I have the habit of reading some pages of the new books I buy even if they still aren’t part of the reading queue. I started to read this one just to have an idea of what it was about and how it would differ from “The Black Company”, but then it took me more than 60 pages to form that idea, the book was incredibly complex, and so I ended up reading it all. The reason why I made this purchase in the first place is because from what I was reading it was part of a series of four books (The Instrumentalities of the Night) with a dense and intricate tangle of plot, quite ambitious and reminding closely Erikson’s own work. It was interesting to see Glen Cook being inspired by who he himself inspired, and see what came out of that.
Even more so than other Black Company books, it’s not one to mindlessly recommend. I was definitely surprised, almost amazed: Erikson’s first book, Gardens of the Moon, is often criticized because how hard it is to get into it, but Glen Cook here pushed the same to hardcore levels. It doesn’t suck you in easily, it makes a very, very hard and steep climb. This book mocks whoever thought GotM was mildly hard to read. It’s nothing compared to this. Right from the start it buries you under layers of politics, names and a number of factions. You’re caught in a flurry of info all stacked up, and not helped by the terse, to the point of being barren, prose. At the same time, obviously, all this fascinated me and became a reason to trudge on more than a barrier. But that’s how I work, and why I’m not so easily recommending the book to any reader. The overall context is not too complex to grasp, the setting is like historical fiction, almost faithful, infiltrated by sorcery at key points. We have Europe at the time of the crusades against middle-eastern infidels. Cook took (well, sorry for that) a detailed map of medieval Europe and went to change all the historical names with fictional ones. The problem is that he did not annex that map to the book. I’m not one to complain about lack of maps in fantasy books, but believe me (and all other reviewers who will certainly complain) that in this case the lack of map is THE major hurdle you’ll face. Medieval Europe is a mess. Tons of different states, cultures mixed together, and cities. You’ll have constant name dropping of people and places through the whole book. Without a sense of geography and without generous exposition (Glen Cook gets irritated if something requires more than two lines of text to be explained) you’ll end up with an insane number of scattered mental notes and no idea how to pull all of this together. A trip to the wikipedia to link at least some important places to their historical match will definitely help, and after 100-150 pages the vague shape of plot and direction will start to come out. After that, as long you found the challenge intriguing, it gets fun.
I lack the historical knowledge to know what Glen Cook made up and what is only a slightly twisted, refracted projection of history. There are some climatic changes, such as the incoming ice age that is closing around known civilization, and the fact that the sea is slowly evaporating. This has not a significant role in the plot, at least in this book, but it seems to close the perimeter and focus on the scene, like a spotlight that erases everything outside its sight. I don’t know how much Glen Cook toyed with historical facts and figures but either way it helps giving a representation that feels authentic and believable. The subtlety of magic not disrupting it and being one element that the writer already demonstrated to handle perfectly in the Black Company. The other element that makes this picture so vivid is the usual pragmatism and terseness of prose that one can find in all his books. Here even to an extreme since the context is overly complex, with a tangle of politics that involves various places and various figures fighting each other even inside the same faction. Religious infighting about local heresies, or about grasping the power at the top, winning or fighting support of the King, of the most powerful merchants and families. Temporal power ruling over spiritual one, and all the bigger powers and influences dragging in their plans the lives of everyone else. Glen Cook won’t explain anything twice, sometimes not even once. It’s all there, working flawlessly and expertly woven, but you either sharpen your attention and intuition or most of what goes on will be missed. Glen Cook isn’t ashamed of culling everyone who won’t put an effort to follow this intricate story.
Characterization follows a similar pattern. I am in awe about what he can do, but again characters aren’t described and defined up front. You read about a number of vague shapes, then after a while, magically, you realize they became very strong and sympathetic characters. It’s impossible to know when the transformation took place. There are no changes in style, it all falls in smoothly and naturally, and some of those vague shapes will become quite memorable. The main protagonist, Else Tage, reminds me of Croaker, the main character of the Black Company. He has a similar attitude and philosophy of life, a similar air about him I can’t define exactly. Initially he seems a rather cold and detached character, but it soon develops a certain aura of charisma and competent authority about him, even more deserved because he does absolutely nothing to earn the favor of the reader. The narration sits always impartial, cold and unaffected. I’d say “cynical”, since that is what colors essentially everything Glen Cook writes. Cynical but always honest, never preaching or rhetorical. And if one read what I wrote about other books, for me the lack of rhetoric and hypocrisy is the first and foremost requirement when I read. There’s even a certain philosophical air that reminds closely of Erikson, it fits perfectly with the religious theme and is often truly inspired, but it doesn’t fight for space and often it starts and ends within the same lapidary line. This mixed with a similar deadpan sense of humor or veiled irony that sometimes is so subtle that you can miss it entirely. Glen Cook has a very sharp eye, but as I said he doesn’t overindulge in explanations.
Now that I think about it, there may be a certain symmetry between what happens in the book and the relationship of Glen Cook with his readers (the amusing impression I get is that he doesn’t give a shit). Let’s try to contextualize the plot as briefly as possible: Else Tage is one of the middle-eastern infidels, sent in Europe to infiltrate as a spy and try to go as high in the ranks he can get, and from the vantage of that position stir a mess as big as possible so that the western empires will be too busy fighting each other to launch a crusade on the east. Earlier in the book Grade Drocker, a powerful sorcerer, is established as what looks to be the Big Nasty Foe opposing our hero. Yet soon Else Tage finds himself working, under multiple disguises since he’s a spy, right next or even for his closest and most dangerous enemy, reminding The black Company since right in the first chapter of that book the Company is being hired by the wrong side, the Taken (Soulcatcher precisely). In this position, Else Tage develops a certain unspoken respect, esteem almost, for Grade Drocker. Making that competency and pragmatism a trait they share, that makes them kindred souls in a world filled of inepts. Mirrored by a similar reaction of the reader since Grade Drocker, even if never presented under a favorable light, is always competent and unyielding, above the level of abjection and corruption in the clergy and all the positions of power. Even if not losing any of his nastiness and cruelty. A reader will never completely sympathize or approve him, same as Else Tage since for him he remains a threat, but it will trigger that air of respect (with which Glen Cook will amuse himself toward the end of the book). So the similarity with Glen Cook and his readers is that he won’t try to win your sympathy and be generous with his narration of the story, but if you tag along you end up developing a certain esteem and appreciation. It doesn’t have to be expressed through flourishes, because it’s there and it is sincere.
The story is densely woven around political moves driven by greed, opportunity or convenience. There are a number of fights and bigger wars all sharing a common trait. There’s no heroism at all. The cynical eye cuts entirely the spectacularization and victories are solely a matter of opportunity. Often the results are entirely due to botched logistic or other miserable circumstances. The force that hoards more kills throughout the book is dysentery. The war is shown as ugly and lacking even the slightest trace of romanticism. Take this example of exciting soldier life:
The soldier’s life consisted mainly of waiting, or of marching somewhere in order to wait. Siege work meant concentrated waiting. Else found himself growing impatient. But never so impatient that he lost sight of the fact that impatience was the mother of stupid decisions.
Or how an anticipated conquest takes place:
There was no resistance. The Connected and Direcians from Shippen encountered only those complications of conquest posed by distance and numbers. Towns surrendered as fast the invaders could hike.
King Peter was restrained only by the fact that he did not have troops sufficient to garrison all the territories willingly to throw themselves at his feet. He considered enlisting Calzirans but he had no money to pay them.
“Sounds like knives in the dark time.”
“Some of that may be necessary. But murder alienates people. Persuasion, arm-twisting, creation of mutual objectives work better.”
Or this wonderful distillation of political essence:
Svavar wondered who was poking it to whom in the romance between Johannes and the Patriarch.
All this usually set up by some high power nested safely far away, meaning also without the slightest clue of the world outside and so often representing the first threat to the feasibility of their own plans. And so the need to rely on competent fellas, like Else Tage and Grade Drocker, who can make things move even when ensnared by the incompetency and complete blindness of the high powers.
There’s a kind of convergence toward the end of the book, and after a big battle there are enough pages left to make a long epilogue that shows the consequences of all that happened, setting up the context for the following book but also wrapping up rather well all that happened in this one. So I’d say it makes for a satisfying read even if it’s the first on a series of four (three if which already out there). I’m sure there are a number of reviews about this book that criticize how the prose is too fragmented and terse even for its own sake, how it can actively drive readers away, and it is true, a factual observation, but all of his falls within the author’s specific style and it is part of the merits of this book, this razor-sharp, uncompromising narration.
Glen Cook’s own words also define this and his other works:
You just write stuff the way it is instead wishful thinking.