Compressed Alternate History

Title: The Tyranny of the Night:
Book 1 of the Instrumentalities of the Night
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Alternate History
Pages: 432
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Imagine that all the most interesting/infamous people and religious/geopolitical situations from the 1200’s through the early 1500’s existed and happened contemporaneously. Also imagine that the world oozes with dark godlike powers and beings. That’s pretty much the worldbuilding behind Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities of the Night series.

If you don’t know your Medieval Crusader-era history, you can easily become hopelessly lost in the bewildering tangle of politics and religion that drive the plot. Even if you do know that history, it takes a while to sort things out since Cook has renamed all of the people, places, and religions. At the end of this post I’ve listed the identities of some of the major players as far as I can figure them out (and you can find similar lists elsewhere). I didn’t bother with individuals since some of them seem to be composites of a few people (though there are clear analogues to Rodrigo Borgia, Raymond VI, Saladin, Genghis Khan, and others).

At this point, I’m hard-pressed to say what the overarching plot is. We spend the most time with a Praman (Muslim) secret agent who worms his way into the heart of Brothen Episcopal (Roman Catholic) power, but other major strands include Maysalian/Connecten (Cathar/Languedoc) politics, Devedian (Jewish) self-preservation (or possibly world-dominating conspiracy; I can’t decide whether it’s just our Praman/Muslim agent or Glen Cook himself who is coming off a bit anti-Semitic), and a healthy dose of Norse mythology.

In spite of a few overly graphic bits (the crusading era was brutal and Rodrigo Borgia’s papacy was decadent and perverted) and an incredibly unfocused plot, I found this book fairly enjoyable. Cook mixes together vast swaths of history and a lurking dread of dark powers into something unique…messy but interesting so far.


A partial list of places and religious/ethnic groups as far as I can tell (If you’ve read the series, I’d love your input):

Andoray- Scandinavian nation (Norway?)
Arnhand- France
Brothe- Rome
Calzir- Barbary pirate states but located in Southern Italy (and Sicily)
Connec- Languedoc (Southern France, home of the Cathars/Albigenses)
Direcia- Iberian peninsula (mostly Muslim occupied, but being “reconquered”)
Dreangerea- land of the (Fatimid?) caliphate south of the Holy Land (Egypt?)
Eastern Empire- Byzantine Empire
Firaldia- Italy
Friesland- Nation conquering/uniting Scandinavia (Denmark?)
Grail Empire- Holy Roman Empire
Great Sky Fortress- Asgard
Lucidia- land of the (Ayyubid?) caliphate north of the Holy Land (Syria?)
Navaya- Navarre (or Castile)
Platadura- Maritime city-state, Muslim ally of Navarre
Shippen- Sicily
Sonsa- a major maritime city-state
Viscesment- Seat of the anti-pope (Avignon?)

Chaldarean – Christian
Episcopal – Roman Catholic
Maysaleans- Cathari/Albigenses
Brotherhood of War- Templars with shades of the Inquisition
Devedian- Jewish
Dainshau- Orthodox Jewish?
Praman- Muslim
Sha-lug – Mamelukes (or Janissaries)

A Worthy/Hilarious Sequel

Soul Remains (Terribly Serious Darkness) by [Hooker, Sam]Title: Soul Remains
(Terribly Serious Darkness: Book 2)
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Satire
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 4/23/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Warning: to avoid angry swearing (and the resultant summoning of goblins) be advised that after this initial paragraph there will be terribly serious spoilers for the first book in the series: Peril in the Old CountryNot only should you not read beyond this paragraph if you have not read Peril in the Old Country, but you should also not read Soul Remains. The absurdist plot to this book picks up shortly after the previous one left off and does not bother to do much in the way of reintroducing characters or recapping storylines in the web of plots that have ensnared the pathetic, neurotic Sloot Peril. Suffice it to say, it is well worth your time to read both of these hilarious books as long as you don’t mind cliffhanger endings. Now, off you go to check out the first book if you want to avoid having its ending spoiled…

…Okay, if you’re still here you know (or are about to find out) that the first book ended with many of the characters dying (very Blackadder), including poor Sloot crushed to death under a pile of goblins. Sloot, being the unlucky fellow that he is, is not permitted to rest in peace (though possibly in pieces). He remains enmeshed in all the various plots and counterplots with the added inconvenience of being a ghost who can be summoned, banished, etc. All of this makes the book a bit more disjointed and surreal than the first one, but no less entertaining. The author takes satirical potshots at a wide variety of topics and tropes (he has a whole new set to work with since half of the characters are now dead-ish) and throws in witty turns of phrase that kept me chuckling throughout. The book again ended on a cliffhanger, which I’m still not a fan of, but at least I was expecting it this time…and I can’t wait for the next book to come out.

Best & Worst of 2018

In 2018 I read 121  books (38,307 pages) and reviewed 101 of them. Here are my year-end best and worst lists (excluding re-reads / click book titles for full review where available):

Top 10

  1. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith & Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman – A much needed, truly non-partisan book about how American Christians should view and participate in the political process without losing their integrity
  2.  Darkness Over Germany by E. Amy Buller – A sobering look at the rise of Nazism, written during World War II (but with some worrisome parallels to current events)
  3. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – A whimsical dystopia about letters (in both senses of the word) & censorship
  4. Silas Marner by George Eliot – A classic story of providence & redemption that led Charles Dickens to write a well-deserved fan letter
  5. A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre – A true account of Ken Philby’s career as a Soviet mole in MI-6 (explains the cynicism of espionage authors like John LeCarré & Graham Greene)
  6. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher – A satirical tale of academia & bureaucracy that rings all too true
  7. A Middle Earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor by John Howe – A collection of John Howe’s gorgeous, detailed sketches of Middle Earth
  8. Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey – A creepy thriller with multiple unreliable narrators
  9. Christianity at the Crossroads (no review) by Michael J. Kruger – An examination of the church in the 2nd Century (very similar to Destroyer of the Gods (reviewed) by Larry Hurtado but with a broader focus and better organization)
  10. Peril in the Old Country and Soul Remains (no review yet) by Sam Hooker – The first two books of the hilarious dark fantasy series, Terribly Serious Darkness

Honorable Mention: Robots vs. Fairies Edited by Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe – An anthology of stories featuring our future overlords (robots, fairies, or both)

Bottom Ten

  1. Robot Depot by Russell F. Moran – A muddled near-future sci-fi thriller featuring Trumpian political views and pages of tangentially related roboethics infodumping
  2. Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke – An incredibly derivative dystopian sci-fi story with Harlequin Romance-esque physical descriptions
  3. Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarré – An espionage thriller with a ridiculously abrupt ending that leaves most plotlines unresolved
  4. The Magic of Recluce by L. E. Modesitt Jr. – A fantasy tale starring a sullen brat and oddly frequent use of onomatopoeia
  5. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley – A political screed with solid potential marred by extreme partisanism
  6. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – A classic pulp adventure story complete with all the cheesiness and product-of-its-era racism you would expect
  7. Killing Floor by Lee Child – The first novel starring Jack Reacher in all his sociopathic vigilante glory
  8. Against Nature by Joris K. Huysmans – A tedious exploration of a hedonistic aesthete’s vain search for fulfillment
  9. Kill the Farm Boy by Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson – A satirical take on fantasy tropes that buries any cleverness under an avalanche of adolescent toilet humor
  10. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, & a New Way Forward by Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, & Andi Cumbo-Floyd – A book about a genuine problem that offers few practical solutions and shames those who ask the wrong questions

Dishonorable Mention: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – An overlong, depressing classic on the consequences of greed and pride

And there you have it…I have one more NetGalley book to review (Soul Remains) and a couple sign-up posts for 2019 reading challenges to write, but this is probably the last post of 2018. Happy New Year!


I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

The Befuddled Company

Title: Port of Shadows:
A Chronicle of the Black Company (Book 1.5)
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Note: if you haven’t read at least the first 2-3 Black Company books, this review might not make a whole lot of sense. There are no spoilers, but I am assuming that you have a basic idea of the characters & world (I would recommend skipping this your first time through the series)

This book takes place between the original books one and two, so the original gang’s all here. It was great to see Croaker, One-Eye, Goblin, the Captain, and the rest back in action…sort of. Unfortunately, they spend almost the entire book befuddled by sorcery and obfuscation, so they don’t act entirely like themselves. To be honest, this mental confusion and being kept more-than-usually in the dark about what is really going on seems to be a lazy way for the author to gloss over any continuity errors.

The writing style and plotting differ a bit from the other books in the series. There was quite a bit more profanity/vulgarity, more time spent just sitting around waiting for things to happen (i.e. less action), and way more self-pitying introspection from Croaker.

There were some fascinating new characters, including a new Taken Sorceress who is at the center of the action. Interwoven with the Company’s story is a tale from the distant past, which gives some background on the Senjak sisters (aka the Lady’s family). This was probably the most interesting plotline in the book, but parts of it seem to contradict already-established lore. Cook acknowledges this and in a fourth-wall-bending epilogue offers some possible interpretations but chooses to not definitively resolve much of anything. It was a rather unsatisfying ending to a ho-hum book.

If you’re a fan of the Black Company this is probably worth reading for some insights into the Lady’s character. Croaker, on the other hand, is so whiny and muddle-headed throughout that any character development on his part comes off as the result of sorcerous mental illness.

Hilarious Dark Fantasy

Title: Peril in the Old Country
(Terribly Serious Darkness – Book 1)
Author: Sam Hooker
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Satire
Pages: 312
Rating: 4
Future Release Date: 6/5/18 (thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a free eARC – this in no way affects the content of the review)

Sloot Peril the accountant is a nervous/befuddled/pathetic character on the order of Arthur Dent or Rincewind the Wizard, and he lives in a world that sounds like 1984 as written by Terry Pratchett who has just read a bunch of dark fantasy (be careful which characters you get emotionally attached to). Poor Sloot, the most law-abiding of citizens, renders great service to an important man (correcting an accounting report that implied he wasn’t so rich that he didn’t have to count his money) and is plunged into a world of plots within plots.

The characters are ridiculous, the situations are absurd, and the narration is hilarious and snarky (beware if you are easily offended by something you value being satirized). This was on it’s way to being a 4.5 to 5 star book, but the end really annoyed me. There are plot unveilings, deaths, swearing (e.g. “the one that rhymes with elbow” or “the one that starts with m and refers to the face you make right before sneezing”), true love…and then the book ends before we find out how the situation resolves…I hate that kind of cliffhanger ending. If you’re a good author you don’t need to string me along like that! You should be able to offer some resolution and still keep my interest. It annoyed me so much that I almost dropped this clear down to 3 stars, but I had too much fun overall to do that.

Party, Assemble!

Title: Twilight Falling
(Erevis Cale Trilogy – Book 1)
Author: Paul S. Kemp
Genre: Dark Fantasy (Forgotten Realms)
Pages: 310
Rating: 3 of 5

This is pretty good for a Forgotten Realms novel. That isn’t high praise, but it was entertaining enough that I’ll be reading the next book in the trilogy rather than abandoning it as the bland, derivative trash with overpowered magic and amateurish plotting that is the majority of FR books I have tried to read.

This trilogy plunges us into the shady underworld of the Forgotten Realms with assassin/priest-turned-butler (though that doesn’t last long) Erevis Cale as our protagonist. Once we clean up some loose ends from a previous book, Erevis and some associates get sucked into a quest that is mostly about vengeance but has a mysterious artifact, some shadowy gods, etc. mixed up in it as well.

The book seems to be primarily a way of assembling the adventuring party and giving them a main objective for the rest of the trilogy. Cale is an interesting character as he serves a shadowy god and has a dark/violent past but generally tries to do what is right…a path that I suspect will become increasingly difficult given events at the end of this book. He doesn’t seem to be a direct ripoff of a well-known character created by J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, or Michael Moorcock, so I appreciate him and am curious to see what happens to him.

There was still some of the usual FR nonsense that could be fixed by a decent editor (quite a few typos, a character taking something in his hands just moments after losing a hand, characters staring into each other’s eyes in magical darkness that we have just been told only one of them can see through, etc.). However, it was decent escapist dark fantasy that I look forward to continuing…thanks to Bookstooge for the recommendation!

Dark Fantasy East vs. West

Title: A Cruel Wind: A Chronicle of the Dread Empire
(omnibus containing A Shadow of All Nigh FallingOctober’s Baby, and All Darkness Met)
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 600
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Before creating the mercenary Black Company, Glen Cook wrote about the struggle between the deeply divided West and the Dread Empire of the East. The Western nations are nominally the “good guys”…mostly by virtue of our protagonists being from the West and the Dread Empire being efficiently expansionist and militaristic (and we are told repeatedly that they are “pure evil” though their actions aren’t demonstrably more so than the Westerners). The pettiness, scheming, brutal pragmatism, deep character flaws, and occasional atrocities of the Westerners make for a moral ambiguity that is typical Glen Cook dark fantasy.

This appears to be set in a different world than the Black Company novels, but Cook clearly developed a lot of his Black Company characters, plot devices, and writing style in these books (to say nothing of a character that Steven Erikson steals almost wholesale for use in his Malazan Book of the Fallen). The writing style is a bit rough with occasional awkward transitions, vague/incomplete descriptions that leave you saying “okay, what just happened?”, characters making literary/historical/religious allusions that don’t make much sense in their world, and a confusing profusion of people and places (with no maps). Nonetheless, if you like dark fantasy this is well worth a read: plenty of convoluted schemes, sorcery, battles, sudden and ignominious deaths of major characters, etc.

Starting to make more sense

Title: House of Chains
A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen (Book 4)
Author: Steven Erikson
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 1021
Rating: 3.5 of 5

My feelings about this book (as well as the first three Malazan books) is summed up in this description of a book given by Dorian Gray: “I didn’t say I liked it…I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” With the whole series being titled The Book of the Fallen it shouldn’t be surprising that it revels in the slaughter of innocents, rapes, cruel twists of fate, betrayals, and sundry other horrors and shattered dreams at every turn. I don’t mind some dark fantasy, but I probably would have given up on this grim series if it wasn’t for the fascinating, complex world-building and intricate plot.

There is no simple way to describe the plot(s). Each major character (and there are a LOT of them) has not only their own motivation, but also their own goal(s) that may or may not coincide with what any of the other characters are trying to accomplish. It makes for a much more “real world” feel than a more classic fantasy where everything centers on a single objective. That is what draws me to the story, but also what can make it very frustrating to follow. The author is completely unhelpful (seemingly, deliberately so) when it comes to keeping track of how things tie together…it feels like the kind of “art” that the artist makes purely for himself and gives a big “@$%! you if you don’t get it! I’m a genius!” to the public.

I feel like in this book (which focuses mostly on the Sha’ik rebellion), some of the overarching things that were going on on the ascendant/god level starting making a little more sense. I’m not sure if that is because the author subtly plotted it that way or because I consulted the Malazan wiki fairly frequently to keep track of what had happened to a character in previous books when they waltzed “on screen” after a 1,000+ page absence. At the end of the book, several of the big confrontations on the human level that had been building for the entire book were rather anti-climactic, but that’s par for the course in this series. I’ll eventually move on to the next book, but I definitely need a break from it for a while.

Farewell & Good Luck

515y6ylavcl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Title: The Many Deaths of the Black Company
(The fourth and final Black Company omnibus)
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Rating: 4 out of 5

The two novels in this omnibus mark a fitting conclusion to the annals of the Black Company.  There were some loose ends and incompletely explained events, but that works with the “life is messy and confusing” vibe that permeates the series. Though there were a few clunkers in the series (the omnibus before this one was unimpressive), I’ve become attached enough to this band of morally ambiguous mercenaries that the many deaths promised in the title were truly moving. Enough of the company is left alive that the author can continue the series if he ever gets the urge, but they are clearly moving into a new phase of their existence and I’m content to wish them good luck as they continue their tradition of a brotherhood involved in conflicts where “darkness battles darkness.”