She Is The Darkness is the seventh installment in Cook’s acclaimed Black Company series. As Bleak Seasons was all about surviving a siege from within the besieged walls of the city of Dejagore, She Is The Darkness is all about laying siege to an impenetrable enemy fortress, Longshadow’s Overlook. And once again, in She Is The Darkness Cook delivers a gritty and very realistic picture of war seen from the perspective of regular soldiers – in short, a mudslide of exhausting boredom interspersed with short, intense moments of terrifying action. Put it all in the harsh, heady limelight of well-earned paranoia, mistrust and second-guessing, schemes upon schemes, intended lack of communication between regular soldiers and the leaders, and internal divisions of the army, and you have a very accurate psychological portrait of most of the prolonged conflicts in the history of human warfare.
She Is The Darkness, fully in line with the other books in The Black Company series, deals with the Western, highly romanticized view of soldiers as impeccable, heroic and virtuous heroes of ages, geniuses of strategy and masters of killing arts. Lots of fantasy books actually ascribe to that stereotype, with increasingly unconvincing results. Cook gives us the opposite – a book which, at least on the psychological level, could be a war memoir of a Vietnam vet. His characters, nearly all of them soldiers, are human, prone to human vices and weaknesses, frequent changes of heart, emotional upheavals and displays of casual pettiness, which Cook so aptly – and ruthlessly – depicts. At the same time, however, his characters are able to rise above the routine mediocrity from time to time – especially when it matters the most – to empathize, understand and comfort each other, showing equally human kindness, loyalty and even wisdom which allows them to remember why they went with the Black Company in the first place, which is the biggest question of the whole series.
After Bleak Seasons, which was a masterful depiction of the urban warfare and its consequences, we once again roam the big, wild world at its metaphorical and physical end, accompanying the Black Company on their road to Khatovar through Overlook and the Shadow Gate in the search for answers they’ve been so long looking for. But the quest to reveal the origins of the mercenary company is not the only, nor the main, plotline of She Is The Darkness.
It’s difficult to avoid spoilers so far in the series, so in this section I’ll be intentionally vague. Murgen continues to be the narrator of the series, alternating his duties of the Black Company Annalist with his duties as a ghostwalking spy, in the course of which he expands his skills and horizons enough to almost give himself a heart attack and/or death from dehydration/malnutrition. There are more than a few surprises hidden in this book – Cook surely had a lot of fun solving some mysteries, and even more fun adding new ones to the mix. She Is The Darkness contains one of the best emotional payoff moments in the whole series – a wonderful twist of action, a perfect moment of revelation, when several plot threads and past mysteries are woven together into one triumphant and incredibly strong scene. Fists in the air! 😉 A gritty reaffirmation of the ties bonding a band of brothers, and a great game-changer in one, reinforcing the image of Croaker as the ultimate main character of the series. Croaker’s evolution is one of the strongest points of The Black Company books – from a young, naïve idealist of the first installments to the mature realist devoid of illusions and burdened with grave responsibility for others’ lives in She Is The Darkness, Croaker nevertheless remains himself.
This book offers a lot of bloody action, with magical RPGs, sneaky night attacks and all-out battles of armies, but it’s also, or even mainly, a character study of people in war. Exhaustion, both physical and mental, plagues the soldiers as fiercely as the enemy troops. We see disenchantment, doubt, depression, internal fighting and divisive mistrust topped with blossoming paranoia among people who came so far from home that they stopped even thinking about ever going back. Even Murgen, the good, reliable, down-to-Earth Murgen starts second-guessing the decisions of his hero Croaker, the doubt and mistrust in him growing with almost every instance of ghostwalking. Some clever revelations lie in wait for the unwary travelers through space and time, and Murgen conveniently stumbles upon all of them – to his personal delight and detriment.
Surprisingly, there is less Lady in She Is The Darkness than in the previous books. Her relationship with Croaker is still strong, but the romantic side of their attraction is gone – partially because Murgen was never a big fan of her and doesn’t spend much of his Annalist musings on her character, but mostly due to their familial tragedy. Lady in Murgen’s eyes is an elemental being: incomprehensible, dangerous, and motivated solely by vengeance. She is as strong a female character as possible, and along the way we learn a bit of her delightful schemes and clever plans, but the distance between Murgen and her is for most of the book too big to see her as a person: vulnerable and emotional, a grieving mother and an estranged lover, and not only the fearsome Lady who ruled the North with an iron fist.
There are actually quite many strong female characters – as diverse as you could ever wish for, from Lady to Ky Sahra, Soulcatcher and Radisha, and even Daughter of Night. Among them are some of the most formidable villains in the genre. I especially admired Cook’s take on Kali, or Kina, as she’s known in the world of The Black Company. The Books of the South and The Return… have a decidedly more religious cant than The Books of the North, with unconcealed inspirations and religious details playing an important role in the progression of the plot. Cook must’ve extensively researched the beliefs surrounding the Hindu goddess and I’m very intrigued as to the extent of her role in the full picture – yet to emerge, I believe, in the remaining two installments of The Black Company series. However, even now I can’t help but see the resemblance between the relationship of Kali and Shiva, and that of Lady and Croaker ;).
All in all, She Is The Darkness is a very good installment in The Black Company series. Full of clever scheming and bloody action, surprises and emotionally charged moments, artfully mixing black humor, thrills and an overarching feeling of despondency, She Is The Darkness boldly moves the plot forward and provides an acute commentary on the nature of war, at the same time never neglecting the development of characters and their relations. It’s a solid, entertaining read, written with an enviable ease, word mastery and a dose of self-assurance only a truly mature author can pull off.
Warning: She Is The Darkness ends with a cliffhanger. It’s best to prepare ahead and have the next book in the series, Water Sleeps, on hand ;).