Author: Glen Cook
Title: Water Sleeps
Series: The Chronicles of the Black Company
Format: Paperback Omnibus Edition
The penultimate book in Cook’s famous Black Company sequence, Water Sleeps, is a high-grade urban guerilla handbook. Or at least the first three fifths of it, to be precise ;). The rest is an Eldritch Horror type of novel, with several fantastic revelations, brilliantly prepared and sprung on unsuspecting readers like an exquisitely poisonous trap. Churned out mere two years after the gut-wrenching cliffhanger of She Is The Darkness, Water Sleeps presents a total change of tone and perspective, one more time introducing a completely new POV. But fear not, almost all old hands get a chance if not to shine, then at least to glimmer. And even that new POV is not so new – the Water Sleeps Annalist and strategos is no other than Sleepy, whom the readers met a long time ago as a wispy boy, a follower of the Black Company and Big Bucket’s protégé in the Company’s golden Southern days, before Mogaba’s treason and Soulcatcher’s lethal volte.
Sleepy faces an insanely difficult task: a guerilla warfare in a densely populated southern city, held in a vise grip by the most dangerous of still active sorcerers, would be enough to break sweat on the brightest of the Black Company leaders in the best of times. But these are decidedly not the best of times, with the leadership… rendered helpless and away, to put things mildly and as un-spoiler-y as possible. But that’s actually Sleepy’s other task: the retrieval of the most precious of Black Company assets, i.e. its people.
Cook spins a tale in equal measures brutally realistic and fantastic – the regular guerilla efforts, which by the way read once again like a historical account of the Vietnam War, complete with a self-immolation of a Buddhist monk, are enhanced by some of the craziest ideas of the Company’s resident mages; the surreal objective of the retrieval of Black Company’s leadership [SPOILER] from the stasis chamber located in the middle of a magical interdimensional portal, no less!, is planned and carried through in an entirely logical, military sound way. The examples abound, making for a truly impressive and thought-provoking read.
And yet Sleepy, despite her numerous virtues and impressive skills, remains my least favorite of the Black Company’s Annalists. As a deeply traumatized, essentially broken person, for whom the Black Company became a safe haven and a family she never had (which in itself says a lot about her background), Sleepy cannot but write in a succinct, sometimes bordering on terse, but most importantly a consciously unemotional style. Her Annals read more like a status report than a work of literary effort, and the lack of personal accounts, so abundant in the Annals of Croaker or Murgen, as well as her low self-esteem and feeling of inadequacy to the task, are here glaringly obvious.
It speaks to the mastery of Cook as a writer that his impersonation of a small, constantly underfed and self-doubting master strategist who successfully hides her sex/gender among a mercenary army of men in hiding is at once believable and psychologically sound. Yet the personality of Sleepy as a war-touched, traumatized and secretive individual is not as congenial nor heart-winning as those of Murgen, Lady, or – especially – Croaker. She keeps her guard up constantly, even in the Annals which for the other Company Annalists were usually something between a chronicle and a memoir, which makes the process of relating to her ultimately much more difficult.
The decimated Black Company is a changed entity as well, with most of old hands far away for the most part of the book. In the diminished group the only constants are the two Company wizards, One-Eye and Goblin, whose presence is a comforting fixture of the ever-changing hostile world of the series. I’d even go as far as to say that this book is a homage to both of them, especially Goblin. He gets his moments to shine, and I admire the way Cook allows not for Goblin’s personal growth, which would be quite difficult in any guy over a hundred year-old, but for shedding light on the various facets of his personality, and his ultimately decent, even heroic, inner core. A bit of hope in the face of grim despair is always welcome ;).
There are quite a few new faces as well, and the most important by far are [SPOILERS!] the progeny of the Black Company leaders: Tobo, Murgen and Sahra’s son, and Booboo, the estranged daughter of Croaker and Lady. The generational change of guard is a telling fact, highlighting both the inexorable flow of time, and the psychological complexity of relationships. I especially enjoyed the way Cook played with the idea of a child being raised not by a village, but by a military company – or by a fanatic – in the middle of a decades-long brutal conflict. Suffice to say I was waiting for the echoes of Caligula’s upbringing and I wasn’t disappointed.
There is so much going on in this book that Sleepy’s laconic style quickly becomes a necessity rather than a personal quirk of an Annalist. I’m not going to give any details for fear of any more spoilers, but Cook managed to put a lot of action into this one slim book – especially compared with the previous installment, She Is The Darkness, which was full of foreboding and mysteries, but ultimately more of a slow burn novel. Here there are plans within plans, new foes and new challenges, and it was quite illuminating to see this world so quickly transforming, with unexpected shifts of loyalties, acts of treason forgotten or seemingly overlooked for the time being, and multiple reassessments of priorities stemming from external changes. One thing needs to be said about the Black Company: these people are pragmatists. They do what needs to be done, no matter the cost or the bad taste left in their mouths. I cannot but see this perspective as something denoting the military culture in general, and it’s a quite sobering experience.
All in all, Water Sleeps is certainly not the best installment in the Black Company sequence, but an extremely rewarding one, especially for those who like me enjoy a search for the early clues and second-guess every mystery. The sheer scope of Cook’s full creative vision is something to behold.