Archive for January, 2011

Glen Cook – She Is The Darkness

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Gradually I’m nearing the end of the (current) books about the Black Company by Glen Cook. The eight book, named She Is The Darkness (1997), is a treat, as it is almost 400 pages in size, while all the previous novels have been just over 200 pages. Such a longer size also leaves a different feel than before because it just doesn’t end as soon as you were used to.

She Is The Darkness picks up immediately after Bleak Seasons. Cook made the cut between the two because Bleak Seasons is more a connecting story with flashbacks while She Is The Darkness takes place in the now. The eight books about the mercenaries of the Black Company finally gives us an all out war campaign. In the earlier books we got mainly fragments, summaries or final battles but now we get full details. This in no means slows the story down. Cook keeps on his usual fast pace, but simply spends more time on the actual fighting. In the war campaign he deftly avoids events turning repetitive and provides great ingenuity with surprising twists and turns.

The narrative remains the same first person view as in Bleak Seasons. As usual Cook manages to presents us with many clearly defined characters even as they play only a minor role. Either good or bad, all of them are likeable in a certain way. They are a joy to read.

Cook’s prose remains smooth, relatively simple and easy to read. After reading several novels in a row I do noticed that Cook has some standard way of phrasing things when describing certain scenes. I don’t see this is an issue as one should describe it as it would fit, not change it just to keep your prose variating more.

She Is The Darkness is one of the best books of the Black Company. The war campaign is a joy to read. Still it is not the best book (currently for me the first book). The problem of She Is The Darkness is that it is still part of a greater story (book two of Glittering Stone) and apparently Cook did not have an apt ending for it as he had with the first two books. Up till three quarters the story will blow your mind out but it does not lead to a peak but somewhat of a cliffhanger (yes, I need to spoil a bit here if I’m able to add some lesser points, but I’m not giving anything really away). It is an ending of sorts, but compared to the first three quarter of the book it is a bit slower with less action, which is somewhat unusual compared to the usual setup of a fantasy story.

I was already wondering about how Cook would manage the end of the story when I got halfway. So much had happened already and I knew two more books would follow. The ending is interesting but lacks in some ways, but it is more a setup for the next stage than a certain closure of the events of the book. As I haven’t read the next book yet, I cannot say if Cook could have done it differently. I expect not. This is sometimes the choice a writer has to make when he wants to tell a large story. He has to cut it up to get it published while still making the books stand sufficiently on their own. This was certainly the case with books 4 (Shadow Games) and 7 (Bleak Seasons). Because of this She Is The Darkness can only claim spot 2 on my best Black Company list. Nevertheless this book get my full recommendation. Even with so much backstory She Is The Darkness would still be able to stand on its own (not counting the final part).

The last of Elric

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

As an avid reader I am interested in the classics of any genre of literature, although certain genres are just not really my taste so chances are low that I will cover their classics. One of the non-mainstream classics of fantasy is Michael Moorcock‘s Elric series. I say non-mainstream because I noticed him fairly late and in the beginning I didn’t even know it was a classic of any kind. It was later on that he got referenced by a number of authors I had reading. I only saw him in the second hand bookstores and back then (pre-wikipedia days) I didn’t have any idea where to start. So basically Elric was put on my wait-list. I was hoping that some day they would publish a new and “complete” edition of what seemed to be a collection of short stories, novella’s and novels.

My patience was eventually rewarded as a few years ago a “definite” collection of the Elric stories was published in a series of six volumes. I had to order them online because, as usual, the bookstores here didn’t notice them. One thing for sure is that it is a beautiful collection. It’s not hardcover, but it does contain illustrations and besides the stories maps, covers of old editions and essays and original reviews on the Elric series.

What I had not expected was that the collection did not follow any chronological order. The main story, which is actually the end of the sage and written first by Moorcock, filled the first volume. Afterwards he wrote a number of prequels and short stories covering earlier events that added to Elric’s fame. These were, rather randomly in my opinion, put into the next volumes. So I didn’t get a “greater story”. I will probably have to do so when I want to reread it completely.

This week I received the “final” volume (you never know if Moorcock might decide to write something more, as he’s still around), called Elric: Swords And Roses (2010), containing the story The Revenge Of The Rose and other material. I have it now complete, so that is always a nice thing to have.

As I’ve read the other volumes already I do can say something here about the classic nature of the Elric series. Is it a classic? It certainly is quite different from other fantasy. The Elric series is basically a tragedy, which certainly is no easy sell. Moorcock’s writing is somewhat surrealistic, making the fantastic in fantasy even weirder. There is a lack of logic, usually explained by the machinations of higher powers that normal people won’t be able to understand. Events happen and it is all about the strange settings and oddities that the Elric series entertains. Moorcock’s prose is alright, but nowhere in the series I felt I had to read on. Taking a break was easy. I would assume that classic nature of Elric lies mainly in it’s influence on later fantasy writers. The character of Elric is so unique that they would not dare to copy him. That is also a bit a weakness in the Elric series. Besides Elric the other recurring characters remain rather two dimensional, not leaving the impact that Elric himself does. This is probably caused by the shortness of the stories. The Elric series is a collection of novels containing several stories. This leaves little space to spend time on other characters.

My own conclusion that the Elric series is certainly something to be read if you like to read many fantasy genres and want to explore the famous stories of old. If you are not much into reading fantasy the Elric stories might not be what you like or a dubious introduction to the genre. To phrase it paradoxically: The Elric series is not a fantasy classic, but a classic within the genre.

Glen Cook – Bleak Seasons

Monday, January 24th, 2011

When it takes six years for a sequel to appear this is a long time for any reader. Even so, if an author needs more time to figure out how events will develop, he should do so instead of making a botched job out of it. Of course such is no guarantee. The writer might be struggling so much that he gets satisfied with less with the idea that “it will do”.

It took Glen Cook that many years to produce a sequel to Dreams Of Steel, a novel which had more of an open ending than his earlier novels about the Black Company. The odd thing about Bleak Seasons (1996) is that it is supposedly the first book of Glittering Stone, comprising of books 7 to 10 about the Black Company. To me this feels a bit odd as one can’t read the books without having read books 4 and 5 (as book 6, The Silver Spike, is more of a standalone side story).

Bleak Seasons starts several years after the events of Dreams Of Steel but has little of a starting novel. It is actually more of a connecting story with many sort of flashbacks of earlier events. Overall it is a strange novel. It can be said that Cook is experimenting, but I remain uncertain to which extent certain mysteries in the story are really resolved or that it will have impact later in the story. I am hoping for some extra layers of complexity but I am not sure they will be there.

What certainly is different from the previous books is that the point-of-view returns to a fully first person narrative as we were used to in the first books. Although the change in the earlier books served the story well, the story as told from the annalist somehow feels more genuine. There is a new annalist now and Cook again manages to present the storytelling in a distinct different style while the prose is the same. It is also nice to have a new viewpoints of character who looks differently to several older characters. Not being all-knowing also allows for more questioning for the reader. Personally I kind of like that.

Bleak Seasons gives us a story within a story. It is more a soldier’s tale, while the magic elements always remain close. This book is more about the Black Company than the previous three books, so for any long time reader this will be a great joy. The themes remain dark and gritty, but compared to the earlier books Cook goes easier on his characters. I assume this is also caused by the connecting nature of Bleak Seasons. It is to fill in some gaps and prepare for the main stage.

Bleak Seasons does perhaps not stand alone as a novel, but it contains plenty of story that will entertain. I certainly did enjoy it. Cook makes sure he can tell all the story available even as he, from a more detached perspective, kind of makes himself off easy after a period of seven years between the books. My advantage of already having all the books at hand may affect my opinion. For someone who has waited seven years Bleak Seasons might be disappointing somewhat. This problem obviously won’t be affecting readers who started later.

As I seem prone to be doing, comparing this book to the earlier ones, I set it above Shadow Games, which would put it at place 5 of 7 in my current personal ranking. Even so, this is a great story within the whole Black Company series and is highly recommended. Just make sure to have read the earlier novels before you pick up this one.

The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (part 2)

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Some months ago I first added a post about the works of Robert Louis Stevenson in the expectation that I would soon add another, but as these things go when you order them online, some delivery took longer than expected and in the end got wrong so I had to order anew. So now I’m finally at adding part two. The books that I got are the so-called Scottish novels which. Kidnapped, mentioned in the earlier post, also was one of them, but Stevenson wrote some more. The first is the sequel to Kidnapped, Catriona (1893), which obviously brought him less fame, but would just as well gather sufficient interest into finding out what happened after. The other books are The Master Of Ballantrae (1889) and Weir Of Hermiston (1896). This last book was left unfinished as Stevenson died while writing it, but apparently there was sufficient praise for what he had written that it got published anyway. I expect I will pick one or more of them up after I finish the books of the Black Company, but that may take a few more weeks.

Glen Cook – The Silver Spike

Friday, January 21st, 2011

We return yet again to the gritty and dark world of the Black Company, where bands of mismatched soldiers battle against the odds with dark sorcerers and many are only out for their own gain.

At the end of The White Rose some characters split up. In Shadow Games we followed one group, in The Silver Spike (1989), Glen Cook puts his attention to the other characters. The Silver Spike was published between Shadow Games and its sequel Dreams Of Steel, but I follow the order of the omnibus edition The Books Of The South, which is also preferable as Shadow Games and Dreams Of Steel should be read in one go. In Shadow Games some vague hints were given about the events in The Silver Spike, so it is a nice discovery to find out what it was about.

Like the other novels in The Books Of The South, Cook has several viewpoints in the story, although he sticks to a single first person narrator. In this case it is odd, because he is no Annalist, recording the events of the Black Company. Why Cook chose to do so I don’t know, but in the greater context he shouldn’t have. It just gives a odd feeling.

As we are used with Cook, there is much story in the book and the events are darker and moodier than before. It is also a much more straightforward and predictable story. There are some twists but they are not that impressive.

In his previous books Cook managed to present some strong and defined characters, but here there is no time or space to do so. Perhaps this is caused by the many viewpoints, which leave the reader less time to get into the characters. With the dramatic events that unfold it doesn’t leave that much impact.

The behaviour and actions of the characters felt sometimes odd to me, especially when one can compare some to their abilities in the previous books. Some act surprisingly weak while others show far greater skills.

Overall this is the weakest book I have read by Glen Cook. The story is still entertaining and original, but it lacks strength, has a number of minor flaws and doesn’t manage to grab hold of the reader as well as the others did, partially because he doesn’t manage to flesh out the characters sufficiently. For a fan of the Black Company this book is still a must-read, but it is a fairly stand-alone story in comparison to the other Books Of The South. I will still recommend it as it is still a better than average fantasy novel.

Glen Cook – Dreams Of Steel

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

I must admit I am a fan of dark and gritty fantasy with plenty of sword and sorcery, be it more of the first or the latter, in it. Of course not all dark and gritty fantasy fits my glove. I have to go with my feeling and sometimes something I try out turns out to come short, but Glen Cook does know how to deliver and entertain.

As Shadow Games ended with a big cliffhanger I was happy to have its sequel Dreams of Steel (1990) at hand. Dreams Of Steel is the fifth book about the Black Company (although the sixth published), written by Glen Cook. Shadow Games connected the first series with the new storyline and set up the stage. In Dreams of Steel sticks at the style he began with in Shadow Games but again makes some changes in the narrative. Cook gives himself some new challenges this way and prevents the reader from going easy, if that might have been the case.

There is no introduction in Dreams Of Steel. Events develop from the climactic end of Shadow Games as this novel is about warfare more than ever. It is also a book about changing dynamics and numerous twists. Cook is having fun playing with his characters and the reader will enjoy this just as much. Strangely enough this book is about the Black Company but with little of the Black Company in it. An odd comment maybe, but telling more would be spoiling too much.

Just like the previous novel more new characters take the stage while the role of others is diminished. Fortunately many remain to provide a familiar setting. We get to learn a few characters better, but as usual for Cook the story takes precedent.

With just over 200 pages, this is another short novel, but the amount of events is large so we experience a tightly written story with short chapters. No reader will get bored easily with Cook. The main thing is that with this short of a novel, Dreams Of Steel should have been combined with Shadow Games to form one novel.

Although there is less of a cliffhanger at the end of this book, more or less similar to the endings of the first two books, many threads still remain open. Although one will read this book differently as one would have the first series, the story was just as strong. Another full recommendation.

Glen Cook – Shadow Games

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Shadow Games (1989) by Glen Cook starts immediately after the events of The White Rose. Unlike the previous novels about the Black Company this fourth installment does require some knowledge of the previous events. What starts as a brand new chapter quickly becomes a true sequel series. This series about a band of soldiers getting into the mids of epic events and fighting at almost invincible sorcerers has kept me going for more and I am lucky that I discovered him so late: I don’t have to wait that long for the next book.

In Shadow Games Cook makes a break in his style. While the first series was told from a first person narrator with one or two other viewpoints added it based on information provided afterwards. Although the first person narrative remains, there are now several other ones which don’t feel like being a recollection told afterwards. There are too many unnecessary details or details of which chances are too low to have been told to the narrator at some point.

The setting of the story is also different. More time is spent on travel and the action is much less. What is actually really different is that we for the first time get to see some full scale battles. These were often tuned-down or summarized in the previous book as the narrator rarely spent time at the frontline.

Shadow Games clearly isn’t a standalone novel. The book ends in a big cliffhanger (doesn’t hurt to spoil that) and luckily I have the next book to read (that’s why I spoil: make sure you have the next book already!) or else times would have been tense. The previous books all had a sort of ending, albeit some open threads for the next story.

As the book is still only about 200 pages long Cook could have just written a bigger novel with the complete story. Shadow Games connects and provides the new setting and although it entertains it lacks the power and momentum of the previous novels because of this reason. Like the Black Company the reader is detached from familiar surroundings. The style is different, old characters are gone and many new ones are added. Still, with only so few pages Cook fill its with plenty of story, more than we are used to these days, so it is impossible to say it is weak. The familiar characters hold our heart and the typical Cook humor and settings are as we know them. This book is still much better than most fantasy. It is only weaker compared to its predecessors. The next book will tell where things will really go. This book will be recommended, just make sure to read it after the previous ones.

Plenty of black

Friday, January 14th, 2011

It took some waiting but finally seven books I ordered arrived. I’ve actually been waiting on reading other things until they came, but as I had been reading plenty recently a pause didn’t feel that bad. All the books are by Glen Cook and they came in three omnibus editions. The Books of the South contains Shadow Games (1989), Dreams of Steel (1990) and The Silver Spike (1989). The Return of The Black Company contains Bleak Seasons (1996) and She Is The Darkness (1997). And finally The Many Deaths of The Black Company contains Water Sleeps (1999) and Soldiers Live (2000). No lack of reading material thus for the coming weeks and expect reviews to follow soon as well.