The Silver Spike by Glen Cook. Originally published September 1989. Approx. 216 pages (Tor omnibus edition).
HachiSnax note: Regarding continuity, I try to be diligent in listing books in the order they were published. I am assuming that The Silver Spike was published after Shadow Games and before Dreams of Steel, but since I am reading from the omnibuses, this time I will just stick to that format of continuity. Therefore, it is indicated as Book 6, even though it may be considered a Book 5, or not even in the Black Company sequence, since it features only former members and people within the same world. Either way, enjoy. Cheers, Hach.
Quick recap: Following the climactic battle in the Barrowland, the soul of the Dominator was trapped within a silver spike that was nailed into the sapling scion of the god Old Father Tree. The remains of the Black Company, now under a dozen members, decided to forgo accepting further commissions and fulfill their original duty of returning the Company annals to Khatovar. Newly elected Captain Croaker allowed for those wishing to renounce their Company membership to do so. Taking him up on this offer were Silent and the Torque brothers, who opted to follow Darling (aka the White Rose). Also dissolving his membership was resident badass Raven, who tried to follow Darling's group, but was ultimately rebuffed. Sulking all the way, he left with Case, with whom he had forged as close to a real friendship as someone like him could.
The Silver Spike focuses on four central storylines. Over the course of the novel, they converge, divert, and ultimately crash into each other.
First, we have the travels of Raven and Case. This gives us our only first person POV account in the book, told via a journal kept by Case. Case makes for an entertaining "annalist"; his sarcasm less of Croaker's dry cynicism and more youthful wise-assery. He is still a likable narrator, representing the poor farm boy who enlisted in the military to see the sights, learn to read, and be anything other than a potato farmer. Raven, on the other hand, has sunk to drunken lows. Only the reawakening of a familiar evil gets him back on the straight and narrow.
Next, we have the adventures of Darling, who, along with her Silent admirer (haha, I know, bad joke), as well as the myriad weird creatures of the Plain of Fear, still hunt the evils that trouble the lands. They are joined in this effort by none other than the venerable sorcerer Bomanz, who, like Raven, has been alerted to the reawakened evil.
This awakened evil is none other than the seemingly indestructible Limper, one of the last remaining original Taken. Despite a thorough decimation at the hands of Croaker at the end of the Barrowland fight, his head survived, full of unadulterated malice. Another survivor of that battle, the lesser demon Toadkiller Dog, braves the attacks of the godlike sapling to dig up the Limper's remains. His original plans involve revenge on those that have wronged him, especially Croaker and the Lady. However, his plans change later on, thanks to the actions of our final group....
Last, but not least, we have the "Spike Hunters", a quartet of low-level thieves and ex-soldiers with a poorly thought out get-rich scheme: to steal the silver spike and sell it to the highest bidder. Most of the focus of this group's story revolves around Smeds Stahl, a former Imperial soldier and general layabout that gets caught up in this half-baked plan concocted by his cousin Tully. They enlist another former soldier, Timmy, and a seasoned hunter, Old Man Fish, to head to the Barrowland and find the spike.
The Spike Hunters are actually successful in freeing the spike, yet something is wrong. The entire landscape has been razed, all the people massacred as the Limper cuts a murderous swath across civilization. They finally return home to Oar, hoping to plan the spike auction, when they begin to realize just how much they are in over their heads.
These hastily assembled plans have a tendency to omit calculations regarding the true natures and capabilities of powerful forces. The crew, laden down with looted treasures from the slaughtered areas, didn't anticipate the large Imperial presence the events triggered. This makes circulating word about the spike difficult. Also, they hadn't considered that the crowds of wizards flocking to Oar (word of it's presence did get out), including a detachment from the Tower at Charm, had absolutely no intention of participating in a civil auction. There were all people of dubious moral fiber (who isn't in Cook's world?) for whom killing the competition poses a simpler resolution.
As Oar starts to stew, Raven and Case are closing in on Croaker and the Company. Unbeknownst to them, the Limper and Toadkiller Dog are close behind, being constantly harried by Darling and the creatures of the Plain. Circumstances force a reunion of sorts, and the knowledge of the freed spike has all heading back North; the Limper hoping to absorb the Dominator's essence, and Darling working with Father Tree to purge it from this plane permanently.
The remainder of the novel focuses on the events unfolding around the four groups as we approach the inevitable climax in Oar. The Limper meanders slowly but surely on, sidestepping and barreling through traps. Raven and Case find themselves embroiled in "The Cause", a cause that neither feels fully invested in. Darling, Silent, and Bomanz do what they must to defeat the evil, and the Spike Hunters find themselves slowly unraveling. Fish establishes himself as the shrewdest and toughest of the group, Smeds becomes a fast learner, Timmy is sidelined with a malady brought on by touching the spike barehanded, and Tully falls into his old (unreliable) ways.
Even though Cook is in fine form in this book, The Silver Spike is still the weakest installment in the series so far. Don't get me wrong, there is still a good deal of the brilliance contained within. One such example is this line, which so succinctly summarizes the Limper's twisted mental state:
"It had become so self-centered, so self-involved, as to be the hub of a solipsistic universe."
Seriously, it is damn hard to find writing on par with that in most contemporary fantasy works. The first-person bits by Case are also a highlight; he usually starts off his entries in his low-born dialect, and then you see his intelligence showing through. And, as the pressure cooker of Oar reaches a bursting point (all exits become sealed, there are riots, a cholera outbreak, and the infection that affected Timmy begins to spread as well), Cook crafts extremely palpable tension. You can feel the noose tightening on the Spike Hunters as the Empire gets closer to finding them, as they feel their options running out, as if you were one among them and your rear end was in the sling as well.
Where The Silver Spike falters mostly is in its climax. It is, for lack of a better term, anti-climactic. It comes off as obligatory and tacked-on, and lacks the epic grandeur of the battles in previous books. Time would have been better spent dedicated to storyline resolutions for these characters, since we will likely not see them again in the series.
Other than that, it would have been nicer to see more nastiness being done by the Limper and Toadkiller Dog. But maybe Cook wanted to keep the focus on Oar, and the evil that man can do to his fellow man with relative nonchalance.
Here's what it is:
The Silver Spike is a greatly appreciated book that brings us up to date with (and allows us to bid farewell to) a group of characters that we had grown to love/hate earlier in the series. While not perfect, it is still a solid book, and now it is time to get back to Croaker and the gang!
This is the last of the books in the omnibus that bears Swanland's greatest cover. I will say this, though: I really like Berdak's cover for this book. Matter of fact, I found a copy of The Silver Spike at a used bookstore last week (was tempted to pick it up but the guy was asking way too much), and I realized how good it really looks in the flesh. It seems to be easy for people these days to poke fun at Berdak's designs (I think this is the last he did in the series), but if you really look at them they are pretty good. His covers that feature the god trees are superb.
Cover Final Score (Swanland):