Dreams of Steel by Glen Cook. Originally published April 1990. Approx. 222 pages (Tor omnibus edition).
Where we last left off:
The Company has lost the engagement at Dejagore. Croaker has fallen, presumably dead. The Lady, fighting with a desperate fervor, ended up literally buried beneath a pile of corpses (also presumed dead). Murgen and the remnants of the Company, along with their Taglian contingent, remain inside Dejagore, now under siege by Shadowspinner and his forces. Mogaba and his forces do what they can to harry the forces of the Shadowmasters.
Dreams of Steel:
What can one expect going into this book? There were so many open storylines left open at the end of Shadow Games. This is very much a middle of the road book, carrying action along as this new story arc further develops. But middle of the road need not apply to the quality of writing (and such is not the case here, the writing is superb as always). Also, this book brings us another first: it is the first Black Company title to feature an Annalist/narrator other than our beloved Croaker. This time it is Lady; who, as already mentioned, you probably really hate or really want to get inside the head of (I'm on the latter team). How does Lady fare as a narrator? Extremely well, in my opinion. But it's not Croaker by any means. Be forewarned. Also, you might not be getting as much of Lady as you may have wanted (more on that later).
Although buried under human detritus, Lady is not dead. Battered, broken, but not dead at all. After dragging herself away from the scene of their loss, she is aided by two Taglians, Narayan and Ram. Both seemingly from meek backgrounds, there is very obviously more to them than meets the eye. Mysteries aside, they help her make her ways back north, as she attempts to reassemble their forces.
It still has not been revealed why the Radisha and her brother the Prabrindrah (along with the sorcerer Smoke) fear the Company so much. But it is obvious that they are more than happy that the Company was decimated along with the bulk of the Shadowmaster army. But the Taglian royalty is in for a big surprise. For the Lady, the one loss and presumed death of (her beloved) Croaker does not terminate their commission. She has claimed the captaincy, and demands that her supply and replenishment needs be satisfied.
To be honest, nothing really gets resolved in this book as far as the war goes. Dreams of Steel is mostly about raising armies, moving armies, harrying opposing forces, chipping away at them as you build your own strength up, etc. There is also a focus on the "spy games" going on between Longshadow, Lady, and Soulcatcher.
Wait, did I just say Soulcatcher?
It was revealed at the end of Shadow Games that the mysterious stump that had been trailing Croaker the whole book was actually the Lady's sister, Soulcatcher herself. She has been the one all along sending the crows to watch the Company (the bats were courtesy of Longshadow, and the watching shadows were sent by Spinner). It also turns out that she is the one that sent the imp Frogface on his spying and merry mischief making. This is all great news; Soulcatcher was one of the most compelling and entertaining characters of book one, and if Cook is bringing back the Taken, thank goodness she is back too. Catcher is present not to take sides, but more to sow the seeds of Chaos. Her motivations? Seeing her sister suffer as revenge, as well as letting Croaker suffer to see Lady suffer. She is also an unabashed, all around troublemaker. And so, the travels around, causing her catastrophes, bringing the convalescing Croaker in tow.
There is another aspect introduced in Dreams of Steel: the Kina storyline. As established in Shadow Games, the Taglians, although living under a monarchy, were truly under the sway of the three prevalent religions. It turns out there is another religion at work; one that is outlawed, with followers in the shadows. Kina is a goddess of Death, and her followers, the Deceivers, carry out murders in his name. There is a prophesied-about murderfest coming, known as the year of Skulls. And Lady fits into this theology. Apparently, she will be the vessel to bring Kina back into this world, and initiate the slaughter. Narayan (actually one of the highest ranking Deceivers around), Ram, and another high ranking devotee, Sindhu, have great plans for the Lady regarding the preparations for this. Lady is forced to make a tough concession; as much as she abhors religion and the impact of clerical interference, the services provided by Narayan and company are invaluable. Plus, there are the dreams, the visions. It can't be coincidence. It actually does feel as though her fate is somehow intertwined with this Kina.
Since most of the book revolves around travels, ceremonies, and some battles, enjoyment of this book really comes down to how much you enjoy Lady in the role of Annalist. Her tone is (obviously) very different from Croaker's, and she herself even warns the reader at the beginning:
"I have no training. I am no historian nor even much of a writer. Certainly I don't have Croaker's eye or ear or wit."
It is true that there is little wit in her narration. It is not her way. Croaker's sarcasm, self-admittedly, helped him get by. The Lady is no-nonsense. She does not suffer fools. She makes fools suffer. Where narrator tries to juggle egos, or find ways to distract those that distract him, Lady cuts away all nonsense. She makes a dutiful and engaging narrator, and it is enjoyable to see her military machinations. She is a natural.
Since she is writing for the Company Annals, what you do not get is any real history on who Lady is. Where did she come from, what were her desires all along, through the attempted Dominations and even her own power plays. But this is all par for the course. People joining the Company leave their pasts behind. You get confirmation that her love for Croaker is legitimate, though. Just don't expect all your answers regarding her to be satisfied.
Another plus in Dreams of Steel is that we see more character development in the supporting cast. It is interesting to see Croaker in a third-person position (not a secondary character in the series of course, but he is in this book). We see the Prabrindrah coming more into his own. Longshadow, leaders of the Shadowmasters, is fleshed out more, showing the extent of his powers, as well as his conceit and weaknesses. The trio of Swan, Cordy, and Blade, introduced with much fanfare in the last book and then left in limbo, get much more page time and depth. They finally make for intriguing assets.
Missing in action (and sorely missed) are One-Eye and Goblin. They are hiding out within Dejagore after taking their sweet time torturing and killing Shapeshifter (who, it was discovered, was the one that killed One-Eye's brother Tom-Tom while in the form of a forvalaka). Their absence, coupled with the lack of Croaker's sarcasm, sap most of the humor from this book. Any levity is provided from Soulcatcher's twisted psyche and Frogface's scampering.
I must truly commend Cook on all the work he put into the religions that he has created. The Kina apect is both sinister and believable. We are also given snippets as to how these death cults tie into the Company's history, yielding clues as to why the Taglian royalty so feared them, and why the Company standard possesses its mysterious powers.
Cook hints that the next arc of action will take place along the plain of the glittering stone, where Longshadow resides. Perhaps the final battle with the Shadowmaster will take place there. There is also the issue of Mogaba to resolve. There is some dark force causing a madness inside of this once-stellar officer, and the end result cannot be pretty. Finally, there is a nice little last chapter twist, setting the stage for some interesting events-to-be.
Just a last note, the next volume to be reviewed will be The Silver Spike, which follows those we said goodbye to after the battle in the Barrowlands. I am not sure if it was published before or after Shadow Games, but I am reading and reviewing in the order it appears in the omnibus.
Here's what it is:
The wheels keep on turning, things keep going in motion, but the events of this portion of the Company's legacy are still developing. Better than Shadow Games by a hair, but I still prefer complete entries.
I already gushed on the majesty of this Swanland cover in my last post, so let's talk about the Berdak cover a bit. In all honesty, the background and his rendition of Soulcatcher are actually pretty good. It's the demon that he dropped the ball on. Placement and composition are totally off. But at least he tried to capture some of how Cook described the creature.
Cover Final Score (Swanland):