Wednesday, June 11, 2008

SPOTLIGHT: Catching up with the Classics - Glen Cook's Dread Empire

This one is from the archives of 2007. I never got around to posting it here or at SFFWorld, so I figured with The Black Company being the book of the month in the SFFWorld Fantasy Book Club, now was as good a time as any to post my review of A Cruel Wind: A Chronicle of the Dread Empire. I was also way overdue on my plans to do a Spotlight/Catching up with the Classics once a month.

The cover is just so gorgeous I had to post it as big as I did.

Without further ado...

NightShade Books
ISBN 978-1-59780-055-6
August 2006
904 Pages

Glen Cook has been writing acclaimed fantasy (and some science fiction) for many years, just on the outskirts of the big brand names like Donaldson, Jordan, and Martin. This is not to say his writing is inferior to those more recognized names, in fact, quite the opposite. After having read Cook’s first three Dread Empire novels, collected in a beautiful omnibus from the fine folks at NightShade books under the title A Cruel Wind, I find myself eager to read more of his works, if not in the Dread Empire, then any of his novels. I was not a novice to Cook when I opened this book, I read and enjoyed three of his Black Company novels, published by the Science Fiction Book Club under the title The Annals of the Black Company. It has been a number of years since I read the Black Company novels, so I can’t fairly and precisely compare the two sets of books other than the feel both worlds evoke. Cook doesn’t mince words, either in his descriptions or dialogues. These people live in harsh worlds were war is prevalent and a fact of daily life.

The first book in A Cruel Wind, A Shadow of All Night Falling, flips between to time periods. The ‘present’ of the world and the past, illustrating the origins of a great wizard, Varthlokur. Cook presents a harsh, desert-like landscape in which the wizard-to-be is born and raised. Much of his early life is spent without speaking, though he plots a plenty. Those scenes alternate with Varthlokur’s plans coming to fruition, as he sends spies to invade the nation where his prophesized future wife rules. The foremost spy goes by the name of Mocker, a rather unassuming individual from a physical standpoint, but able to win over crowds and individuals thanks to his amazing charisma. Eventually Mocker’s way with words wins over the queen, whom he originally was intended to sway to Varthlokur’s side as his wife, as a lover of Mocker’s own. This novel sets the stage for the events in the subsequent novels, while also ending with a sense of closure. A Shadow of All Night Falling set the stage, obviously, and it was the book I enjoyed most in the omnibus. I really liked the alternating perspective Cook utilized in the narrative and his evocation of the setting which reminded me of the Hyborian Age of the Conan novels than of anything else.

The second book, October’s Child, takes more of a physical approach to the action. Whereas A Shadow of All Night Falling was more a novel of political play, the gruesome, tireless and seemingly endless cloud of war permeated the second installment of The Dread Empire. Throughout this second novel, Cook terrifically injects the darkness of war, especially in the way the characters feel. Though I thought narrative was as strong here, it fell a bit short of how much I enjoyed A Shadow of All Night Falling.

The final volume in this book, All Darkness Met, again brings more of the focus on Varthlokur’s efforts, though he is more of a secondary character. After following the wizard’s ascent in the first volume, Cook expertly builds on the character with other character’s thoughts and fears about Varthlokur. Cook's method of characterization from a distance worked for me here and I enjoyed All Darkness Met probably as much as October's Baby.

While a number of the characters are important across the three books, perhaps the most well-drawn throughout is Mocker. A fat man, with high charisma and a unique speech pattern make for a memorable and enigmatic character. Some might find his manner speaking annoying, with it’s Yoda-like word placements, but it comes across as an endearing quality, much like the small, green Jedi master. On can also see the similarities between Mocker and Steven Erikson’s Kruppe, which is no surprise since Erikson has listed Cook’s writing as an influence.

The Ragnarsson clan evoking a Nordic influence, factor a great deal throughout the storyline, particularly the final two books.

The physical book itself deserves mention. From small-press NightShade, this is a beautiful looking book, from the evocative Raymond Swanland cover, to the nice paper, to the overall feel and design of the book, one can tell the publishers put a great deal of thought into their final product. It should also be noted the book includes a great introduction by Jeff VanderMeer who paints a great picture of Cook’s writing; the preface works as both an introduction and a “love letter” of sorts.

The suggestion is often made, but fans of Erikson’s Malazan series should check out this book, as well as Cook’s Black Company. Fans with an interest in the down-in-the trenches approach without so much veneer would do well to check out these books. Hell, fans of fantasy in general would do well to read these books. I enjoyed A Cruel Wind a great deal for many reasons - the evocation of the setting, the different approaches Cook utilized from book to book, and quite simply, the overall story itself in each volume and as a whole for the saga. I did think the pacing was slightly uneven in spots from book to book, but on the whole I liked A Cruel Wind quite a bit.

© 2008 Rob H. Bedford

Thanks for the nudging Joe.

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