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08:59 pm: Underappreciated Fantasy Authors 1: Glen Cook
So this is a little series of commentaries on fantasy authors I’ve read and enjoyed for various reasons, but don’t see a whole lot of people reading and enjoying. In some cases, it’s because the books might be out of print, but I did manage to find them in print pretty recently, or easily in used bookstores. So if you want to read some good fantasy that’s really interesting in some ways, then you could try to find these authors.

The author I’m reviewing today, Glen Cook, has written over twenty fantasy novels as well as some science fiction ones. I’ll be talking about the two series I’ve read. Even though he has some weaknesses, I consider it a crime that more people don’t know who he is.

The Black Company Series

The Black Company (original trilogy)

The Black Company
Shadows Linger
The White Rose

The Books of the South

Shadow Games
Dreams of Steel

The Silver Spike (about characters from the original trilogy; happens concurrently with Shadow Games)

Glittering Stone

Bleak Seasons
She Is The Darkness
Water Sleeps
Soldiers Live

The Garrett, P.I. series

Sweet Silver Blues
Bitter Gold Hearts
Cold Copper Tears
Old Tin Sorrows
Dread Brass Shadows
Red Iron Nights
Deadly Quicksilver Lies
Petty Pewter Gods
Faded Steel Heat
Angry Lead Skies

(Say what you like about Cook, but he has really evocative titles).

I’ll note his weaknesses where they appear, but his strengths, in my estimation, far outweigh them.

The Black Company: This is extremely gritty, cynical, brutal fantasy, told mostly from first-person in a very spare style. The commentaries on Cook’s style seem to be more common than the ones on his characterization or plotting, so I think if you don’t mind the way he writes, you’ll really enjoy the way he writes.

The Black Company themselves are a bunch of mercenaries, and they are not either your inefficient, spitting D&D-inspired guards, or seemingly-gruff warriors with hidden hearts of gold. They’re soldiers. They fight for pay. They drink and gamble and whore and insult each other. They’re highly amoral, and they know it, and they don’t care. At the beginning of the series, they’re serving in a city called Beryl where a mysterious panther-like creature has just killed several of their men, including Tom-Tom, one of their wizards. (Tom-Tom’s brother, One-Eye, grows steadily more obsessed with getting revenge for him). Then an emissary from across the sea, Soultaker, hires them and takes them north to where his employer, the Lady, is building an Empire.

Yes, good god-damn, we have a Dark Lady.

Cook’s villains are really, really fucking creepy, and one of his greatest strengths. Soultaker always wears a mask and speaks in a variety of voices, each corresponding to a different soul that he’s swallowed. There are other main villains, the Ten Who Were Taken, all lieutenants of the Lady, and when one called the Limper gets a grudge against the Black Company, there’s virtually no stopping him. Think of what Robert Jordan’s Forsaken could be like if they were actually smart and had the scary factor times fourteen.

I don’t think that any of them compare to the Lady herself, though. She’s a shadowy figure for most of the first book, but comes up close at the end, and is a prominent presence throughout the rest of the series. Many fantasy authors either keep a Dark Lord unacceptably distant or screw up when they do try to portray them. The Lady comes across as a sweet creature trying to understand mere mortals who’s just as likely to order the Black Company to march out the next day and crush the Rebel, which the Black Company is happy to do, since, after all, she’s paying them.

And Croaker, the Company’s Annalist and the first-person narrator of much of the series, is desperately in love with his idea of her, and writes romantic fantasies about her.

I don’t think there’s been a fantasy narrator I’ve ever empathized with as I do Croaker. There are certainly characters I like better, but none of them are as ordinary as Croaker, who relies on steel and intelligence when he does have to solve problems, and isn’t the most powerful character in the series by a long-shot. He’s a historian, anxiously protective of the Company’s Annals, prone to those little romantic fantasies, afraid of the Ten Who Were Taken, makes understatements of the year that still cause a lot of emotion in me (such as when he parts from a woman “to whom I meant more than I had supposed”), and also serves as the Company’s healer in a pinch. He also whines and complains, about things like lack of sleep and lack of pay and being ordered into battle when he really doesn’t want to go. When he finally does get involved in a romantic relationship, he’s shy and awkward and very self-aware of how unromantic he really is. He’s a joy to read.

There are other memorable characters in the novels as well, though (I think) they pale next to Croaker and the Lady. The Company’s wizards are One-Eye, one of the few black main characters I’ve seen in fantasy; Goblin, who engages in constant and furious magical battles with One-Eye; and Silence, who can speak, but just doesn’t want to. The Company picks up a man named Raven once they come north who is the enigmatic, silent, deadly killer done right. Darling, the absurdly pale, mute little girl that Raven finds after the war has destroyed her town, is also very well-done—and unfortunately, I can’t say much about her without major spoilers, so I’ll just ask you to believe that she acts like a realistic war survivor child, and Raven is her protector without becoming all tender-hearted about it.

There’s also the war itself. As I mentioned in that other rant, Cook fought in Vietnam, and he has an almost painful sense of realism infusing his battles. I would say they’re less vividly depicted in sheer human cost than George R. R. Martin’s, but the cynicism in the observers of the battles is far beyond Martin’s. Even when the Black Company seems to grow some morals, it’s basically because they haven’t got a choice. This is fantasy to read if you want to see just how grim life can get.

That grimness sometimes ruins some parts of the books, at least if you’re looking for the splendor usually associated with high fantasy. As I mentioned, the style is supremely laconic; it isn’t until Book 8 that you even find out what Croaker looks like. The side-stories that get told, such as in The Silver Spike book and some narratives that revolve around Croaker’s story in the first trilogy, tend to have sordid schemes and characters who aren’t either heroes or anti-heroes; they’re one step up from petty villains, but even being petty villains would require more courage than they possess. Cook also tends to jump back and forth from third-person to first-person narration in some books, and to have different first-person narrators than Croaker in the later duology and quartet. This is capable of driving some readers nuts.

However, I treasure these books because they are so different from anything else I’ve ever read. In the good-evil conflict, they have the main characters fighting for the ‘evil’ side unabashedly. And in the later novels, they get into a richly realized landscape using Indian mythology (Kali-Ma, especially), characters who are explicitly noted not to be white (Black and Vietnamese, most prominently, and with a nice helping of interracial romance), and some plot twists I’ve never seen duplicated. “Don’t get too attached to people” is good advice here.

I’d say give them a try. They’re creepy, grim, and entirely different.

The Garrett, P.I. series

These are the fantasy detective novels I mentioned a few rants ago. Garrett is very reminiscent of Marlowe—likes to drink, likes to womanize, cracks smart-ass remarks all the time, gets in constant trouble with the law and the baddies and everyone in between. He’s also working as a private detective in a fantasy world, and moreover, one that isn’t just a medieval workover (if Cook’s written anything set in a stereotypical fantasy world, I haven’t read it yet).

He lives in TunFaire, capital city of a human kingdom that incidentally doesn’t have kings anymore, but is home to all sorts of races, who seem to interbreed pretty much at will. His best “friend,” Morley Dotes, is a half-dark elf, for example, and as sleazy as they come. There are people who are part fairy, or ogre, or troll, or goblin, or just about anything else, and they don’t really angst about it, which is another refreshing theme that you don’t see often in fantasy with half-breed characters.

Other than Morley Dotes and Garrett himself, the most prominent character in the series is the Dead Man, who—surprise—is dead, but didn’t quite feel ready to stop thinking yet. He sits in his chair, in Garrett’s house. In exchange for Garrett keeping the moths and mice off him and maintaining the house, the Dead Man helps him solve mysteries by picking brains (he’s a telepathic, ugly-as-hell thing called a Loghyr). He and Garrett also snipe at each other, in some of Cook’s cleverest dialogue.

The quality of this series really goes up and down. It is quite, quite cynical, with most of the people not really caring for each other, most of the women being the dangerous creatures you get in noir detective novels, most of the attitudes unattractive (racism, sexism, and homophobia abound), and the cultural background very grim, as TunFaire’s young men get shipped off to five years of military service in the Cantard from which they may or may not return. However, all the books are very quick reads, and have that kind of ‘grab you and don’t let you go’ quality. I sometimes thought I hadn’t enjoyed it much when the ride was over, but I didn’t know that until it was over. And the endings often have a genuine sense of tragedy, meaning more scars for Garrett.

The book I enjoyed the most was Old Tin Sorrows, which is chronologically earlier than most of them, and may actually have been the first as far as series time goes. That’s a ‘haunted mansion’ story, where Garrett is called to an old friend’s home to find out if poison is killing him, and ends up discovering a whole lot of secrets that really should have stayed buried. It’s a bittersweet story, with the emphasis on ‘bitter.’ There are some genuinely horrifying and moving scenes in there, and for a book as short as it is, it packs quite a punch.

The Garrett series is open-ended and episodic, despite major plot threads appearing in later books, so even though the last one hasn’t been published yet, it should be easier to read than most in-progress epics.

Awww, that left me all warm and fuzzy, and with a desire to go dig out the Black Company novels again, so I can be happily depressed.



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