Author: Brian McClellan
Title: Wrath of Empire
A sequel to Sins of Empire, Wrath of Empire picks up where Sins ended. General Vlora Flint leads her Riflejacks turned mercenary army away from Landfall in a doomed effort of protecting refugees. I say “doomed”, because two Dynize armies literally race each other to finish her off more quickly and efficiently, and a Fatrastan army on the other side of the river wants her imprisoned and tried for treason. Mad Ben Styke accompanies Vlora with his own unit, reborn from the ashes of old Mad Lancers, and ponders the difficult dilemmas of vengeance, while Michel Brevis, still in his role as a Gold Rose Blackhat, smuggles families of other Blackhat members from the occupied capital city. Sounds tough, but that’s only the beginning: they all will soon face even greater dangers and more impossible tasks, because, as usual in McClellan’s books, the neck-breaking pace of action doesn’t relent for even a moment.
Wrath of Empire can be described as an impressive string of pitched battles, deadly ambushes and duels, balanced with a huge amount of politics, internal struggles of various factions, torture, and betrayal. I’d go as far as to say that the military part of the book is the lighter one. The dark, underground maze beneath Landfall, in which insurgent/terrorist cells of Fatrastan Blackhats are hiding and from which they plot bombings and assassinations, is an apt metaphor of McClellan’s vision of politics. It’s as off-putting as it’s dangerous, and yet it remains an integral part of the life of the city above, connected to it through various hidden tunnels and cellars. McClellan seems to maintain a romantic view of war, full of heroic acts of selfless bravery and beautiful cavalry charges, miraculous deliverances in the last second and improbably lucky coincidences. In contrast, there is nothing romantic in the image of political struggle he paints in the Wrath of Empire, where even heroic, selfless deeds are met with suspicion, allegiances change with the speed of light, while the final goal seems at best unattainable and at worst non-existent. Yet more than the pitched battles I enjoyed the descriptions of tangled politics of the Dynize occupying force, and really appreciated the complexity of the Dynize image, who weren’t portrayed as universally bad guys. Having Michel operate in the midst of the occupying force served very well as an opportunity to show all shades of personalities also among the notional enemy.
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.
El Tres de Mayo ⓒFrancisco de Goya
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.
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.
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.
Quite recently I dedicated an unusually long post to a heated critique of some minor points of one of my favourite fantasy series ever. Apart from my conviction that one of the characters is overpowered and unnecessary, I concluded: arguably some obscure details of how war develops are slightly distorted, giving the series 9,5/10.
That was before reading Seal of the Worm and now I have to admit – the final instalment made me sad. So – the whole series keeps the “well done” tag, “medium” applies to the Seal of the Worm.
Spoilers ahead, even more than in the previous post.
Spoiler alert! Unless you’ve read till the end of book 8, don’t go further 😉
Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of our favourite modern genre authors. There are several proper reviews and many favourable mentions here. I’ve just finished volume 8 in his 10 book long Shadows of the Apt series, I’ve read Spiderlands, and a few doorstopers patiently wait on my shelves for the right time. I trust this author, and I don’t feel the need to read everything at once. I know I won’t be disappointed, so I can wait. Although, if he keeps publishing two books a year, I might speed it up a bit, there seems to be quite a few stories left in him.
Shadows of the Apt are becoming one of my all-time favourite series, and two final instalments would have to be really terrible to change that. I essentially agree with everything Ola wrote in her review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about one topic, something important for genre literature in general, and here presented with art and vision, in my opinion, unparalleled. Czajkowski makes the clash of magic and technology one of the central issues here.
Spoils of War is a Shadows of the Apt companion book consisting of 12 short stories set in the world of the Apt and Inapt around the time of the Twelve Year War. Some of the stories, such as Ironclads, Spoils of War or The Dreams of Avaris have been previously made available to readers on Czajkowski’s blog, others, like The Shadows of Their Lamps or Brass Mantis, are entirely new. Most of the tales take place in Commonweal at the time of the Wasp invasion, but there are also entries from Myna, Helleron and Collegium, before or after that time. And though the stories are very diverse, touching on topics from ingenious technical inventions through mystical hidden treasures, confidence ploys to love and sacrifice, the theme spanning them all is war.
I won’t wax over Shadows of the Apt now, having said enough already here. Let me just one more time emphasize the sheer scope and originality of Czajkowski’s series. I am a devoted fan of the incredible world he created and the complex, living, breathing, and most of all real protagonists populating it. Finishing Seal of the Worm had been a curious experience for me; one of a deep reading satisfaction mixed with more than a tinge of regret. The enormous, extraordinary tale Czajkowski spun through ten hefty books was coming to an end. A very well written, thoroughly considered, well planned and deeply moving end, granted, but still. And so I won’t surprise anyone saying that Spoils of War is a very welcome – if somewhat short – trip back to the world of Apt. I have missed the crazy reality of Insect-kinden, where steampunk clashes with high fantasy in an alternate WWII setting ;).