Today is the Men’s Day in Poland. I decided to celebrate it with a review of Dreams of Steel, the second installment in the second almost-trilogy in The Black Company series, Books of the South. Why? Besides the obvious and false stereotype that military fantasy is a distinctly male sub-genre? 😉 Here it comes: while the first installment, Shadow Games, was written from Croaker’s perspective, the second – for reasons obvious to anyone who’s read the first book and not readily revealable to everyone else 😉 – undergoes a forced change of the narrator. The role of the Black Company Annalist falls to the Lady.
What a wondrous turn of events! 🙂 The infamous Lady, the long-standing infatuation and love of Croaker, the mover and shaker of the whole Black Company universe, has been an immobile center of the whirlwind of events from the book one. Now we have a rare opportunity to see everything that happens through her own eyes. To see… actually, I won’t tell you what we really see, at least not yet. One fact remains clear, however: her perspective is similar enough for the hard-core fans not to feel too betrayed, and unique enough to lend the series a new, distinct flavor. A tip of the hat, or better a deep bow, to Glen Cook; it is a feat that’s difficult to pull off even in normal circumstances, and what happened in the Black Company universe is far from normal.
Not to reveal too much – the Black Company’s luck held long enough, but when it failed, it failed splendidly and utterly and disastrously. The Black Company is in disarray: very important people died or have been lost or imprisoned, the armies are in chaos, and the threat from Shadowmasters had not been vanquished nor dispelled.
The Lady finds herself in an unenviable position. Behind the lines, alone, a target for every Shadowmaster worth his or her name, with many supposedly dead old enemies alive and kicking, and out for blood. Or, to be more precise, for the Lady’s head – and all the secrets it contains. But she hasn’t been the Lady for nothing. She knows her stuff, she dots her i’s and crosses her t’s, and is nothing if not thorough in her ascend to power. Because she sure as hell ascends to power, even if not exactly in the manner she imagined. Even if the power she wants to use turns out to be using her…
But enough of almost-spoilers :). I’m just going to say that Cook did it again and delivered a remarkable piece of work. I found Dreams of Steel to be even better than Shadow Games, and I just couldn’t put the book down. It happens rarely, I usually try to tame my addictive streak, but this time I rolled with every punch packed by Cook’s novel and was happy and entirely guilt-free ;). The universe of the Black Company is complex and complete, and this is one of the first Cook’s novels where we can actually appreciate it in its fullest. The world’s complexity is not readily obvious to the readers; the first books show it in a rather simplistic manner, perfectly suitable to the narration of a young, uneducated mercenary but, due to the peculiar nature of the narration, the world itself remains full of blanks and question marks. The knowledge does come over in bits and pieces throughout the subsequent novels, however, portraying a unique world of strangeness mixed with down-to-earth humanness in all its shame and glory. The religion irrevocably tangled with politics, magic in a slew of flavors competing for influence with superstition and lack of education, human vices opposed by equally numerous virtues, among which Cook gently insinuates even idealism and what some would call naivety…
I deeply admire the intricate groundwork laid down by Cook in Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel. In the second installment we see its early fruits, and my, are they poisoned or what? 😉 No big cliffhangers this time, but Cook deftly uses the vehicle of first-person narrative to deliver some really wicked kicks and punches. What we learn, in the end, is that even the Lady is not omniscient nor infallible; what we see through her eyes may not be the full and perfect truth – in fact, is something far from it. Not through any design or conscious will of hers, but of the author’s; with the change of perspective Cook brings to attention the usually forgotten fact that the narrator is able to give the audience only his or her account; not the truth (and let’s not delve here into the philosophical discussion WHAT is truth, really :P); not the facts; just one person’s view of the events. Very phenomenological :D, very true, and delivered by Cook with admirable cool offhandedness.
Cook’s prose is going very strong. His unusual gift of creating an evocative, intricate and painfully realistic narrative from short, condensed sentences never stops to amaze me. It does bring to mind military non-fiction and aptly pictures the manner of speech and the worldview of a professional soldier. With the change of the narrator Cook took a considerable risk – he had to combine the unique perspective of a military-minded mercenary (a special one, granted, with quirky hobby – history, and a lot of natural inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge) with the view of a knowledgeable, powerful has-been ruler, and a female to boot. At first I found Lady’s narration eerily similar to Croaker’s. But soon the differences became obvious – and psychologically realistic. I loved the wild turn of events, the opportunity to learn more about Black Company murky beginnings, the chance to dig deeper into the uncanny mix of religion, politics and magic that bears a striking resemblance to a nest of vipers… I appreciated the chance to meet new characters and learn more about some of the old ones – Ram and Prahbrindrah Drah and Blade first come to mind, but there are also many others, some of them right up till this novel achieving a rare achievement of lurking unknown and almost unnoticed in the very center of events.
I swallowed Dreams of Steel whole and wanted more. And I’ll surely come back to it one day. It’s one of those rare novels where everything plays out just perfectly.