Chasing Graves is the first novel in the Chasing Graves Trilogy, a self-published grimdark fantasy series by Ben Galley. It is currently available for sale with book 2 Grim Solace coming January 24th, 2019. I was provided with a free ebook of this title by the author for review.
When I first started this novel I almost thought that I wouldn’t want to continue reading it. Not for the quality of the writing but for the wry nihilism that frames the opening of the story. We begin with a character who is not really admirable or impressive and we immediately travel with him to a city full to the brim of worse people. In Araxes, life has been so thoroughly devalued that murder is practically an accepted practice and slavery of the resulting ghosts as dry a fact of life as the rising of the sun.
However Ben graciously doesn’t leave us down in the dumps. While the plight of the enslaved ghosts and the depravity of Araxes is depressing, the tension is cleverly released by another narrative concerning a hard nosed survivor woman dragging her dead husband and his ghost through the desert. The contrast of these perspectives, the gradual descent into the intrigue and politics, and the dark comedic sensibility work together to allow the reader to care and even laugh in the face of such a dire status quo. I also really enjoyed how my feelings towards the characters changed-not just because of their arcs in the story but what I learned about their pasts as well.
The world of this novel just feels real. It’s one of those esoteric things in fantasy where you either believe it or you don’t. And when I read that the ghost slave trade had existed for 1,000 years I just believed it. And when I saw how people tortured their slaves with copper whips or how the nobility looked down on them as ‘half-lives’, I believed it. When people were riding giant beetles in the desert I believed it. It’s imaginative without bringing too much attention to itself. It obviously takes cues from other sources without feeling derivative. It just simply works.
The main thrust of the novel apart from its characters is a mystery concerning the mythology around the undead ghosts and the political struggles of Araxes. This is obviously built on the back of the excellent world building. It’s doled out in just the right doses as to make every moment feel earned without feeling withholding for the sake of waiting until the end of the book or the next book entirely. And on that note, for the first book in a trilogy I thought this story had a very satisfying ending while still dangling the next part of the story for book 2.
And finally, without delving into specifics, I really feel as if there’s that extra thing in this book that makes it matter. Without the philosophical and spiritual considerations on the value of life that seem to seep in from the edges I really don’t think I would care about this story at all. It would just be too dismal. But Ben does dare to ask questions not just of mortality and immortality but of class and power as well. This is accomplished without the pretense of an answer, just a thoughtful look at the problem.
Chasing Graves starts as a bleak tale in a dark world but becomes something else entirely. Sharp wit, seamless world building, sustained intrigue, and compelling three dimensional characters make for a novel that is as thought provoking as it is entertaining.