Friday, July 30, 2010

The Black Company: The Books of the South

Books of the South is the second omnibus collection of Glen Cook's Black Company series, it contains 3 further adventures of the mercenary company: Shadow Games, Dreams of Steel and The Silver Spike

At the end of The White Rose Croaker had been elected the Black Company’s Captain. He had split the Company up and allowed anyone who wanted to stay, he was going in search of the Company’s origins in the far south city of Khatovar. That's where Shadow Games picks up the action.

The Company has become considerably smaller, the only members left that Croaker names are: One-Eye, Goblin, Otto, Hagop, Lady (she lost the 'The' honorific when she let go of her magic) and one of the Company’s youngest members; Murgen. He seemed to be Croaker’s apprentice annalist.

As had become common from the 2nd book on there were 2 stories running concurrently. One from Croaker’s point of view as the Company moved southwar,d and the other concerning some itinerant mercenaries who had set up in the far south.

Ordinarily the secondary story has a point, this time I couldn’t see why it was there. It set up nothing that Croaker’s story couldn’t have done just as easily.

The relationship between Croaker and Lady developed into a physical one as the Company continued south and built up it’s depleted numbers.

There were two major battles; one between an army of river pirates who were going to stop the Company’s journey, and the other when the Company went up against the godlike controllers of the south; the Shadowmasters, who were not all what they seemed.

We met some old ‘friends’ and got a new magic creature in the form of an imp called Frogface. One-Eye treated him as a pet, but there was far more to the creature than that.

For the first time in this series the book ended on a genuine cliffhanger.

I have a couple of comments about this one. The world building needs some work. Cook did good descriptions of the jungles in the south, but the cities are just becoming so many names. They’re simply names on a page, with no real atmosphere or meaning behind them. I know Cook doesn’t like maps and I’m not normally a big fan of them, but I think in this case one would be helpful. The other problem is One-Eye and Goblin. I love the characters, they’re funny and they have useful talents, but their endless feud is becoming tiresome and dangerous. I can’t see any tightly run mercenary company allowing it to continue or even to get as far as it has.

There were a couple of genuine highlights in this volume. One was the fight with the river pirates. Cook always writes gripping and realistic battles and this one reached new heights. Maybe the author’s service in the navy came to the fore. The other highlight for me was a short chapter that he wrote from Lady’s point of view, he gave her a great voice and I’d like to see more from her in the future.

Onward to see if the Black Company can complete it’s journey back to it’s origins.

Dreams of Steel begins with the aftermath of the battle with the Shadowmasters, who had Taken believed long dead amongst their numbers, had hurt the Black Company. The group was fragmented. Professional soldiers like Otto and Hagop had gone missing, nowhere to be found was Croaker’s apprentice Murgen, even the indestructible wizards One-Eye and Goblin were missing in action. Croaker himself had been wounded and could even be dead. The most prominent member of the Company left on the field was Lady and even she had been hurt while trying desperately to rescue her lover Croaker.

With no other members of the Company in evidence Lady took charge of the remnants around her and proceeded to build up a new Company and mould it in her image.

There was a major shift in this book in that the first person narrative was from the point of view of Lady, not Croaker. Cook did this with skill, as I mentioned earlier in the review he writes Lady surprisingly well, although as the book went on Lady began to sound rather like a female Croaker at times, losing her own voice. As with previous books there were other stories told from different voices, although not in first person. Cook continued with the seemingly pointless story of the itinerant mercenaries in Taglios and also told readers what had happened to Croaker. I have to confess to being disappointed with the Croaker story, when not telling the story the character seems to lose a lot of his impact and aside from healing the Taken known as Soulcatcher he did not seem to have much to do until he escaped the Taken’s clutches and rejoined one half of his Company. After the battle Mogaba (one of the mercenaries who joined the Company in Shadow Games) had taken a lot of the survivors, including Murgen and set up a new Black Company.

There had been hints, mainly through the names, that the south was based on Indian culture. With references to the practice of suttee and a cult of assassin/warriors who prefer to kill their victim using weighted scarves by strangling them and worship a death goddess (who were obviously based on the thugees and their goddess; Kali) it became very obvious that this was in fact the case.

By the end of the book the Company hasn’t moved much further south, although it does eventually triumph over the Shadowmasters and free the locals from their yoke. The Company is split in two with Croaker leading one contingent and Lady leading another, there is also a major shift in Lady’s life and focus, although she has not been reunited with Croaker, I personally feel there is very little doubt that this will not happen in the future. They belong together.

The Silver Spike was a total shift from the five previous volumes. The title refers to the instrument and method by which the Company and their allies imprisoned the evil godlike Dominator at the end of The White Rose. The events in the book tie up the loose ends left in the north following The White Rose. Readers find out what happened to the deaf mute girl Darling; The White Rose, the wizard Silent, sorcerer Bomanz, former Black Company soldier Raven, his unusually and embarrassingly named Philiodenron Case and even the vilains Toadkiller Dog and the Taken the Limper.

I lost count of the number of stories Cook had running here at times, I think it eventually settled for four major storylines. One was from a first person point of view and this time it was Case. The others were written in third person. One concerned Toadkiller Dog and his attempts to resurrect The Limper. Another was Bomanz's efforts to rejoin with Darling and her group on the magical plain that was the setting for The White Rose. The fourth story concerned itself with a small band of reprehensible treasure hunters from the city of Oar who set out to retrieve the Silver Spike and in doing so set off a chain of events that will culminate in the near destruction of Oar and bring about the end of an empire.

The stories all collided and melded into one in the last 100 or so pages of the book.

I liked Case's voice, he was very different from Croaker, rawer and less polished, he had a wry sense of humour. One annoying habit that Cook gave him were regular disparaging references to his former life as a potato farmer, it became tiresome. Case didn't like farming potatoes, I got the message the first four or so times he said it, I didn't need to keep being reminded of that fact.

I was reminded of Cook's military experience in what for me was a very effective sequence where Case and one of the treasure hunters; Stahl Smeds, find themselves conscripted into the Imperial Army and being trained how to fight with a spear. Parts of this sequence reminded me of Prewitt's hazing in From Here to Eternity when he refuses to box for the company and other things recalled the kick boxing fight in An Officer and a Gentlemam between Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) and Emil Foley (Louis Gossett Jr).

It was an unusual change of direction, but still very enjoyable. I'll be interested to see where Cook takes the Company in the next omnibus.

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