Bleak Seasons by Glen Cook. Originally published April 1996. Approx. 261 pages (Tor omnibus edition).
Where we left off:
The end of Dreams of Steel left us with two significant plot twists. One, that Lady was pregnant, was a fairly easy guess. It was a possibility that the sickness she felt throughout the book had something to do with her increasing closeness with the Deceivers and their Kina cult. But in all honesty, it was all the symptoms of morning sickness. The humor herein, of course, was that this alpha wizard, not so long ago on the cusp of world domination, had no idea how to identify that there was a life developing inside of her.
Pictured: a book obviously not included in the Library at the Tower of Charm.
Now, the second twist was actually a bit of a shocker; it turns out that Lady was never intended to be the reincarnation of Kina. That Deceivers had, well, deceived her. She was simply being cared for as the vessel which was destined to deliver the true Kina avatar; her and Croaker's daughter. The final chapter, in which Lady reveals this turn, is so masterfully done and emotionally powerful that it is striking.
Where we are now:
I am afraid that most of this review will have to revolve around deconstructing what it is that turns so many people off about this book. I hate the thought of that; preferring instead to focus on plot progression. The thing is; there is precious little of that here. Bleak Seasons is not so much the next chapter in the Books of the South/Glittering Stone saga as it is a recap of previous events from a different perspective and the introduction of new characters.
First things first. In Bleak Seasons, we have our third new Annalist/Narrator in as many books (assuming you count Case in The Silver Spike). Our new Annalist is Murgen, which is no surprise, as he was stated to be apprenticing for the role since his character was introduced in Shadow Games. A lot of reviewers don't like Murgen's narration. I don't know why; I think he is a great narrator. He has some of Croaker's gallows humor and sarcasm, and he is far more descriptive of smaller details (the potential downside being page count gets devoured painting pretty pictures rather than moving the story).
Murgen's tale mostly focuses on his time trapped behind the walls of Dejagore during the siege laid upon it by Shadowspinner and his vast army. Now, just to reiterate, if you've read Dreams of Steel, you already know the outcome of the siege. This is not to say that an inside view of the happenings isn't welcome; especially since we all know that there were plenty of problems within the walls. To put it bluntly, something in Mogaba's mind snapped, and he was displaying some pretty egregious acts of brutality; including starving "non-essentials" (read: civilians), mass killings, and rumors of cannibalism. A rift has grown between Mogaba (who has assumed Captaincy based on the fact that everyone believes Croaker and Lady to be dead) and his Nar contingent and the fellows of the "Old Crew", which Murgen has assumed leadership of.
The scenes of everyday horror within the walls of Dejagore are very well executed; but there is a problem other than the fact that we all know the outcome already. This recipe feels very familiar; in fact it is distinctly similar to elements of The Silver Spike. Both Case and Murgen are farm boys turned Imperial troops turned deserters, and both have a wide sarcastic streak. And in both novels, a lot of the story focuses on the simmering tensions within a walled city that everyone is trapped in (Dejagore and Oar).
It really seems that the true focus of spending so much time in Dejagore is to introduce a new religious/ethnic minority into the mix: the Nyueng Bao. The Nyueng Bao are a solitary folk from the swamplands who got caught up in the siege while in the midst of a pilgrimage. The Nyueng Bao are a sort of amalgamation of Eastern Asian ethnic tropes, with a primary focus on a strict code of honor. Murgen is actually quite enamored with this group and their customs, and a lot of the Dejagore chapters center on his forging and cultivating relationships with them.
But there's more going on here. A lot more. I've been oversimplifying things.
The Dejagore chapters are not simply flashbacks or entries in the Annals. Cook has decided to do some experimenting with this volume, and one of the devices that he introduces is Murgen's "time-hopping". See, for some unknown reason, Murgen has been suffering spells where he blacks out and relives previous events. Thus, we have a few timelines going on here. Although most take place in Dejagore, some cover a mission at a place called the Grove of Doom where the Company ambushed some high-level Deceivers. The majority of remaining chapters focus on events in Taglios some four years after Dejagore. In these chapters, Croaker has resumed his role as a military dictator known as the "Liberator", while Lady continues raids along the Southern provinces, taking back villages and whittling down the Shadowmaster influence. Croaker and Lady still claim to be working towards a sole goal of destroying Longshadow and eventually resuming the trek to Khatovar. But really, their agenda focuses on finding their daughter and killing Narayan Singh, as well as the traitors Mogaba and Blade (yes, he turned out to be a snake too).
What can be considered the "present time" amid all this time hopping is a point a few weeks after the events four years post-Dejagore. I get that this device is off-putting for some, but I really think Cook handled it well. Early on in the book, we are as much in the dark as Murgen is. As some chapters begin, we have no idea where in time he is, and that's the point. But as he begins to understand what might be causing these jaunts, it becomes easier for us to place him as well. Later on, he gains the ability to use the mangled, comatose wizard Smoke as a vehicle for his spectral journeys, giving the Company an invaluable spy tool.
Again, I don't understand why some people don't take to Murgen's narration, but it all comes down to personal taste. So, knowing that, if you read the first few chapters and find yourself not liking it, just stop reading. Bleak Seasons, like the first Black Company book, is narrated 100% by the Annalist. We have none of the third party chapters as featured in the previous five books.
Well, that is not entirely true. We get one chapter from One-Eye's Annals (yes, you read that right), even though it has been "neatened up" by Murgen. There are also a few vague chapters, all italicized, describing some lone figure stranded and suffering on the Plain of Glittering Stone. And one more note on the narration, Cook throws in a few chapters done in second person perspective, where Murgen directly addresses the reader. I really like how those were done, and would've enjoyed a few more chapters like them.
So with all the praise I keep lavishing on this book so far, it would seem a shoe-in for one of the top entries in the series, right? Well, it all comes apart in the end, especially since there is no ending. This isn't even a complaint that the book ends in a cliffhanger; it just doesn't end at any tangible point. Once you turn the last page, you will most likely think "where's the rest of it?" And this isn't just griping about a lack of a climactic final battle; simply go from Murgen doing some spying to some plans being ironed out for a final showdown with Mogaba to, well, the last page.
Considering the negatives weighed against the positives, it is understandable to a degree that this book is often poorly received. I can only imagine it being more so when it was first release, as rabid fans had waited roughly six years for its arrival. But you have to also focus on the merits, it is still masterfully written, even if the story really doesn't move much this go round. Oh well, looks like big things are on the horizon in She is the Darkness.
Here's what it is:
The third book of the South, first of the Glittering Stone, and first featuring Murgen as Annalist is still an enjoyable entry, although it does little but introduce new characters.
This is my least favorite of the Swanland Black Company covers, but it is still excellent. His usually dark tones and flair for detail show through. As for the character depicted, I have no idea if it is supposed to be Lady, Soulcatcher, or someone in She is the Darkness. To be honest, it kind of looks like a female drow warrior. For the classic edition, it bears mentioning that this is the first book to feature a cover by someone other than Keith Berdak. This time around, we have an interesting cover by Nicholas Jainschigg. It is well put together, with a nice color arrangement, and it showcases the mysterious white crow that pesters Murgen throughout the book. Well done.
Cover Final Score (Swanland):