Glen Cook, Shadow Games (1989)

Black_Company_SouthAfter a few reading trips in other literary directions (like the bio-zombie dystopia The Girl With All The Gifts, or the popular tribute to pop culture of the 80’s, Ready Player One, the review of which will appear here soon) I came back to the world of Glen Cook’s Black Company. I’ll be honest: I missed those guys, ruthless and hapless cutthroats that they are.

Shadow Games is the first installment in the second trilogy, The Books of the South. Well, that’s not entirely true, because the Silver Spike is a stand-alone novel, but these are little, rather obscure issues and probably not interesting to anyone but me… Anyway. After the events depicted in The White Rose, when the Black Company eventually defeated the Dominator, but for an enormous cost, now the proud mercenary unit is down to seven men. Among them the Lady, powerless after her name had been found and exposed. Croaker became the unwilling Captain, but maintained also his primary role as the Company’s Annalist. Now the Black Company marches South, toward Khatovar, their unit’s birthplace, to fulfill the promise of returning the Annals home.

The northern empire in the aftermath of the Dominator’s fall seems peaceful enough, the well-oiled bureaucratic machine working tirelessly and nobody having a clue that the Empress, the Lady, lost her godlike magic powers and decided to abandon her domain and go with the remains of the Black Company down South. The good news is that the fame of the Black Company reaches far and wide, and soon men are swelling the ranks of the elite mercenary unit. But life is not a bed of roses. What should be a fairly easy trek South, a sightseeing voyage through jungles and swamps and exotic cities, soon changes into a constant struggle, as the Company’s way seems to be leading them through almost invariably enemy territory. South is not peaceful at all; what’s more, Black Company is remembered there, and not with love. To make things even more difficult, half of the South has been conquered by some shadowy, powerful forces, the magic-wielding Shadowmasters who control huge swathes of land and even now are looking for an opportunity to expand their empires. Luck has it that Khatovar lies within their domain, in what is called Shadowlands.

The Black Company searches for its roots, in hopes most clearly defined by Croaker who wishes that the homecoming would revive the Company’s ideals and its spirit. But even though the journey South is the new main goal of the Black Company, it is not the only one. Because obviously, like any respectable mercenary unit, to truly exist the Black Company needs a commission. Being hired brings out the best in them, whether the paymasters wish it or not. And one such opportunity literally falls into their lap on their way South, when they reach the city of Taglios, one they have passed on their way North so many centuries ago. The Black Company is welcomed in Taglios with mixed feelings, as saviors by the population, as a temporarily useful threat by the rulers and the priests. Their commission is simple and rather suspiciously convenient: they are to stop Shadowmasters from conquering Taglios. And taking the fight to them means reaching Khatovar all the quicker. The Black Company accepts it on one condition – that they will be given free rein and all the funds they require. They are quite surprise when they get what they asked for, let me tell you. And so the fight begins.

I don’t want to reveal any secrets, so I’ll just say that Croaker and company meet some old acquaintances along the way, and that soon it all becomes a bloody mess. We wouldn’t expect any less from the esteemed Black Company :). Things get complicated really fast, mostly thanks to the hidden players with their own agendas, but also to the famous luck of the Black Company itself.

Truth be told, when I started reading Shadow Games I felt as if I never left that world. Cook took four years to write that book (or at least that’s the break between the publishing date of The White Rose and Shadow Games) but from the readers’ perspective there is no discontinuity, not in the timeline, not in style. I enjoyed this journey immensely and let myself be drawn back into the suffocating, oppressive world where true friendship is rare and precious and even tree stumps can pose an evil threat. Cook’s prose is as tightly woven, precise and unrelenting as ever. Shadow Games are, however, much lighter than the previous books. There are more gags and black-humor than before, culminating in a drunken duel between our favorite hedge wizards: Goblin and One-Eye. The story in general is less doom and more fun, Croaker’s tongue gets the better of him a few good times, and the South itself is distinctively different from the grim North. There is

This installment in Cooks’s Black Company series has also a peculiar feel of mystery and secrets cramming up each forgotten alley. The secrets are there, rest assured, but we learn only some of them. The pace is slower, but those who pine for action should feel rewarded by the last 1/3 of the novel. I didn’t feel the slowness at all – it has been filled with in-depth psychological portraits of the main characters, with their changing relations, with the very realistic take on what it means to age and to grow. Cook proved that he’s great at action scenes; this time I admired his skill at creating comprehensive and realistic characters – as usual, in just a handful of words and scenes. Shadow Games deftly use the trope of road and bow deeply before other works – mainly Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and isn’t it a great influence (and/or Apocaypse Now! by Francis Ford Coppola). The swamp sequence is delicious, but that’s by no means the end of this inspiration :).

I thoroughly enjoyed Cook’s take on religion (Taglios is a place of three main religions and handfuls of smaller cults, and priests jealously keep the real power to themselves, routinely squabbling over it – their internal divisions are the only means of influence for the nominal ruler of the city, the prince Prahbrindrah Drah). I loved the twists and turns of the novel, even if some were predictable. Still, I didn’t see the last one coming and it was the one to wait for! Not to point any fingers, but if you want to end a book in a cliffhanger, you should learn from Cook!

I urge you to read this book carefully. All the signs are there, all those little traces Cook left for the readers to find and understand much later. This story arc will continue to the last book in the Black Company series, Soldiers Live. There is a talk about two more books in the series, but they hadn’t appear yet. When they do, I sure as hell will read them.

Score: 9/10

P.S. As for Cook himself, there’s a nice bit of an interview from Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist that should give you a pretty good image:

Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the covers that grace your books?

I generally hold my nose and try not to cry too much. You have no control. If you’re really lucky you get an art director who will let you use Vaseline when he bends you over. That said, I have had some fine covers. The Hildebrandts on the first 6 Garrett books. The covers for the French first editions of the Black Company books by Didier Graffet are genius. The covers for the first 6 Black Company books here, because they were painted by a very good friend. Though they’re a little primitive they do have some actual connection with what is inside. A few others. […]

10 thoughts on “Glen Cook, Shadow Games (1989)

  1. piotrek

    That is a book I will read, I loved the first trilogy and I’m sure I’ll love the second. 9/10 – that reassures me.
    One more quote from the interview, actually the very next sentence after what was already quoted: “Generally speaking, cover art is worse overseas.”
    Seriously? That from a guy from US of A? LOL


    1. Well, de gustibus and all that… 😉 Covers are a sensitive topic, Cook’s take is one of the most honest accounts of how that works that I’ve read.
      As for the Books of the South, I’ve read Dreams of Steel and they are even better… 😀 But a review of that book will come a bit later, my pile of books I’ve read and wanted to write review grows longer every week, which is quite surprising. Oh, the embarrassment of riches 😉


      1. piotrek

        When do you have the time for all that reading? (Piotrek goes back to playing KotOR II, another 50+ hour crpg…)


  2. Cook is guilty, I couldn’t put the Dreams of Steel down… But I hit a streak of shorter reads recently, so two or three books are like one Mieville 😉
    Plus, what is crpg, exactly? 😛


    1. piotrek

      That is, actually, a serious problem someone should write a book about. Tabletop RPGs are clearly that – role playing games, where players get into the roles of fictional characters in fantasy worlds. CRPGs (computer rpgs)… are they really comparable? Or just adventure games with character advancement systems? I love them anyway, I enjoy playing them as mighty warriors or wizards, but without the level of control I have in pen & paper rpgs, it’s a totally different experience.Until we have immersive virtual reality and AI gamemasters in our cRPGs, it’s not the same 😉


  3. Pingback: Glen Cook, Dreams of Steel (1990) | Re-enchantment Of The World

  4. I would recommend starting with Book I of Books of the North – The Black Company. The review I wrote is currently only in Polish, but here’s the gist of it – it’s a classic piece of military epic fantasy, brutal and gritty and realistic, and simply, utterly great. A grandfather of all military fantasy, Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen and Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt included. For people with strong stomachs and a penchant for gallows humor and the best what fantasy has to offer! 🙂


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