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Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Books of the South by Glen Cook

So before I go any further I have the following corrections to make.  In some of my earliest posts, I referred to Glen Cook as a new fantasy author.  He is new to me.  His wikipedia page shows that he wrote his first fantasy novel, The Black Company in 1984!!  He worked at GM and produced three novels a year as an auto worker!  The man was also a soldier, and you can definitely tell.  So my apologies to Glen Cook, and my hats off.  The Black Company is a truly awesome fantasy series.  Cook's writing was miles ahead of his time.  The back of my copy even has a shout out by Steven Erikson saying "Glen Cook single-handedly changed the face of fantasy--something a lot of people didn't notice and maybe still don't."  I used to think Erikson's originality was unparalleled.  Now I can see that he took much of his style from Glen Cook's work.

Anyway, is it too late to do a review of books that were published in the 80s?  Absolutely not!  They've been rereleased in anthologies and their beautiful covers by Raymond Swanland are sleek and modern.  Starting with the cover this book was a great investment.  I remember seeing a comic book when I was a kid, that had the picture of a massive warrior, completely covered in blocky slabs of black enameled, spiked steel.  The warrior carried a wicked halberd with a blade a foot and a half long.  The image was so deeply foreboding and exhilarating that it burned itself inexorably into my mind.  Swanland's cover art reminds me of that image--I just had to pick it up.  And man am I glad.

The Books of the South takes up where the Black Company ended, in the volume called The White Rose.  The anthologist, Tor, made a slightly odd decision in publishing the series in one book.  They chose not to bind them in order of publication.

The six original book of the Black Company were published between 1984 to 1990 in this order
1.  The Black Company
2.  Shadows Linger
3.  The White Rose
4.  Shadow Games
5.  The Silver Spike
6.  Dreams of Steel

The new anthology, Books of the South, reverses the order of The Silver Spike and Dreams of Steel.  Personally, I don't think this was a great choice.  Regardless, the stories are beautiful.  I recommend you read the stories in the original order of publication.

The Five Factors
Cook's works are definitely about characters.  And, joy of joy, the names are simple, and there aren't too many to remember.  The leading man of the series, is a cynical mercenary surgeon called Croaker.  Croaker is the story's viewpoint.  Unlike some central storytelling characters he is neither ancillary, nor banal.  If you're unfamiliar with the series than you should know, the Black Company books are supposedly the Annals, written records, of the mercenary company for which it's named.  Cook's characters are the types of people that you want to know more about.  Their moniker's are army nicknames.  Cook himself served in the military, and their banter and gallows humor is exactly what you might have seen in books or in films.  In fact, Cook's dialogue overall is excellent.  He doesn't bother with any medieval flourishes, or made up oaths, a major plus in contemporary fantasy fiction.  Medieval English, even accurately portrayed, only distances the story from the reader.

This is the rare fantasy novel that doesn't use any standard cliches.  I don't read much military literature, so I can't honestly say that soldier's banter has become a cliche.  Certainly the only other author I've seen use it, is Steven Erikson, who probably borrowed much of his tone from Cook.  One of the central characters in this tome and the last, was Lady, the evil empress of the first three Black Company novels.  She represents a sort of femme fatale cliche.  But there again, femme fatale isn't really a fantasy cliche.  To be sure there are dangerous women in fantasy, think Galadriel the elf queen in the Lord of the Rings, who almost takes the ring from Frodo.  Femme fatale's have to be sexy, mysterious, and ultimately, fatal or would-be fatal to the protagonists.  Cook's lady absolutely is a femme fatal in the first triumvirate of Black Company novels, but not in Books of the South.  She progressively becomes more human, more fallible, and less fatal.  And Croaker's attraction to her has always been tempered with disgust at the heinous deeds of which she is capable.  Cook also skirts another famous fantasy cliche, which I'll call, the Dungeons & Dragons cliche.  That means, elves, dwarves, goblins, and dragons.  This story doesn't have of those archetypes.  It has people and demons.  And those demons aren't Buffy the Vampire style either.

There is no map to this series.  Several ardent fans have created maps for it, but the books themselves do not come with maps.  This is both freeing and limiting to the novel.  When there's no map, your imagination is free to envision, but if your imagination isn't doing much for you, than it becomes a small and dimly lit world, where peoples and places come out of the gloom unexpectedly and disappear just as unexpectedly.  Cook manages to escape this trap.  Even though his descriptions are sparse, the names of places remains very consistent with local geography throughout all the novels.  Given the break he took between novels, this is all the more impressive.  Another contributor to scope is the view point of the main character.  The mercenary captain, Croaker, is a bit player in a large world.  He's no king, or prince, nor is he destined to fight one, at least not without his crew of murderers.  This was more true in the first three series novels, where Croaker isn't even the captain of the outfit, but the medic.  As annalist to the company, Croaker indicates constantly to volumes and volumes of the Black Companies adventures.  These allusions to a wider world grant scope to the work.

So the magic in Books of the South, is really interesting.  This is again, a cliche breaking book because absolutely no effort is made to explain how the magic works.  You have vast magics, powers dark and dangerous, and magics and creatures of a size that is monumental, and no explanation for them.  Normally, this would tick me off.  Some things are detailed, but never explained.  The most powerful figures in the plot (spoiler alert) need to be hacked to pieces to be killed.  And even then, frequently come back together. (Spoiler alert over).  I think the only reason this is bearable, is because the novel isn't really about magic at all.  It's not really properly a fantasy book.  This might be the reason I never saw it until recently, it may well have been sitting elsewhere.  The magic becomes a dramatic foil for the complex relationship of the characters, and not an end to itself, as it is in so many fantasy novels.  All in all, though unexplained, the magic of Glen Cook's Black Company series is thoroughly enjoyable.  Not because it makes sense in any meaningful way, but because it is unpredictable, with a certain degree of wow factor.

Which leads us to the final factor.  The Black Company is all about theme.  Not magic, not fighting, nor fantasy.  It's about the brotherhood of soldiers, and a dissemination on the nature of evil.  The Black Company is a mercenary band.  They don't fight for a cause, they fight for causes.  And some of those causes have been black indeed.  This moral ambiguity works itself out in the physical description of the universe.  For example, there is a general lack of description to the series.  The Lady's fortress is described, as are various bars and melee's, but the majority of the prose describes conversations and dramatic conflicts.  In the end, theme comes down to sensory descriptions, collections of words, so here is what I felt about The Books of the South: darkness, parchment, blood, sweat, dirt, wicked, the grave, desolation, canteens, long marches.

Without a doubt, I recommend this series heartily.