Down Among the Dead by K B Wagers

January 14, 2021

Please note, Down Among the Dead is book two in The Farian War. If you haven’t read book one, There Before the Chaos (and the trilogy that preceded that) then what follows will contain minor spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Gunrunner empress Hail Bristol must navigate alien politics and deadly plots to prevent an interspecies war, in this second novel in the Farian War space opera trilogy.

In a surprise attack that killed many of her dearest subjects, Hail Bristol, empress of Indrana, has been captured by the Shen – the most ruthless and fearsome aliens humanity has ever encountered. As she plots her escape, the centuries-long war between her captors and the Farians, their mortal enemies and Indrana’s oldest allies, finally comes to a head.

When her captors reveal a shocking vision of the future, Hail must make the unexpectedly difficult decision she’s been avoiding: whether to back the Shen or the Farians.

Staying neutral is no longer an option. Will Hail fight? Or will she fall?

Putting it in the simplest terms Down Among the Dead, the latest chapter of The Farian War, by K B Wagers is an emotional rollercoaster. The book begins with a warning from the author that the plot will cover some potentially triggering ground while exploring the darkest corners of her lead character. Having read and pondered the book, I can confirm this to be one hundred percent accurate. There Before the Chaos ended with a hugely shocking event for Hail Bristol. Down Among the Dead picks up with Hail in a dark place, still trying to process the horror she witnessed.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, in other reviews of this very series, I consider it the trickiest of writing tasks to convey genuine emotion in fiction. K B Wagers makes it look effortless. Throughout Hail’s journey, Wagers gets the opportunity to explore the nature of trauma, the agony of grief and how we choose to deal with it. I think when we are in pain, we exist in a volatile state. We want to curl up and protect ourselves but in the same breath we want to lash out; to do anything feels better than accepting things as they are. Managing to capture that jumble of contradictory feelings and transfer that to the page is impressive. There is a rawness to Hail that didn’t exist before. Her mental state is like an open wound. It’s a brave move for an author to explore aspects of a character that have only ever been touched upon before. That gamble pays off. These previously unseen layers of depth to Hail’s character help to further define her motivations and actions.

Down Among the Dead is also a story about consequences. The decisions that Hail makes aren’t going to just change the lives of those around her. The direction Hail decides to go will affect worlds, untold billions of beings. Navigating the complex politics of a situation that has existed longer than humanity was never going to be easy and the weight Hail has to shoulder feels palpable. This is a character who has been broken down to nothing but has no choice but to get back up, dust herself off, and keep going.

Wagers is a sneaky old so and so. The characterisation in her novels is some of the best I’ve ever come across. The individuals that Hail meets have all left their mark on this reader. They are a huge, often dysfunctional group, who provide the support that Hail needs in order for her to make the difficult decisions she often has too. In the past I’ve described the emotional core that exists within the Hail Bristol saga and that is still very much in evidence here. Ultimately, we’re talking about how a society is made up, how we choose to care for one another. We’re not just talking about the importance of family but also trying to define what the concept of family means. To Hail, family is more than blood. Family are the people you choose to let become part of your life. The various members of her retinue would gladly give up their lives for their empress, but that’s not down to some outdated sense of honour, it’s because they love her. Hail can’t help but bring out the best in others. Historically, everyone’s favourite ex gunrunning empress has understood squarely where she fits in the grand scheme of things. As a criminal, she was beholden to no-one. She didn’t need to follow the rules and only ever really had to look out for herself. As a monarch the situation is entirely different. She has to rely on others and others have to rely on her.

From a plot perspective there is plenty going on. The Farian and Shen are still at loggerheads with everyone else stuck in the middle. In an effort to try and resolve the situation without resorting to violence, Hail once again decides she can mediate between these two factions. Let just say however that her diplomatic style has evolved somewhat. You get the sense that we are hurtling toward something definitive. Events escalate to that single moment at the end of the narrative, a heartbeat where a terrible choice needs to be made. The nature of that choice is breath-taking. It manages to be both staggeringly simple and endlessly complex. I didn’t see it coming and I think I may have gasped out loud when I got there.

The Indranan War, the first trilogy featuring Hail Bristol, was great. I didn’t think it was possible but The Farian War, including Down Among the Dead, is something better. I’m sure you can guess, but I’ll say it anyway, I love these books. I sit waiting impatiently for each new release to arrive and they always exceed my highest expectations. As an avid reader I reckon that is just about the best thing in the world. Ok, I’ll try and stop gushing now.

Down Among the Dead is published by Orbit and is available now. If you’ve been reading this series then I can recommend it highly enough. If you haven’t then my first question is why not? Seek out The Indranan War trilogy and once you’ve devoured that then we’ll talk. For those of you who are up to speed the good news is we don’t have to wait long to find out what happens next. The third, and final, book in The Farian War trilogy, Out Past the Stars, will be with us next month*.

I had no problem at all choosing my soundtrack recommendation to accompany this novel. The sublime, often subtle, score to Picard by Jeff Russo captures every emotive beat of Hail’s ongoing journey perfectly. Once you’ve read the book and listened to the music I think you’ll understand.

*I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while now and have thus far managed to restrain myself. I’m so conflicted. I want to know what happens but I don’t want the story to end. Damn you K B Wagers! You made me care!!

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