Thursday, February 27, 2014

Shadow Games (Black Company Book 4)

 Shadow Games by Glen Cook. Originally published June 1989. Approx. 212 pages (Tor omnibus edition).

The White Rose wrap-up:
The expedition to the Barrowland revealed the extent of the Dominator's efforts to resurrect through that venue. Croaker discovered who the mysterious Corbie was; his old friend and former Black Company soldier Raven. Raven's efforts to discover the Dominator's intent ended with him becoming ensnared in the barrow. When this occured, Tracker and Toadkiller Dog, actually revealed to be lesser demons had a chance to escape.
Trying to hotfoot it back to the Plain of Fear, the group separated and Croaker ended up becoming a "guest" of the Lady. Under the pretense of wanting to see The White Rose (Darling) up close and personal, she donned the guise of a "normal" woman and joined him for the return to the Black Company's base.
Darling was not fooled, of course, and she and the Lady worked out a semblance of a truce to work together against the impending return of the Dominator.
this all led up to a spectacular free-for-all at the Barrowland. Raven was freed, as was the wizard Bomanz, who had been ensnared during his duel with the guardian dragon. The Dominator tried to sidestep all the traps laid for him by making a dash for the river. He was caught within Darling's null and set upon by everyone. A silver spike was driven into his head, which was then nailed into a sapling from Old Father Tree (who was revealed to be guardian of a similar defeated baddie). With the Dominator out of the way, the Limper makes his play and tries naming the Lady, but he guesses the wrong name (remember the Lady had a few sisters, of whom Soulcatcher was one). Failing this, Croaker carves him up yet again, hopefully for good. 
Then, the Lady shows her true colors and names The White Rose by her true identity. Before she can start thinking of making power moves with her nemesis out of the way, Silent breaks his vow of silence and properly names the Lady, rendering her human at last.
The battle finds the Company decimated, with almost all dead; including long-timers like the Lieutenant and Elmo. By simple fact of being the highest ranking remaining officer, and with no votes against it, Croaker becomes de facto Captain. His decision is to essentially dissolve the Company and fulfill his obligation to return the Annals to Khatovar, where the Company originated. He grants dismissal to all that want to go there own way. Darling takes this option, and Silent chooses to follow (he was harboring his love for her). Raven makes a play at amends, but is rebuffed. Darling compels him to get his affairs in true order before trying to become close to her again.
Lady makes the big decision to ride with the Company as well. How will this ragtag group fare on the long journey south?

HachiSnax note: Ok, this is getting ridiculous. This tie-up summary of the end of The White Rose is almost as long as the original review. I'm afraid that these reviews are going to have to get a little more spoiler-y, which should be fine, since someone starting these books with the later volumes will just be lost. I'll also say that with some of the "secrets" or "big surprises" in Shadow Games; they are pretty much announced early on. So I really don't think I am actually risking spoilers. I won't, of course, reveal the final outcome though. Anyway, enjoy Shadow Games, the first Book of the South. Cheers, Hach.

In its greatest moments of glory, the legendary Black Company fielded thousands of hardened soldiers. Now only seven remain. Croaker heads his little band southward, always aware the Imperial troops met along the way are in no way obligated to be friendly anymore. At his side, the Lady is getting her first real taste of being human. The long-tenured, always bickering sorcerers One-Eye and Goblin are up to their old antics, and Company veterans Otto and Hagop are along for the ride as well. Lastly, we are introduced to a new face; Murgen, formerly of the Imperial army, bearer of the Company standard, and potential Annalist in training. 

Much of the first portion of Shadow Games involves the journey; the initial leg of the trek southwards. There are stops along the way, including a trip back to the Tower to retrieve the Annals, which gets dragged out into a multi-week stopover as the Lady attends to Empire matters. Croaker and Lady also have time to honor their promised dinner date in Opal as well. 

Along the way, the Company swells their depleted ranks with odd and ends picked up along the way; some former Empire troops, caravan guards, and some guides that initially lead them through D'Loc Aloc, One-Eye's ancestral homelands.

There are highlights as well. At one rest location, they come across a trove of ancient annals. Once these are translated and transcribed, they provide an invaluable asset to the newly-minted Captain.

But along the way, there is always danger. Danger of new foes and unfamiliar lands. And Croaker is seemingly haunted; harassed by groups of phantom crows wherever he goes. And a stump. An actual walking stump. It might sound strange, but after a book full of denizens of the Plain of Fear, what is actually strange anymore?

Some interesting events transpire at a city called Gea-Xle. What makes this city interesting is that it is the place where the Company spent the longest amount of time in their history, almost becoming a formal army rather than remaining a mercenary group. There is even a group, called the Nar, which is comprised of descendants of the original Black Company members garrisoned there. They are outstanding specimens of soldiering, and they are led by one Mogaba, who is quite possibly the most pure soldier that Croaker has ever laid eyes on. 

To secure transport to the next large southward city, Taglios, the Company agrees to perform anti-pirate security on a massive barge. Their inevitable encounter with the pirate force gives us some of the best action in the book. At the next stop en route to Taglios, they meet five mysterious travelers, and that is where Shadow Games takes a turn for the very interesting.

As in the previous two volumes, Cook utilizes third person narrative to illustrate what is transpiring in important story arcs outside of Croaker's point of view. He employs two such arcs in Shadow Games. The first follows some residents of Taglios; two (white) northerners named Willow Swan and Cordwood "Cordy" Mather, and their companion Blade. Swan and Cordy had done "some soldiering" up North and are now just looking for a comfortable way to make easy money. They become recruited by two mysterious figures, Smoke and the Woman, to aid in repelling an assault from further south. To better understand this scenario, there needs to be some clarification on the state of affairs in Taglios.

Taglios is the largest and most prosperous city in the area. It is ruled by a prince; however, it is the heads of the three largest religious sects that hold the real power. So, there is a perpetual power struggle. To compound headaches, there is a new threat from south of the Main river; a quartet of mysterious, powerful and evil sorcerers known as the Shadowmasters. It is their advance that Swan, Cordy, and Blade are commissioned to lead the local forces against. And they do so successfully, the first time (not bad for a trio with a supposedly nominal amount of soldiering under their collective belts, no?). However, the Shadowmasters are gearing up for The Big Push, and so, Smoke and the Woman set out to sign the Black Company up for the big dance.

The Company weighs all its options and does its recon thoroughly before even entertaining the notion of accepting the commission. Croaker decides that one of his terms will be the institution of a military dictatorship with himself doing the dictating, thus eliminating the petty power wrangling between the prince and the priests. Then, it is time to set up for the big battle. Like the previous entries, Shadow Games culminates with a massive battle, and this one sure does not disappoint.

And there' the basic framework. So now, in this fourth entry, what works well and what, not so much? Croaker's narration is, as always, a pleasure to read. But you must take this into consideration, the tone always changes, evolves. Cook respects the readers and the series enough to allow the the narration to evolve along with the story progression. A lot of Croaker's internal dialogue is filled with doubts; doubts about his decisions, doubts about his capacities as leader of the Company, and doubts about his relationship with Lady. These doubts are tempered with copious amounts of sarcasm, in true Croaker fashion. Later on, Croaker's primary focus becomes logistics and strategy. With the full might of Taglios at his disposal, he has little time for playing Tonk or enjoying the antics of One-Eye and Goblin. Now, it all comes down to battle reports, recon, land surveys, etc. This might come off as boring for some readers, but I think it really shows Cook's flair for tactics, and how terrain affects battle.

In fact, the only complaint that I have with shadow Games is that it ends with a wide-open cliffhanger. The previous novels, even though parts of a story arc, were complete novels with open endings. At the end of this book, the fate of everyone comes with a question mark.

This cliffhanger format ends up hurting the effectiveness of the third person story sections. For example, we know that Cook's characters always have secrets and tricks up their sleeves, so we know that there must be more to the story of Swan, Cordy, and Blade than meets the eye. And yet, after the first few chapters with them, we see precious little of them. And we still "know" nothing about them.

Ditto for the Shadowmasters. Understandably, they are the mysterious evil. But even at the end of a major battle, we know nothing of their true motives. And this is a shame, since they, like Swan & Co., get their own third person chapters. Most of these are spent bickering with each other and hinting at internal dissent; fine, but I'd like to know what they hope to achieve and where they are getting their innumerable forces from.

Finally, I just want to mention everyone's most/least favorite character: Lady. Cook keeps his writing regarding her as deliberately ambiguous as possible, so that you can experience Croaker's frustration in trying to relate to her. She leads on, then rebuffs, opens up, then clamps shut ferociously, and one can never tell exactly whose side she is truly on (assume her own). Towards the end, we are treated to a small peek inside her head as we get one chapter focusing on her (so I guess that brings the actual amount of third person arcs to three).

Ok, one more minor quibble, but it is in fact a spoiler, so let's skip a few lines....





I think it is kind of cheap to insert new special items late in the game, so I took some issue with the fact that suddenly the Company standard can inflict direct, massive damage upon the Taken. I don't remember anything to this extent in the previous books, and this explains the sudden need to introduce Murgen's character. At least it explains why the prince of Taglios is so keen on hiring the Company, even though their numbers are so few. Don't get me wrong, it's a very cool touch, just odd to be introduced now. Oh well, let's just go with it.



And that's it in a nutshell. The trek southward promises more interesting times. Personally, I can't wait to see how Cook ties up all these loose ends. There were some pretty majors turns of events at the end.

Here's what it is:
A change of leadership and venue for the Company, but still the same old, same old. Tough commissions, impossible to kill sorcerers, and lots of conniving and subterfuge. Another day in the life. Not the best entry, but far from bad. I just didn't appreciate nearly 200 pages of buildup just to be handed a cliffhanger.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

As previously mentioned, I am reading these books out of the Tor omnibuses with the Raymond Swanland covers. And while I've gushed plenty on how awesome his work is, he really outdoes himself here. This cover is the epitome of badass fantasy. And this brings me to my next little rant. Let's look at these covers again. first is Berdak's:

His rendition of Croaker in the "Widowmaker" armor is well done, and the pair of forvalakas in the front look decent too. I'm not crazy about the rainbow effect, but, it's good for contrast, and it was the 80's, so....
Now let's look at Swanland's beauty:

Here's my issue. Going from this interview, Cook mentions how often in the industry things that have nothing to do with what is inside the book get slapped on the cover. Now, with the first omnibus cover, I am assuming it was Croaker, Darling, and Raven depicted, although I didn't agree with the appearances. This cover, however, has a perfect rendition of Croaker in the Widowmaker armor right down to Soulcatcher's device on the standard (well, I don't think that was in the book). It's fine if Cook doesn't like Swanland's style, but to me this cover is beautiful and relevant.

Cover Final Score (Swanland):


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