Book Review: Port of Shadows by Glen Cook

Port_of_Shadows_Cover

Format: hard cover, first edition, 2018

Pages: 396

Reading Time: about 10 hours

One sentence synopsis: The Black Company tries to head off rebellion against The Lady as well as the threat of the Dominator returning, while Croaker becomes a family man who tries to fight off memory loss that could affect the precious Annals, the history of The Black Company.

 

The Black Company stands out as one of the top 10 books I have ever read. Witty with equal amounts of action and mischief, the characters come alive and the villains are outstanding. Its importance to my love of the fantasy fiction genre cannot be underestimated. Later books in the series dropped in quality, though I still read them religiously upon release. When Port of Shadows was first announced, I was both excited and a little nervous: excited that it was set after the first book, but nervous that it would have too many elements of the latter books, and I had some problems with some of Cook’s Garrett PI books. So which way did the story fall? Read on to discover my thoughts, and as usual there are going to be minor spoilers, with a section of major spoilers at the end. I couldn’t find many reviews from sites other than Goodreads or Amazon, but I did manage to find one.

 

Bill Capossere of Fantasy Literature states: “The Black Company strand felt entirely too episodic, so much so that I actually wondered for a while if this was supposed to be a collection of linked short stories rather than a novel. Worse, it didn’t feel like a tightly or smoothly linked collection, if that was what it meant to be. There were a lot of abrupt shifts, plots felt like there wasn’t much pay-off when/if they were resolved, and it all read as extremely choppy…The breeding/resurrection plot never really came alive for me, never felt truly high stakes…Focusing on Croaker’s (the book’s narrator — Company historian and a great character from the series) domestic/marital issues was another odd choice as they weren’t all that interesting, again, never felt real, and if one is familiar with the series, were clearly not going to be all that important in the big picture, robbing that plot point of any real potential tension or drama…That goes along with another major issue I had with Port of Shadows, which was the prurient (often childishly so) nature of some of the text and the casual misogyny in places…I’m nowhere near as tolerant of it now as I might have been (maybe?) twenty years ago, and so the casual mention of rape, gang rape, “copping a feel,” etc., was just severely off-putting each time it happened…Characterization was thin at best, which is a shame because in memory, at least, that was one of the major strengths of the original series (perhaps nostalgia is at work here; I can’t say for sure). Characters to me seemed either shallow, simple, or just a cypher, with no sense of growth or depth; I can’t say I cared about any of them either in terms of what happened to them or just a sense of curiosity about them, with the slight exception of two children, who I think are Cook’s best creation in the novel…All in all, Port of Shadows was a frustrating, disappointing read that had its moments but those were too few and too far between…As for fans of the series, I can’t recommend it to them, either, as I’d call it a real drop in quality, though I’m sure most will give it a shot, and I can’t blame them.”

 

I delayed my review because I really struggled with my approach and articulating how bad this book is. Bill does an eloquent job of capturing a lot of what I was feeling after finishing Port of Shadows, but it goes well beyond that. Port of Shadows is really a tale of 3 books, or, if you will, 3 threads within one book. The first thread involves the chapters Tides Elba, Smelling Danger, and Bone Candy…these 3 chapters appeared previously in various anthologies, and have been grouped together as the first part of this book; if you have read these short stories previously, there is nothing new there. The second thread involves a tale of a necromancer and two of the Senjak sisters, set in the past. The third thread attempts to tie the first two threads together.

As Bill states above, coming up with a story that fits in between two books robs the story of tension, because we know certain characters will emerge unscathed, and introducing new characters that we don’t know and who aren’t mentioned in later books means they’ll either die, flee, or settle down. Characters like Two Dead, Mischievous Rain, and Firefly never appear again in later books. And while it was good to see old characters like One Eye, Goblin, Silent, and Elmo, many of them don’t feel right, or as Bill describes it above, shallow and simple. This is particularly notable in the lack of interplay between One Eye and Goblin, which was probably the most disappointing aspect of the book for me. Cook still has a good grasp on military-style banter between company members, and a few laugh out loud moments did occur, reminding me of the older Black Company novels…it just feels like such moments are far too few. Meanwhile, the narrator himself, good old Croaker, Company Annalist and Medic, feels more wimpy and whiny than I remember. Some of that is due to the plot of the third thread, but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable read. It’s a problem similarly found in the later Garrett PI books, where the protagonist is clueless and whiny.

This leads into that fact that the book is boring and not really very interesting. Portraying The Black Company as a peacekeeping, domesticated force, instead of a mercenary outfit fighting for its survival, invites boredom, and there’s much of that here. All combat happens off-page, with Croaker getting reports and being left out of things. There’s a reason for that too, but it’s not a good choice when you want to make a novel compelling. Between Croaker being clueless, whiny, and forgetful, and then the additional confusion added due to a plot point (which I will discuss in the spoiler section below), with not much action taking place until the end (and still not much there either), this book is mostly dull. About the only thing I liked were the the interactions between the Company and Limper (which as mentioned above is recycled material written many years ago), and the family life that Croaker experiences. In fact, I very much liked the characters of Mischievous Rain and the children Shin and Firefly, as well as the three eyed cat Ankou. The chapters where this strange family unit interacts with one another are some of the best in the book, in spite of Croaker’s squeaking and whining.

However, I still haven’t touched on the most damning criticism of the book, and that is the creation of a plot that revolves around the magical sexiness of teenage girls, rape (or thoughts of rape), pedophilia, and necrophilia. Is this an attempt to be dark and edgy? If it is, Cook has gone way too far. Descriptions of this problem are better explained on sites such as Goodreads, so I’ll leave it at that. I was not impressed.

In conclusion I’d have to say that I’m disappointed with Port of Shadows. There were a few parts of the story that I did enjoy, but much of it was slow and hard to get through, and knowing that the book has to end a certain way to maintain continuity doesn’t help things. Add to that the misogynist criticisms, the shallow characterization, and the confused and forgetful state of the narrator, and you have a less than stellar entry in the series. If Cook writes another Black Company story, will I read it? If the book attempts to resolve many of the issues with Port of Shadows, I’ll give it a chance; otherwise the answer is a resounding no. I expected better, but I’m left only with the following thought: isn’t nostalgia a bitch?

SPOILER SECTION

I’ve moved the spoilers to the bottom of the review because I need to expand on what I wrote in one of the paragraphs above. I actually delayed my review so that I could do some fact checking. First, it’s pretty clear that Mischievous Rain is The Lady disguised as Tides Elba. If there was any question, there’s a statement near the end of the book by Firefly as she speaks to Croaker, and although I couldn’t seem to find it again, went something like this: “For some reason Mom doesn’t even understand, she has the hots for you.” Since it’s highly unlikely another beautiful, powerful sorceress has the hots for Croaker, it has to be The Lady, with white face paint and glowing blue lines on her face an indication of sorcery that maintains the illusion. Then there is the deference paid to her by the Taken. The Lady and Mischievious Rain are the same person – that should not be in doubt.

Second, there is much confusion over the true names of The Lady and her sisters, so much so that I think it undermines the story. If there is a massive spell of forgetfulness at work, it has to be because The Lady is afraid that her true name will be discovered (in the series, knowing a sorcerer’s true name strips them of power). The woman in the writings who escapes the necromancer Papa (and then returns later) is Credence, and is also Mischievious Rain/The Lady as is evidenced by the reunion at the end of the book. Yet The Lady’s true name is Dorotea, as was evidenced in The White Rose. Dorotea, however, is the name given to the sister that died and was brought back to life by Papa. It’s actually more beneficial for The Lady that everyone believe she is Credence and her sister is Dorotea so that they don’t discover her true name…and therefore makes no sense as to why everyone will need to forget the writings. This impacts the plot because the spell of forgetfulness is at times what makes the book hard to read, since the narrator (Croaker) is often befuddled and forgetful. I supposed one could argue that even those two names aren’t known until documents are discovered in The White Rose, so perhaps I’m being a bit too critical on this point. It does not change the fact, however, that Croaker’s forgetfulness is a chore to stumble through.

Finally there’s the question of what happened to Two Dead, the children, the three-eyed cat, Buzzard Neck, and all of the clones of “Dorotea”. They all simply disappear, never to be mentioned again, because of course they didn’t exist when Cook wrote Shadows Linger and The White Rose, and the other stories that follow. It’s all very unsatisfying…

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New Orders 8-13-2018

I’m less than 100 pages away from finishing Steven Erikson’s House of Chains. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m going to skip Midnight Tides and move ahead to The Bonehunters, which I bought last night off of eBay. Finding a hard cover in good condition was a challenge. The U.S. cover art is not great (as detailed in a post on Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist) – it looks like a long-lost Darrell K. Sweet Wheel of Time cover – and although I would have preferred the UK cover, the prices of those are nearly $100, with some asking $300+. Ultimately the cover art is not something I greatly care about when price plays a significant factor.

bonehunters

 

I also wanted to pre-order Glen Cook’s Port of Shadows, so to get free shipping I tied that in with a purchase of Erikson’s Reaper’s Gale. That leaves only Toll the Hounds, Dust of Dreams, and The Crippled God remaining to be purchased in order to complete the road that my Malazan reading path will travel…

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reapers gale

Another Anticipated Book for 2018: Port of Shadows by Glen Cook

Add another book to my Most Anticipated List for 2018:

port of shadows

My ban on Glen Cook only applies to the Garrett P.I. novels. I’ve been waiting for another Black Company book for a long, long, time, considering I devoured the first 5 books in 1990, as well as Dreams of Steel when it was released that same year, and only 4 books were published in the 10 years that followed (with the last in 2000). Timeline-wise it falls between the original The Black Company and its sequel, Shadows Linger. I hope Cook can pull this off in narrator Croaker’s original voice, especially when the last couple of books were pretty bleak. I can’t wait for more Goblin and One-Eye antics!

Tor.com has a great, albeit brief, look at Port of Shadows, which is slated for a September release. Cook intimated in this 2005 interview with Strange Horizons that another title was planned called A Pitiless Rain. I hope he succeeds.

Classic Review – The Black Company by Glen Cook

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

black companyFormat: paperback, 1984

Pages: 319

Reading time: about 3-4 hours

Just as Zelazny’s Amber series was important to me in my younger days, Glen Cook’s Black Company series opened my eyes as an adult. Having just left the military at the time I acquired this book, The Black Company struck a chord with me on a metaphysical level that no other book could. The new wave of gritty fiction that has encompassed the industry, from Lynch and Abercrombie to Erikson, owes at least some of its origins to Cook’s best-known work, and Erikson readily admits how influential it was.

In the Black Company, we follow a story told through the eyes of the Annalist and Medic, Croaker. The name and position of this main character immediately informs you as to what kind of sarcastic wit Cook possesses…did Croaker get his name because he talks a lot? Or is it because soldiers die in spite of his efforts as a medic? Or both? It’s brilliant and hilarious at the same time.

The Black Company, as an organization, has been around a long time. One of the Free Companies of Khatovar (and also the last), it is a mercenary faction that takes jobs and sees them through. They are not always on the winning side, and their numbers have fluctuated over the years (the outfit is several centuries old), but there is an honorable aspect to the Company. Not neccesarily in deeds, mind you, but rather in commitment. Those who join the Company are expected to fall in line with this ideal – a person’s past is irrelevant, only their dedication to the Company matters.

As a veteran myself, the cast of characters and their actions ring with authenticity. Each character is fleshed out in the form of their speech and further defined by their actions. Since the story is told first-person by Croaker, this method of characterization works well, though we often wonder what some characters are thinking about since we only have Croaker’s thoughts to listen to. Cook makes you care about these people, which is dangerous – as a mercenary outfit, becoming too attached to character is heartbreaking when they don’t make it. There’s always another soldier waiting to step in, however.

The true gem of the story revolves around two characters: One-Eye and Goblin. As the two most powerful sorcerers in the Company, their role is important. As you soon find out, there is something of a competition between them. It’s a cross between trying to one up each other, and playing practical jokes on each other. The interactions between Goblin and One-Eye deliver some of the most hilarious scenes you will find in fantasy fiction. Where some authors struggle when attempting to pull off humor, Cook delivers effortlessly. He could have written stand-alone books just about the two sorcerers, much in the way Erikson writes short stories about Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, and I would have been ecstatic.

In this particular story, The Black Company is serving the Syndic of the city of Beryl, until the city starts to collapse in chaos and an ancient evil is unleashed. The Company ends up finding a loophole in its contract that lets them escape the chaos, and is then approached by a strange being that wishes to hire them. Only later does the Company realize they now work for the Lady, who is feared as evil incarnate and a powerful sorceress. Marching orders are given to the Company from The Ten Who Were Taken (or the Taken for short), a group of sorcerers twisted into psychotic beings by Lady’s evil dead husband, The Dominator, and who now work for Lady. These orders involve stamping out a rebel group led by the mysterious Whisper. The rebels are fighting Lady’s forces while trying to find The White Rose, a child prophecied to defeat Lady.

I’ll not give away any more spoilers than that. Cook’s writing is quick, similar in a way to Zelazny’s, with lots of action and quick wit. Descriptions are just enough to get the job done, but at times feel inadequate to give the reader a good image of surroundings and descriptive detail – kind of like the anti-Robert Jordan. Still, if you’ve got an active imagination, you’ll have no problem following along. In addition to the One-Eye vs. Goblin competition, you get lots of banter between the Company members, something Erikson tries for in the Malazan series but falls short in comparison…that’s not a slight against Erikson…Cook is simply an absolute master at this style of writing. It’s brilliant and engaging.

In conclusion, I highly recommend The Black Company. It captures the feel of a medieval mercenary group perfectly, and makes me wish that I had thought of it. The best part is that this is the first in what eventually stretches out into 10 books. Sadly, Cook has not written a Black Company novel since 1999’s Water Sleeps. This first book, however, contains all the hooks necessary to draw you in to the series. You can also find it as part of the omnibus edition Chronicles of the Black Company (which actually contains the first three books of the series).