The problem with most grimdark fantasy is it's very easy to write really bad stories with shock value and very hard to write good fantasy the same way. There's also a lot of stories which slap the label of grimdark on their back covers or advertisements without actually having any of the grit the "real" grimdark requires. For every Mark Lawrence, Rob J. Hayes, and Joe Abercombie there's a dozen hacks who don't deserve the mantle. I'm not naming names, but you know who you are C.T. Phipps.
What does this have to do with THE THOUSAND SCARS? The Thousand Scars is grimdark and it is gloriously so. I am going to state that with the exception of WHERE LOYALTIES LIE by Rob J. Hayes and THE GRAY SISTER by Mark Lawrence, it is the purest example of the genre I've read this year. It's also great. I don't hand out 5 star ratings wily-nilly and this one genuinely earned it. This book is great and if you like dark, gritty, and brutal fiction then this is the book for you.
The premise is the Balian Empire is a corrupt oligarchy that decided to bite off more than they could chew by attacking the Dominion. Unlike most grimdark fantasy, this is not Northern European fantasy but Southern European with a strong Greece versus Persia feel. The Balian Empire is being exterminated due to the many atrocities they wrecked against the Dominion and are now hoping to turn to necromancy in order to reverse the tide. The thing is, the protagonist Tyir, is the only necromancer they know and he's the leader of the Thousand Scars mercenary group. He also has no desire to help them.
It takes roughly half the book to get to the Thousand Scars portion but its' well worth it as they are a band of degenerate scum who still manage to be somewhat likable. Well, likeable in the sense you want to get to know them better before you hope someone puts them down. We see much of their activity both good and bad. One effective story is told by one of them about an Innkeeper's daughter that, well, says everything you need to know about these people.
Thankfully, to keep the story from being too dark, we have a secondary protagonist in Tyrone. Tyrone is a genuinely good person who is caught in the impossible situation of having his land overrun by invaders, his government insane with desperation, and his companions to be monsters. I liked the contrast even if I could tell he was someone who was going down the highway to hell by associating with the people he was.
Michael R. Baker is a master of writing battle scenes as each one contributes to the character development of not only the participants but the societies involved. He manages to capture the horror and confusion of the conflicts as well as how people on the ground would feel when dragons or Greek fire are used.
In conclusion, this is a great book and everyone who likes gritty unapologetic dark fantasy should check it out. This book pulls no punches but it is stronger for the event. I also liked the fact it's set in a Greece-like environment rather than your typical stand-in for England.