Format: hard cover, first edition, 2018
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?
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…