The final installment in Books of the South, not exactly a part of trilogy (although the chronological order is more or less maintained), but rather a spin-off from the Black Company series. Instead of Croaker and co. we get White Rose and Silent and Raven. And, of course, a certain silver spike, containing the soul of Dominator, conquered in the Barrowlands in the grand finale of The White Rose. There’s also a very peculiar severed head craving for a body, and a really nasty dog who doesn’t like toads :). But it all comes together thanks to a quartet of greedy and not very bright no-names from Oar, who get the brilliant idea of stealing the spike and selling it to the highest bidder. What could go wrong with such a crafty plan?
What indeed? The short answer is: everything. The long answer is pretty much the same. And so we witness Raven’s completely futile chase after Croaker and Lady through the empire, the sea, and a big part of the South, we can indulge ourselves with the exhaustive description of windwhale travel, we can take a close, detailed look at the head’s (I won’t tell whose head is that; those who read The White Rose know, those who didn’t should read it first :P) triumphant and bloody march through the empire lands. The Silver Spike is a full package: with a prolonged visit to a city full of wizards and cutthroats searching for spike, locked in military curfew and struggling with cholera plague, with a slew of crazy rituals and bloody, grotesque and horrifying fights, with a mysterious, black magic-related disease… There’s plenty of action, but the novel is very much character-driven. I know it may sound incredible, but The Silver Spike is a Bildungsroman of sorts. Something for everyone :).
This time the narrator is a typical grunt. Philodendron Case, son of not-very-imaginative potato farmers, dearly wanted to escape the dreary routine of potato farming and do something interesting. He couldn’t stand the fields, the potatoes, the too-many members of his family, so he enlisted. His wish came true real fast: he ended up as a Guard in the Barrowland when the shit hit the fan, he made friends with the most psychotic Black Company dude of all – Raven, and after a long and fast trip through the whole empire and beyond he became [spoiler alert – highlight to read] an unwilling – and constantly befuddled – ally of the White Rose. Talk about irony.
Case’s voice is pitch perfect. Not in the regular meaning of the word, sure, but his snarky tone, his imperfect grammar, his vocabulary and his down-to-earth worldview are perfectly matched in an archetype of a (American) grunt. Here’s our wide-eyed, essentially decent guy who didn’t know what to do with life; the world everywhere doesn’t take well to aimlessness and so Case is repeatedly punched right in his teeth and ass for a good balance. How he maintains his relatively good humor is a mystery to me. But, in the process of constant kicking, he does realize something, even if quite trivial and obvious: life is for living. And if you want to live, you need to grab your life and ride it and do everything you can not to fall. Case’s story doesn’t miss a bit: his friendship with Raven and the reversal of their roles is a great, subtly underplayed example of a coming-of-age story.
The Silver Spike gives us also an intriguing counterpoint to Case’s story – one of the thieves’ quartet, Smeds Stahl, undergoes a similar process of internal evolution, from a dull village drifter to… Actually, I won’t say. You better read the book :). Smeds’ growth is clearly forced by external circumstances, but Cook puts a lot of effort to show us that the source of Smeds’ change lies within, not without.
Smeds’ evolution is guided and softly nurtured by The Old Man Fish, one of the most infuriating characters of the book for me. I was a bit surprised by my own bias, but hell, that guy just rubbed me the wrong way from the middle of the book right up to the end. I could admire his resilience and skill and hate his ruthlessness and complete egoism and his stupid cunning within the same breath. He cared only for himself, his horizon ending on the tip of his nose. Literally. I guess it says all about a character when someone like Raven openly admires his balls…
Okay, I wrote a full review about some third-rate, non-Black Company guys. What about the real deal? Silent, Raven, Darling? Truth is, for me that novel was about Case and Smeds and the rest of his dumb crew of too greedy and too stupid for their own good. The main BC characters serve here as an anchor, a pivoting point for all of the action, but they don’t play main roles. Thankfully, I might add, as I believe that this book with them as main protagonists would have been worse. Still, I was very happy with Raven’s arc, from the beginning to the very end – as well as with some cool allusions to The Count of Monte Christo :).
The Silver Spike is a kind of elegy – a story about what happens after the great war, after all the heroic and cruel deeds have been committed. Cook takes a close look at the regular grunts and civilians – not those from the idealistic bunch fighting for honor and glory, but those who just try to live, despite their past, or because of it. I admire Cook’s idea spanning the subsequent books and believe that The Silver Spike was intended as a kind of closure to the first trilogy. If so, it served it’s intended role fully.
And yet, though it all sounds like a perfect novel, The Silver Spike left me slightly unsated. It might have been the lack of Croaker and Lady, and of the Black Company – I confess I was never such a big fan of Raven and Darling as to be waiting for the next book about them. But I strongly suspect that it had been the four thieves whom I just couldn’t get to like. I’ll be honest: I waited for them to fail. I wanted them to fail. I rooted for their complete, utmost, graphic failure. And I won’t tell you if I got my wish – you’ll need to check it out on your own ;).