Bleak Seasons is the sixth novel in Cook’s acclaimed Black Company series. A brutal, straight in your face account of an ugly, unredeeming war was a welcome refresh after the streak of bad and mediocre books I had recently hit.
Bleak Seasons take place at the same time as the Dreams of Steel, recounted from the Lady’s point of view, but this story is told from the perspective of Murgen, the new Standardbearer of the Black Company. Murgen, along with the majority of the Black Company under the command of Mogaba, has been trapped in the siege of Dejagore. You remember that monstrous city ruled by Shadow masters in the middle of southern nowhere, past the Hindu-like Taglios on the Black Company’s way toward Khatovar? Dejagore is a living hell. Fear and hate, utter lack of hope clashing with the animal need to survive, tight confines of the stone city bereft of food but full of hungry, hostile mouths, and a looming catastrophe of an urban fight change the place into a nightmarish landscape of grisly death. Reading Bleak Seasons I had one name in mind – Hue. Although, considering the recent wars, at least a couple of others should join it – from Fallujah to Mosul.
Urban warfare is a horrible affair – always has been, if the accounts of Troy war can be trusted. Cook creates an incredibly detailed, veristic and indeed bleak portrait of people caught in the middle of a bloody, irresolvable conflict. I’d venture a guess that this book was inspired, at least partly, by Cook’s experiences in Vietnam – its dejected and fatalistic outlook on the world is quite similar to the impressions of many other veterans, Caputo’s A Rumor of War or Hasford’s The Short-Timers, to name just a few.
Ah! Dejagore! Those halcyon days, slouching through Hell with a smile on. Welcome to the house of pain.
There isn’t much magic, and what is there for the most part remains unimpressive, a kind of everyday dabbling instead of big fireworks. One-Eye and Goblin bring the much needed comic relief, but beware, if you expect some gentle bickering in the style of C3PO and R2-D2. For Goblin and One-Eye everyday jokes mean going for each other throat in a nastiest possible way. Soldier’s humor for you. But the big magic moments… well, they are admirably big and loud, and staged in such a way as to invoke intense, conflicting emotions, from horror through insane laughter to triumph – and Glen Cook is a master of evocative, gripping scenes sketched with only a handful of words. The clue is the setup, I think 😉
Cook sets this story up with an enviable ease and forethought. The first confusing entries bring to mind hallucinations of a grievously sick person – until the readers realize that it’s both true and not ;). We jump through places and times, going back and forth in a kaleidoscopic rush of images, taken against our and Murgen’s will to relieve the most horrible trauma of his life: the siege of Dejagore. And Murgen’s condition can indeed be definitely treated like sickness, but all his visions, past and present, are real. It helps the reader to get invested in Murgen’s narrative – bearing in mind that previous books had been written from the unsurpassed Croaker’s perspective, and Lady’s, who is an indomitable force in her own right, there was a risk that Murgen’s account might come out as bland. And yet, those fears appear completely ungrounded as his recount of the siege remains one of the most haunting and harrowing Black Company narratives yet (and we’re talking about book 6 in the series).
Cook’s description of the siege is courageous – from the very beginning he had been twisting and reversing many of the prevailing fantasy tropes, but here he goes all out in depicting the brutality and the unforgiving nature of military conflict. There are no heroes here – there are only people fighting for their lives. In Cook’s war-experienced view, morality and ethics are something that are either an irremovable part of you, your identity, your personality, or they are something that will be shed in the face of danger as easily as snake’s skin. I itch to write a bit about thémis and the liminality of the experience of war, and about therapeutic function of literature, but then this review would change into a socio-philosophical essay of unprecedented length and nobody would read it all to get to the score ;).
This far in the series there isn’t much that can be said without fear of spoilers. We learn some hard, unexpected truths about the Nar and the Black Company itself, and especially Mogaba’s evolution is a masterful psychological case of breaking people under pressure. The conflict on the line Murgen – Mogaba brings a lot of the emotional weight to the novel and is an apt, even if simplified illustration of the dichotomous moral stances people may take in war. Still, the history of the last of the First Companies of Khatovar remains a mystery, nah – a taboo that nobody in the know wishes to break. In general, Bleak Season’s mood remains mysterious and brooding, grim even for such a dark series as Black Company. It poses more questions than it answers, and deftly sets the stage for the final installments. Moreover, after Dreams of Steel the readers know from the very beginning how the story of the siege will end – and yet it is a testimony to Cook’s skill that Bleak Seasons remain one of the most gripping, haunting narratives in the series.
Only after reading Bleak Seasons I noticed the extent to which Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen was inspired by Cook – from the main themes and narrative choices to some of the imagery as well. There is a form of ongoing literary dialogue between the Black Company series and The Malazan Book of the Fallen, which I was able to appreciate only after reading Cook’s books.
All in all, fantasy or not, Bleak Seasons is a great piece of war-themed literature and one of the best in the Black Company series to date (7 books read) :).