It’s a good title too, You Die When You Die. That’s a title I can invest in. It speaks of hardship, and blood, and death. Everything a good fantasy novel needs.
The only hesitation I had was due to an earlier book I'd read by the author, Angus Watson. I know it wasn't bad because I finished it, and with my reading time so limited I have no qualms DNF’ing a book if I'm just not feeling it. But nor can I really remember it, nor did I continue the series.
So I was hesitant. But with a package like that, it was only a matter of time before I caved. Here's the blurb:
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You die when you die…
You can't change your fate - so throw yourself into battle, because you'll either end the day a hero or drinking mead in the halls of the gods. That's what Finn's people believe.
But Finn wants to live. When his settlement is massacred by a hostile nation, Finn plus several friends and rivals must make their escape across a brutal, unfamiliar landscape, and to survive, Finn will fight harder than he's ever fought before.
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The story takes place in an alternate world with a fantastical twist. The descendants of a Viking colony known as Hardwork, somewhere in South America, find themselves isolated and carefully policed by the local indigenous tribes. The Hardworkers are restricted to a small area, but in return receive food and supplies from the local tribes.
As a result of living in this bubble, the Hardworkers have become lazy, dull, and complacent, though a few of their number still follow the old training, forming a small fighting unit of limited ability.
Everything is fine in this world until the Empress of the ruling tribe, the Calnians, has a prophetic dream in which pale-skinned foreigners destroy the world. Overcome with dread, she sends out an order for all tribes to kill any of the foreigners on sight.
A small force of Calnians attacks Hardwork, massacring most of the residents. The empress then orders her best fighters - the Owsla, a group of female warriors with superhuman powers - to track and kill the survivors, who themselves set off on a perilous journey to a promised land of apparent safety.
What follows is a fun, fast-paced, action adventure, with a bit of a cat-and-mouse-style chase along the way. Some of the more memorable scenes include a close encounter with a tornado and a battle involving bears.
The book does have some issues, at least for me, and they're probably the same ones I had with that first Angus Watson novel I read.
The story is told through multiple POV characters, from both sides of the conflict. I enjoy that style of storytelling, but I didn't find many of this bunch particularly endearing or memorable. There was Erik the Angry and Sassa I could get behind, and I enjoyed the scenes with Wulf the Fat, but I'd be hard pressed to say I was overly concerned about what happened to anyone else. Given the size of the cast, that's a bit of a problem.
The writing is good, but I found a few too many modern words and phrases that would throw me out of the story. That's obviously a stylistic choice; it didn’t work for me, but it might for others.
Likewise the humour. The characters try their best to get a laugh and some of the characters find themselves in funny situations, but quite often the humour felt forced, as though it was trying too hard. Given that a fair amount of dark action takes place in this story, from brutal deaths to torture, I understand that the humour is there to lighten the mood, but it pushed that a little too far in my opinion. Some of the jokes, whether funny or not, made the book feel like a parody, as though everything was written tongue-in-cheek and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Some people will like that, but I prefer my fantasy to be one thing or the other. If You Die When You Die kept some of the humour but took itself a bit more seriously, I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
That said, I actually did enjoy the ride for the most part. The fast paced, action-driven plot kept me reading on, and, despite my reservations about some of the characters, I was interested in finding out how their stories ended. That some of those stories didn’t end here means I may even continue with the journey of the Hardworkers through the second and third books in the West Of West series.
Like one of those Hollywood blockbusters with all the special effects, if you don’t go into You Die When You Die expecting too much, maybe settle in with a box of popcorn, there's enough here to find yourself enjoying the experience.
3/5 - Entertaining, if a little flawed.