couldn’t be higher in Until the Last, the final installment of Mike Shackle’s The Last War trilogy, a grimdark military fantasy inspired by real-life stories of resistance in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
In Mike Shackle’s debut novel, We Are the Dead, the country of Jia is swiftly overrun by their militant neighbors to the north, whose war machine is amplified with demonic magical powers. The occupying Egril forces impose rigid martial law on Jia, forcing the defeated Jians to worship their god of darkness, Kage.
The second book of the series, A Fool’s Hope, finds our protagonists gathering strength to resist the Egril invaders. The final war known as Sekanowari arrives in Until the Last, the concluding volume of the trilogy. Like its predecessor, Until the Last is primarily a character-driven novel that revolves around the relationship between two lead protagonists: Zorique, the orphaned queen of Jia, and her emotionally troubled surrogate mother, Tinnstra.
The Last War trilogy is full of great characters. Tinnstra and Zorique are my two absolute favorites, both overcoming indescribable tragedies to become the reluctant heroes needed by their people. Other returning favorites include Yas, the single mother who transforms into a powerful gangster boss, and the aged general Jax who suffers from a terrible inner demon. I especially enjoyed Jax’s character arc in Until the Last, which takes an unexpectedly dark turn.
As in A Fool’s Hope, Mike Shackle introduces several new point-of-view characters in this final volume of the trilogy. I have an immediate negative reaction whenever new point-of-view characters are introduced in later volumes of a series, since all I want is to spend more time with the characters I already know. Perhaps this is just lingering trauma from reading George R.R. Martin’s unnecessarily bloated A Feast for Crows, where every side character seems to get their own perspective and backstory. Although Until the Last also feels a bit bloated, Mike Shackle manages this balance a lot better than George R.R. Martin, never losing focus on the main narrative.
Mike Shackle’s writing feels crisp and tight throughout the entire trilogy, and I think he has elevated his craft to a new level in Until the Last. Although the story is undeniably brutal, I also appreciated Mike Shackle’s sense of humor evident in both the freewheeling Captain Ralasis and in the author’s rather extensive use of tuckerization. Mike Shackle is especially good at writing fight scenes, with plenty of action that kept me fully fixated until the last page.
Although We Are the Dead is rather light on magic, magical elements become dramatically more prevalent in A Fool’s Hope, to the point where two of the main characters felt, perhaps, too superpowered by the end of the book. However, in Until the Last, we learn that these magical powers come with a heavy cost.
Given the World War II inspiration for much of the Last War trilogy, I wonder if acquiring these overwhelming magical abilities could be analogous to the nuclear arms race that occurred on both sides of the war, ultimately leading to the development of weapons with unprecedented capacity for destruction. One point that becomes clear throughout Until the Last is that these magical powers do nothing to correct the faults in our human nature.
Altogether, the Last War trilogy sets a new standard for grimdark military fantasy. Mike Shackle’s worldbuilding, writing, and character development are all top-notch. Most of all, I am touched by Shackle’s focus on the humanity behind the unspeakable violence and tragedy of war.
Read Until the Last by Mike Shackle