I know, this review was a long time in coming. Heck, the one for Glen Cook's The Books of the South dates from 2009. I am ashamed to realize just how behind I am when it comes to various "older" SFF series. So this year I've decided to do something about it, which is why you have seen reviews for books/series by Jacqueline Carey, Jim Butcher, C. J. Cherryh, and now Glen Cook. I've been meaning to get more up-to-date with several series in 2016, so expect more such reviews in the months to come.
Comprised of Shadow Games, Dreams of Steel, and The Silver Spike, the second Black Company omnibus turned out to be a fun yet uneven read. Which probably explains why it took me so long to finally sit down and read this one. Sadly, this third omnibus suffers from more or less the same shortcomings that plagued its predecessor. . .
Here's the blurb:
"Let me tell you who I am, on the chance that these scribblings do survive. . . "I am Murgen, Standardbearer of the Black Company, though I bear the shame of having lost that standard in battle. I am keeping these Annals because Croaker is dead, One-Eye won't, and hardly anyone else can read or write. I will be your guide for however long it takes the Shadowlanders to force our present predicament to its inevitable end. . ." The Return of the Black Company comprises the novels Bleak Seasons and She is the Darkness—the third omnibus volume of Glen Cook's fantasy epic Chronicles of the Black Company.
In my humble opinion, Croaker has always been the true voice of the Black Company. As a narrator, his witty and sardonic observations remain one of the highlights of the entire saga. The man is aware of his strengths and his flaws, and it's always a joy to follow his narrative. Relegating Croaker to a secondary role and making Lady the POV protagonist in Dreams of Steel wouldn't have been too bad had we learned more about Lady and her past. Alas, it was not to be. . . This latest omnibus saw another change of point of view, with Murgen now as the new protagonist through whose eyes we witness everything. I'm aware that not everyone agrees, but I truly enjoyed Murgen's narrative in these two novels. As a sometimes inept soldier and someone with low self-esteem, the company's Standardbearer is nearly as much fun to follow as Croaker used to be.
In Bleak Seasons, Murgen keeps reliving the siege of Dejagore and its aftermath. He occasionally experiences some kind of seizures that send him back in time and the fragmented nature of this book often makes it hard to follow. Jumping back and forth through the timeline creates a lot of confusion, to say the least. Add to that a plot device which allows Murgen to travel outside of his body and experience what is happening basically everywhere around the world, both in the present and the past, plus the fact that the author is using it ad nauseam, and to a certain extent it cheapens the entire reading experience. Having said that, I feel that Cook did an awesome job portraying the bleakness of life in a besieged city. It's just that the pace is miserably slow and it drags on and on and on throughout the book. In retrospect, I doubt that there was enough material to warrant a full novel here. Which is why it feels as though there is so much filler within the pages of Bleak Seasons. Occurring simultaneously with Dreams of Steel, the sixth Black Company installment is probably the one that adds the least to the overall story arc of the whole saga. Both Croaker and Lady are believed dead, with Murgen taking over as the company's annalist, mostly because nobody else can be bothered to do it. And as the Standardbearer is haunted by strange visions, everyone knows that it's only a question of time before Mogaba attempts to seize power of the company and the city itself. In a way, the novel doesn't really get underway until Mogaba gets ready to make his move.
She is the Darkness is much better on every level. Murgen is back as the narrator as the Black Company continues its never-ending march toward legendary Khatovar. And the closer they get to the Plain of the Glittering Stone, the higher the stakes become. Ominous omens and unanticipated dangers assail them and it appears that someone, or something, doesn't want them to reach the fabled place where Black Company was born. I would have liked to learn more about the origins of the company, what with the revelations hinting that it might have been born amidst blood and slaughter, but I guess I'll have to wait for the next installment.
Glen Cook truly shines as an author in this one, and She is the Darkness could well be his best work to date. With unexpected twists throughout, a decidedly creepy and evocative imagery, and the sort of cliffhanger ending that all but forces you to read the next one to discover what happens next, the seventh volume definitely shows Cook at the top of his game. On its own, it would shine like no other Black Company offering. But as the second portion of an omnibus featuring a somewhat lackluster Bleak Seasons, it just shows how disparate in quality both books ultimately turned out to be.
As was the case with The Books of the South, The Return of the Black Company features novels that vary quite a bit as far as depth and merit are concerned. Still, She is the Darkness moves the tale forward like no other Black Company volume thus far, setting the stage for what should be a memorable final omnibus in The Many Deaths of the Black Company.