She is the Darkness by Glen Cook. Originally published September 1997. Approx. 399 pages (Tor omnibus edition).
HachiSnax Note: Just wanted to warn all readers; this review will be a tad more spoiler-y than previous installments. I have tried to keep all the secrets secret, but we are getting to the end of the road in this series (quite literally), and as is Cook's style, the secrets and double-crosses keep popping like Jiffy-Pop. A spoiler-free review of this book would read something like: "the Company tied up matters here and here and then headed there". I will try to succinctly cover the story as well as I can without any major reveals. Other mention will be given to the further narration of Standardbearer/Annalist Murgen, whose style has always served as a source of contention amongst fans. Enjoy the review! Cheers, Hach.
Where we left off:
As mentioned before, there was very little new trail blazed in Bleak Seasons. However, it served as more than a mere digest of previous events. Cook used Seasons to introduce several elements integral to this last arc of the Black Company storyline: namely the Nyueng Bao (including their "duty" to the Company), and Murgen's "time travel" capabilities. At the very end of the story, the gang was all back together and ready for their big final push to Overlook, the Shadowgate, and beyond. But first, former comrade turned arch-for Mogaba awaits them at the Charandaprash Pass.
Where we are now:
As mentioned in the note above, stripping away all the twists, turns, and espionage, She is the Darkness breaks down to three major events (and the lulls in action in between): the battle at Charandaprash, the final standoff with Longshadow at Overlook, and the Company's first voyage to the plain of Glittering Stone. This is a bit of a departure from the previous novels in this arc which needed to devote more and more time to the cultures and geography of the Southern areas. As a result, we have a much more structured, linear tale here. Which ultimately works out for the better. There is no over exaggerating in saying that She is the Darkness is the best Company novel since the first installment as far as scope is concerned. As for most enjoyable? Well, let's just say that Murgen's verbal meanderings take a bit of the shine off of an otherwise well-polished novel.
Serving in the military is not a prerequisite for writing good military fiction, but it certainly helps. We can all agree that the authenticity of the interplay of the members of the Black Company comes from Cook's Navy experience, but he infuses so many other aspects that allow his works to transcend the norm. First and foremost of these skills is his understanding of strategy and battlefield psychology. Like it's predecessors, Darkness remains a fairly blood-free gritty fantasy title. The focus has never been on stroke by stroke descriptions of swordfights. Cook's focus is on what really wins wars: intelligence and counter-intelligence. With each page turned, another devious plan is revealed, another betrayal perpetrated.
She is the Darkness is once again told from the point of view (first-person, as usual) of Murgen, still serving as Standardbearer and Annalist. As in the first novel, Darkness is told entirely from the point of view of the Annalist. There are no third party interludes checking on how other players in the game are faring. These checkups are done via Murgen's spectral jaunts with Smoke.
I had no problems with Murgen's narration in Bleak Seasons. We knew already that he was mopey and introverted, but he still had a healthy dose of pessimistic humor which helped with the descriptions of the horrors of Dejagore. Now, well, he just talks to damn much. How much? So much so that near the end of the book, Croaker flat out tells him that he doesn't like his Annals since they are so verbose (and self-absorbed, which Murgen is in spades).
Let's just put it out there: Murgen is kind of a dick. He is the epitome of middle-management; he thinks that he is too good to haul the weight with his underlings, and he thinks that he is smarter than his bosses (another character flaw which Croaker calls him out on later in the book). You can't really blame Croaker either; Murgen is way too casual and flip in how he addresses his superiors.
His narration gets way too repetitive after a bit. The beginning of Darkness was showing signs of being weighted down by this fact; for every few steps, we have to wait while Murgen remembers his dead wife Sahra, and comment on how taciturn his perennial Nyueng Bao shadow Thai Dei is.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. You can glaringly notice how self-centered he is once he has cause to question the motives of the Nyueng Bao. Murgen questions them because he feels personally slighted; whereas Croaker has had to grow an extra eye to watch them since he already detected possible duplicitous behavior and had to worry how it might affect his grand army.
Which brings us to Croaker. Croaker has changed. My, how he has changed. He has learned, hardened, and adapted. Croaker employs some truly mind-blowing schemes over the course of this book. I won't get into spoilers with them, but suffice to say, he has learned to manage his resources in the most pragmatic fashion possible. Factors with the lowest overall value are the currency most easily spent, and he also has ways of whittling down those that would come to bite his ass another day.
Working together with Lady (still in the role of Lieutenant), the Company has also developed some new technologies. Most prominent of these are a sort of "bamboo rifle", rods of bamboo with a mechanism to discharge colorful projectiles which work as shadow-killers (Longshadow not only uses a Shadowlander army, but he also releases forces of shadows from behind the Shadowgate as well).
On the subject of Lady, there is not much development with her. It is fairly obvious that Murgen is not very fond of her (and she has precious little patience for him), so their conversations are few and far between. The most important thing to realize about Lady is that she has regained a lot of her former potency, and we finally discover how this once-named sorceress has managed that feat.
On the opposing team, we still have Longshadow in charge. Longshadow seems to be at his wits' end; falling victim to frequent spastic attacks and behavioral fits. He is still formidable as ever, and a plot device has been added in which guarantees him a little more personal security. The former Taken member Howler is still in his service, although he is investing more effort in CYA maneuvers than anything else. Narayan Singh, the living saint of the Deceivers, is still loitering around with his group. He also remains the guardian of the Child of Darkness, the Daughter of Kina, Lady and Croaker's kidnapped four year old daughter. And finally, we still have the traitor Mogaba, who is still pursuing his personal vendetta against Croaker.
I just wanted to take a second to talk about Mogaba. I've always liked his character, despite being a brutal, cannibalistic traitor. He has always been, and still remains, a consummate soldier and leader. What bothers me is that he seems overly eloquent speechwise for someone who cannot read, and also, when Croaker was reunited with him in Dejagore, it was hinted at that he was suffering from a mental affliction driving him insane (which is why he begged Croaker to kill him then). Now, it seems like that plot point got swept under the rug. To be fair, we only see Mogaba through Murgen's spectral eyes (and Murgen can't see inside his head), so maybe this will come up in the future.
As always, affiliating herself with no side but Her Own, we have everybody's favorite Agent of Chaos, Soulcatcher. The looniest Senjak sister is in supreme form in Darkness, playing side against side against side. As the strongest free agent on the market, it is understandable that people would want to retain her services, but why anyone could think they could trust or manage her is beyond me. It doesn't matter; anyone that does pays a hefty price. I really can't get into detail about how much damage this psychotic vixen does over the course of the book, but it is a joy to watch. You can't help but understand Murgen's fetish about wanting to give her a good spanking.
Those are the main players in the game (oh, and don't forget the Radisha, still back in Taglios planning to shortchange the Company). And over the course of the book, nearly everyone manages to one-up everyone else. It is safe to assume throughout Darkness that everybody is in bed with someone from this side, someone from that side, as well as pushing their individual agendas. Cook has always been a master at layering these plotlines, and unwrapping them well.
The pacing is well done throughout, with only a lull in action between the siege at Overlook and the journey past Shadowgate (which is to be expected since a real life army would also need this time to secure sufficient resources). The final segment, while woefully short, delivers a surprise payoff and sets the stage for what big things must come.
It may be easy to complain about the over saturation of Murgen in this book; but you need to remind yourself that he serves as a linchpin for several of the threads. Likewise, not only does he use Smoke as a vessel for his spy missions, he is also used as one by both Soulcatcher and Kina herself (which helps to explain the omnipresent white raven that visits Murgen). Top that off with the fact that even in his dreams, Murgen is walking out of body, and it becomes understandable why the Standardbearer is so often irritable. It does not absolve him of his insufferable expositions and self-pity. Too bad One-Eye and Goblin are still separated, their antics would have brought a lot of much needed levity to the proceedings.
Either way, the Murgen era is over. It was not nearly as bad as many reviewers have made it out to be. I am just especially happy that this whole story arc made bold moves forward towards what may be the inevitable Year of the Skulls. Next up is Water Sleeps, featuring the very intriguing Sleepy as Annalist. And remember:
Water sleeps, but Enemy never rests.
Here's what it is:
The Black Company steamrolls towards their ultimate fate in this superb outing featuring double-crosses, triple-crosses, almost got thems, and spiritual journeying. A great setup for a knockout ending.
As stated last time, this is my least favorite of the Swanland covers. I guess it has to be Lady or Soulcatcher on the the cover; but they are supposed to be pale with black hair, not dark with white hair. But I digress. The older cover, again by Nicholas Jainschigg, is pretty good. The background is nice; and there was an effort to make Croaker actually look as he was described in the book (although this Croaker is a few books younger). As for the treatment done to Lady's face: no comment.
Cover Final Score (Swanland):