Monday, March 10, 2008

A Cruel Wind, by Glen Cook

A Cruel Wind
Glen Cook
Night Shade Books: 2006

A Cruel Wind is an omnibus edition of the first three Dread Empire novels published by Glen Cook. This is early Glen Cook. He has two published novels to his credit, one under his own name. It is here that Cook begins to show his readers hints of what he will later do in his Black Company fantasy series. While we see and meet the rulers of various lands, the focus is not on those with all the power and we aren’t told everything that is going on. Unlike The Black Company, we don’t see the story told through the common soldier. Instead, in A Shadow of All Night Falling (1979), we are introduced to Mocker, a fat man passing himself off as a fool in order to get him inside Ravenkrak castle and in with the powerful men and women there. Here we get the story mostly through Mocker’s eyes, though we get bits from other characters who will continue to be important in the next two novels (Nepanthe, Varthlokker, Bragi, Valther, Old Man, Star Rider). The initial story here is of Mocker’s forthcoming betrayal of Nepanthe and her brothers, but shortly after A Shadow of All Night Falling has quite a bit more story to tell.

October’s Baby (1980): Where A Shadow of All Night Falling was mostly Mocker’s story, October’s Baby belongs to Bragi Ragnarson. Bragi was another infiltrator at Ravenkrak, working with Mocker, and seemed to be just a minor character. Here Bragi takes center stage as he travels to Kavelin to aid Queen Fiana and help save her kingdom. There is plenty of intrigue and switched babies, dark magic, lies, and politics. All told, it should be the good stuff. As with the first book, October’s Baby is doing more than just telling a simple story. The story we start out reading at the beginning isn’t the story we get by the end.

All Darkness Met (1980): This is the conclusion of the trilogy and again Bragi is central to the novel. Mocker was a secondary character in October’s Baby, but here Mocker barely exists. This is a shame because despite how confusing Mocker’s dialogue was, there was a deep hint of playfulness his banter with Bragi and Nepanthe. Instead, this is the darkest book of the three. Bad things happen early and just get worse and worse as the novel progresses until Bragi and the little kingdom of Fiana’s is under siege from fearsome warriors and powerful magics. Men once considered enemies in the previous two volumes find themselves in an alliance here to meet the larger threat.

Normally I would go into more detail on each volume, but since the three novels are collected in the A Cruel Wind omnibus telling more about the later volumes would spoil the earlier novels. That’s okay, though. We can talk about how well Cook has written these books.

I guess I expected more from books which, according to the introduction, were formative novels in Jeff Vandermeer’s introductions to fantasy fiction. While I share his appreciation for Mocker and while I feel that Glen Cook has some deeply authentic and moving moments in these three Dread Empire novels, that’s all they were for me – moments. Mocker’s moments with Nepanthe in A Shadow of All Night Falling, the last scene together of Bragi and Mocker in All Darkness Met, Haroun and his son in All Darkness Met, Elana trying to protect her home in October’s Baby. Other moments, usually the small moments on which the novel does not hinge are what stood out to me. This is, perhaps, as it should be. It is in the quiet times that we really get to know our characters and fall for the characters. This should, however, carry over to the bigger moments because now we care. Except, we don’t. Or, I don’t.

There should be a quote from the text to illustrate why the three Dread Empire novels are not as good as they should be, an example why I found the prose to be clunky at best and obscure at worst. It isn’t one passage. No one passage shows the overall effect of chapter after chapter of it. Individual chapters did work and were refreshing, but then Cook came back to clunk at the reader some more. Maybe it isn’t that the novels were obscure and that I could not quite figure out what all was going on. Cook does the same in The Black Company. He leaves the readers in the dark just as he does the characters. But The Black Company had flow. Sentence flowed into sentence into paragraph into page into chapter and the novel(s) evolved into a grand story where even the tedium of the soldiers was gripping stuff. Where we wanted to know more from Croaker and more about Goblin and more about The Lady and instead of dragging the reader along, we wanted to race ahead of Cook’s storytelling. That’s not The Dread Empire. I find myself running ahead not to get to what is coming next, but to get away from what came before.

I can’t say for sure whether in these three novels Glen Cook is any worse in “telling” rather than “showing” the reader the story, but it “feels” worse, it “feels” like the novels are so unconnected that even though we know two groups are going to come into conflict with each other it is a surprise that they actually do, and when they do Cook just tells us it was all inevitable. That an action of Bragi’s was a mistake with reverberating consequences. How, exactly, Glen Cook could have done this better, I couldn’t say. But it just does not work.

There are hints, however, of the storytelling Cook will later employ to much greater success in The Black Company. Perhaps the biggest issue here is the third person perspective. When we don’t know something in The Black Company it is because Croaker doesn’t know and wasn’t told. When we don’t know something here it is because Glen Cook isn’t telling us or we don’t understand what we are told.

What this all makes me wonder is whether or not I am a fan of Glen Cook’s work or if I am simply a fan of The Black Company. That series made me want to read everything by Cook. Having read Sung in Blood and three Dread Empire books, I’m not sure I still want to. Surely the Garrett PI or his Starfishers work is better than this.

I believe it was George R. R. Martin (it may have been Robert Jordan) who once wondered if the fans he had gathered in writing A Song of Ice and Fire were fans of George R. R. Martin or if they were fans of A Song of Ice and Fire. He used two examples: Stephen King and X. With Stephen King the fans were King fans and would follow him everywhere. With X, the fans were fans of the particular series rather than of the author. Now, I’m a fan of George R. R. Martin and not just of Ice and Fire, and I’m a fan of Stephen King. But having read four books outside of The Black Company and I’m concerned that I’m just a company man. Hopefully the omnibus of the two Dread Empire prequels will restore some faith in non Black Company novels by Glen Cook.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Night Shade Books


ThRiNiDiR said...

you gave him a big bashing :)

i'm just now reading the black company (first three books) and loving every page of it. it remains to be seen if i'm a cook fan or X fan. fellow reviewer on our blog is Cook's fan - check out his review of tyranny of the night if you have time.

Joe said...

You haven't read my review of Sung in Blood then, have you? :)

I'm holding out that I'm going to find some non-Black Company Cook novels that I has to happen sometime. Maybe Garrett PI.

Anonymous said...

Did you ever find a non BC book of his that you enjoyed? And by chance did you bother reading the sequels to this series? The final book finally came out this year.

Joe said...

I did, actually. :) His Garrett PI books are fantastic. I own a number of them. The first Starfishers novel was excellent (I struggled a bit with the second, even though it was a necessary novel. Haven't read the third yet). I've meant to read Darkwar for a long time, I just haven't started it.

But yes, I've found some of his.

I still haven't bothered with the rest of the the Dread Empire series, though. I have one other collection, and I *want* to want to read it. I just don't, even after all these years.