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.”