Review: You Die When You Die by Angus Watson
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of West of West
Publisher: Orbit (June 20, 2017)
Length: 512 pages
You Die When You Die was a crazy wild ride I never wanted to end. Wooooootah, did I love this book! After having a blast with Angus Watson’s Iron Age trilogy I had a good feeling that his new book would be another glorious full-hearted adventure through new frontiers of dark fantasy, and I’m telling you all right now, I was abso-fucking-lutely not disappointed.
Though this novel is more heavily steeped in magic and fantasy, the author has once again drawn much of his inspiration from history, similar to what he did in his previous series. Inspired by the cultures of Native Americans as well as the Vikings, he has created a small population of villagers known to the surrounding local tribes as the “Mushroom Men”, who are simply content to live their modest, bucolic lives in a town known as Hardwork. Despite their name though, Hardworkers actually have it pretty good, to the point where some of the village elders fear that their people may have lost their ability to be self-sufficient. For generations, they have lived in relative peace and security, with whatever protection and resources they need provided by their Scrayling neighbors.
So when the attack on Hardwork came, none of them could quite believe it. Thanks to a Calnian prophecy that says the Mushroom Men will destroy the world, they are all now marked for death. Only a handful of them have survived, those who have heeded the warnings of a simple-minded village boy with the uncanny ability to see the future. His advice? Run. Run as far as you can towards the west, and then run some more. No one really knows what it means, but the survivors have no choice but to follow his words and go “west of west”. Their enemies will not give up until every man, woman, and child of Hardwork is dead, and to show how seriously they mean business, Calnia has even sent a squad of ruthless, magically-enhanced female warriors known as the Owsla after them.
The thing I loved best about this book were the Hardworkers, who are all so wonderfully well characterized and nuanced. Watson has set their culture apart with a unique set of traditions, and even their names possess their own individual charms. As children, many of them receive nicknames that stay with them well into adulthood, and so you get people called Sassa Lipchewer, Wulf the Fat, Freydis the Annoying, or Finnbogi the Boggy. (I mean, how could anyone not fall in love with a character named Finnbogi the Boggy?) As one of the key POV characters, Finn was easy to engage with. Consumed with youthful confidence, he is cocksure and naïve to many of life’s hardships, and up until the brutal attack on his village, his only concern in the world was trying to get the latest girl he’s infatuated with to notice him (and at the moment, it’s a firecracker named Thyri Treelegs). But as the story progresses, Finn begins to undergo a dramatic change, growing up quickly to demonstrate both increased wisdom and courage in many ways. A troop of bloodthirsty warrior women trying to hunt you down and kill you will do that to you.
Speaking of which, I really enjoyed the Calnian Owsla. Having spent generations living an idyllic, peaceful existence, the Hardworkers are of course no match for these powerful and deadly ladies, but even as I spent the whole book rooting for the underdogs, I could not help but admire their foes as well. From Sofi Tornado to Paloma Pronghorn and more, the frequent glimpses we saw through the Owsla’s perspectives were so genuine and enthusiastic that I simply could not bring myself to hate them, and in time we’re also led to wonder if there’s something more to their presence. Furthermore, there’s a fascinating mechanism behind their magical powers, but since that’s one of the coolest reveals in the story, I have no intention of spoiling it here.
Given the relative simplicity and straightforward nature of the plot, I was also impressed with how the author was able to pull it off. What we have is essentially a desperate race towards the west, with the Owsla constantly catching up to the slower and less adept Hardworkers who are escaping with all of their aged and their young. You’d think this cycle would tire itself out after a while, but it doesn’t, all thanks to the action and humor that one would expect from a book titled You Die When You Die. For you see, not all of the tribes that the Hardworkers come across are happy with the Calnian Empire either, and most of them don’t need much of an excuse to give the Mushroom Men an edge if it means screwing with the Owsla in spectacular ways. Also I was just as pleased with the rollercoaster of emotions the story gave me, ranging from pure mirth to profound poignancy. The Hardworkers’ determination and devotion to each other really touched my heart, and even with all the laughter and nail-biting moments, I think what will stay with me most are the times of light camaraderie and when they are helping each other to survive.
If you’re familiar with Angus Watson’s work then you’d know that he never holds back on the shocking twists, and with the ending to this novel, he leaves us wondering what will be coming next. You Die When You Die has a lot to love. It’s a story that commands your full attention from the very first page, whisking readers away on a journey set in an imaginative world full of riveting characters and gritty adventure. Watson has written another winner! I’m really excited to see to where he’ll take the story in the sequel, The Land You Never Leave.