Now THIS is a motley crew...

I'd been hearing a lot about how good Sadir S. Samir's zany fantasy novel is, but definitely worried about whether it would be too over-the-top for me. Given that it isn't a massive book, I decided to finally give it a try since it fit some prompts for a readathon I took part in.

5/5 THE CREW is not a perfect book and it could very well be "too much" for some people, but it expertly interweaves the absurd with the serious and the resulting story is one that I think is truly special. It's books like this one that are why I love indie fiction so much.

The narrative follows multiple perspectives over the course of this unhinged adventure. It begins by introducing readers to Varcade, who has left a mysterious religious order known as the Educators and is now working as a sell-sword. His traumatic past has left him with more than a couple of screws loose and makes him a bit of a wild card. Even with these quirks, he is hand-picked by an exiled spymaster named Edghar to assassinate his former ruler in the name of bringing peace to his home city of Akrab. Along the way, the pair set out to recruit other interesting, albeit volatile individuals to join what must be the most motley crew of them all. While the premise is fairly simple, things get truly special in the execution. This story is over-the-top in just about every way. Action scenes are exciting, but extremely messy, character interactions between the deeply disturbed members of the cast are hysterical, and the situations that this crew finds itself in, as well as some of the adversaries it faces, are truly bizarre. It kind of felt like an unusual mashup of DEADPOOL, Anime, and a little bit of ARABIAN NIGHTS.  Beneath all this zaniness though is a surprisingly serious side that added a depth and meaning to all the absurdity. The weight of what these characters are trying to achieve and the darkness of their pasts helped me feel invested in a way that I don't know if I would have been otherwise. The way these more somber aspects intermix with the bombastic, bloody humor was something I found myself really impressed by since it all just wove together in one cohesive tone while still offering stark juxtaposition. I also wasn't expecting the story to be told in such a balanced way. We get POV chapters from different sides of the various conflicts which made me able to empathize and even root for some of the characters that I wouldn't normally expect to be able to identify with.   

Varcade and Edghar could not be more different from one another, but they both made for such interesting and funny leads in their own way. The rest of the titular crew wound up being equal parts interesting and humorous. A turbaned man with a bad habit for biting people holds a dark secret that he struggles with. An old war hero turned humble fisher is persuaded to take up arms again. A bloodthirsty revolutionary, with possibly the best fantasy mount ever, decides to ally himself with those he has plans to destroy. A very odd mother-son duo with macabre talents turn out to be as endearing as they are creepy. Each of these characters undergoes personal journeys in which they never really get any less silly, but they do grow in meaningful ways that felt true to who they are and where the story led them. This juggling act of making everyone so strange, but also taking time to develop them is a true testament to Samir's skill as a storyteller. On the more antagonistic side of things, Clea and her attendants ended up being so much more sympathetic than I was prepared for. Even though it was clear that her regime needed to fall in order for things to get better, I found myself wishing that did not need to be so and enjoyed all the subtle hints that things may not be all as they seem when it came to the court intrigue. Even in the more straight-up villainous department, I really enjoyed all the stunningly absurd "Dusters" that the crew has to face off with during the course of the story, some of which felt like they could have been pulled straight out of an anime or something. The subtext of these characters all also being addicts to a drug that grants them special powers while slowly stripping them of their humanity was also rather heartbreaking. While I didn't find myself necessarily empathizing with them, I did find them to be rather tragic in their own way. Vashi was another very interesting character who provided a little more insight into an aspect of the world that we only got vague hints at. I enjoyed how his more serious nature contrasted with other characters, yet he was no less of a weirdo in his own regard. I also really enjoyed how every member of the cast gave me a little bit of insight into different aspects of the world from the political sphere, to the Educator religion, and the demon-slums. 

Like the characters that live within it, the world that Samir has crafted here is one that certainly felt quite unique. I would describe this as being a sort of Middle Eastern fantasy, though only in a loose manner of speaking since this is most definitely a totally different planet unto itself versus a fantasy setting that's nested within our own or one that represents an alternate history of some kind. The more alien elements of this setting reminded me slightly of what Sanderson has created with Roshar from THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE. Samir's worldbuilding and magic system aren't quite as dense as what Sanderson has been doing with his flagship series, but the creativity is absolutely worth a comparison. I liked how some of the architecture present in the different cities we visit as well as the geography overall was a little more grounded in that of the actual Middle East though.

Harrah is a sprawling landscape of sandy dunes and bustling cities. It's filled with danger and wonder and a variety of different types of magic. The way magic was handled was super interesting even though we never get a big info dump on how it all works at any point. The training and rituals Varcade was subjected to have left him with enhanced abilities and some pretty interesting super powers as well, including super healing. Then there are the "Dusters" which are people who snort the ground up bones of long-since dead gods in order to unlock supernatural abilities that are unique to them. A handful of people are also born with the ability to wield magic without the assistance of this drug, though they certainly seem the weirder for it as well, implying that magic always has a cost of some kind in this universe regardless of the source. On a similarly heavy note is how some societal issues are tackled that could certainly be paralleled to our own world although there is no direct, allegorical preachiness to it, which I appreciated. The tensions between mankind and demon kind in Akrab drove the plot forward in some interesting ways and I loved how both sides of this conflict were represented in such an empathetic way. Even the oppressive ideals of the Educators were something that I could kind of understand, even though I don't think many people will agree with their methods. 

The sheer variety of different demons, alien creatures, court politics, and balanced perspective given on the world all made for this being one of the most memorable fantasy settings I have read in a long time. It is also one that I am eager to return to as more books are released in this series. 

One thing that has struck many people is the cover. If I am being honest, I was really not sure what to make of it the first couple of times I saw it. I thought "I don't know, this one looks pretty weird." And in my defense, this one is quite weird, so the cover and my initial impressions of it are probably fitting. If you look past Varcade's unhinged smile, you will notice a lot of brilliant details in the artwork though and I found myself delighted to keep flipping back to it each time I met one of the characters it depicts. The pages within are also quite professionally handled, though I will say that it's not perfect. There were numerous times where I was pretty sure that one word was accidentally mistyped as a different word with very similar spelling. There are also some moments where bits of the story (especially at the start of a new scene or chapter) were told rather than shown. In this case, I wouldn't count that as a huge negative since it did keep the plot moving along, but there were at least a couple of instances that probably could have just been written out and it wouldn't have slowed things down too much. On the more positive side of the prose, the tone and overall atmosphere of this book were expertly handled. I also found myself absolutely flying through these pages, constantly hungry to find out what would come next and finding the writing accessible enough to breeze through. 

THE CREW may not necessarily be everyone's cup of tea and that's okay, but I would really recommend giving it a fair shot even if you're not sure how you'll feel about the book's wackier elements. I went in simply hoping to be entertained and treated to some spectacular action, but what I got was a cast full of memorable characters and a plot I was deeply invested in that is set in a complex world which I very much look forward to returning to.

(+) A truly unique cast of characters
(+) A depth to the world and characters that nicely juxtaposed all the weirdness
(+) Expertly balanced storytelling that shows multiple perspectives for any given point of conflict
(+) Lots of amazingly written action scenes
(+) I found myself deeply invested in every aspect of the the plot, including individual character arcs
(+) A compellingly original fantasy world with lots of potential yet to be explored
(+) Accessible and engaging writing that led to me reading this at a rapid pace
(-) Some moments where the story is told rather than shown
(-) At least a few instances of seemingly using the wrong word


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