Another fortnight, another Black Company reread and Khatovar grows ever closer. Keep an eye open here and you might even see it for an instant (even while the people who want it the most can’t see it at all, aren’t we lucky?) There are still a few more books to get through yet though, just stay patient for a little while longer…
Shadow Games left everything on a massive cliffhanger didn’t it? Croaker overplayed his hand and his luck eventually ran out with the Company and its Taglian armies either stuck in Dejagore or on the run after a devastating enemy counterattack. Could it get any worse? Well it certainly did for Croaker (carried off by Soulcatcher) and Lady (buried under a pile of corpses). I don’t know about you, but I think we’re owed some answers here. Dreams of Steel does a lot more than that though; something absolutely huge is on the way that will take the rest of the series to play out. Ladies and Gentlemen, the endgame starts here (disclaimer: go easy on me if I’m wrong, it really is like I’m reading these latter books for the first time).
Before anything else though, it’s time for The Reread Rules once again (apologies if you’ve heard these before, skip this paragraph if you have). I’m not going to spend time here re-hashing the plot in great detail; if you need to get caught up then Wikipedia has a pretty good plot summary that should do the job nicely. And spoilers… There will be spoilers here, it’s pretty much unavoidable, I think. If you’re happy with that then feel free to carry on reading. If not, stop right here until you are.
Are we all good? Good, let’s start marching again…
“I am no historian nor even much of a writer. Certainly I don’t have Croaker’s eye or ear or wit…
With that apologia, herewith, this addition to the annals of the Black Company, in the tradition of Annalists before me, the Book of Lady.”
–Lady, Annalist, Captain
What a way to kick this book off then. For four out of the last five books we’ve come to know Croaker’s voice as the voice of the Black Company and it’s a pretty good fit for a force of men that has become war weary and very cynical with it. The last time round, I found this sudden change of voice a little abrupt and difficult to get into. This time round though, it suddenly makes a lot more sense. I’m not just talking about the fact that Lady’s rank in the Company entitles her to take charge (although it clearly does)—I’m talking about the fact that once again the Company has changed, or at least so Lady thinks, and that change demands the kind of voice that Croaker couldn’t possibly provide. More on that in a little bit, I think, but I’m more prepared now to give subsequent narrative changes a little more leeway than I did last time I read these books. And isn’t Cook good at hiding things in plain sight? Lady’s talk of “this time of enforced inactivity” seems fairly innocuous at first but the last few pages of the book throw the whole thing into an entirely new light. He gives away a lot, I think, but you don’t realise he is doing it. One of those moments that you look back on and think, “so that’s what he was talking about…” Lady had to write her Annals sometime, and that was probably the best time to do it.
Croaker was a tired old soldier just trying to do the right thing by tradition and the few men he had left. Lady though… Lady believes her one chance of happiness (in such a long life) has been taken from her and she is all about holding true to her beloved’s vision in order to get her revenge. And Lady will do this by drawing upon all her experiences as consort to evil/dictator in her own right, as well as making some pretty cool speeches to get people on side.
“This shell is a mask Narayan. I entered this world before the Black Company passed this way the first time. I’ve done things no-one would believe. I know evil, intrigue and war like they’re my children. I nurtured them for centuries… I’m going to rebuild Narayan. It may wear another name for a while but behind the domino t will be the Black Company. And it will be the instrument of my will.”
“But this war hasn’t been lost. And it won’t end while one Shadowmaster lives. If you don’t have the stomach to stick it out, stay away from me. You’d better go now. I won’t let you go later.”
I’m just a reader and I want to follow Lady on the strength of those words, just imagine being one of her soldiers! And there’s the thing, we all get to see what Lady is capable of in her quest for revenge whilst fulfilling the contract originally undertaken by the Company. It’s a harrowing journey that highlights the differences between her and Croaker. While Croaker attempts to work through the dense political fog of Taglios, Lady gets all the priests in one place and has her soldiers fill them full of arrows. And if that isn’t enough, she cuts the throats of the survivors. Wow, just wow… I don’t think there has been imagery like this since the first couple of books. It’s almost like Lady’s actions hearken back to what the Black Company was originally all about and I think there’s something to this; more on that a tiny bit further down.
And while Croaker chances his luck and pays the price, Lady’s campaign in the South is a whole different thing. It’s measured, gradual, and outright brutal when it needs to be. Lady even manages to fight a war on three fronts: solving the issue of Taglian politics, beating back the Shadowlanders, and keeping Mogaba’s elements of the Black Company stuck in Dejagore—just where she wants them. It’s no surprise that Lady is able to carve her own empire from the bones of the Dominator’s empire. The only real threat to her is Soulcatcher, who is taken out of the game in one of those moments that just goes to show warfare can throw up all sorts of surprises when you least expect them.
It’s all pretty inspired stuff from Lady, but it is the hidden war that will ultimately undo her—a war that will cast light upon the origins of the Black Company. Because all the while, Cook is planting little seeds that either hint at the true origins of the Black Company or do a whole lot more than hint. We have vague quotes that suggest a deeper connection between the Black Company and the Strangler Cult:
“To support his decisions in the event of dispute, the priest keeps a detailed chronicle of the band’s activities.”
Now who does that remind you of? Quotes like these are clearly meant to get you thinking now and bear more fruit in further volumes. And then there are quotes like this from Soulcatcher:
“I’ve seen the books the wizard Smoke concealed from you in Taglios. They include the missing volumes of your annals. Your forebears were cruel men. Their mission required the sacrifice of a million souls.”
Now you have to take this with a pinch of salt seeing as it’s coming from Soulcatcher, who comes across as not sometimes not knowing her own agenda. Mad as a box of frogs that one. Add these little quotes together though and the picture starts to form… A little too obvious for some maybe, but then there are only four books left and Cook is making it clear that he isn’t going to wait until Soldiers Live before springing a big surprise. I’m cool with this approach as I think it shows that Cook will be exploring things in a lot more detail before the end. None of this just dumping the revelation on us; I think Cook wants to show us what it means and how the main players will deal with it. And I for one am looking forward to seeing how he does this.
But back to that hidden war.
It’s very clever of Cook to keep us guessing as to whether Lady enlists the Strangler Cult or whether, in fact, it is the other way round. There is definitely an air of mutual reliance from both parties and Lady knows that her new allies are hiding something. This alliance is also a clever way of getting Lady to face up to the act of killing again—something she can do very well but, until recently, has had armies to do the job for her. The moment where she reconnects with that primal feeling is a very powerful moment in the book. Is it overconfidence in her own abilities that eventually leads to the momentous events of those final few pages? I think Lady had become far too used to looking at the big picture and influencing an entire empire. When Lady comes up against men who focus on something far more specific, it’s almost like it’s too narrow a focus for Lady to get her head around. Whatever the cause, it’s one hell of a twist in the tale. You’re led to believe, over an entire book, that the Stranglers want Lady. But to realise it was her child that they were after, turn the page and come to the end of the book? Talk about leaving your readers hanging… I’ll admit to a little malaise with these books (it’s been ages since I’ve read a series straight through like this) but it was this moment that got me hooked all over again and I’m well into Bleak Seasons at time of writing.
And that seems like a good place to leave things for now. I’m well aware that I have gone on about the bits that meant something to me while leaving other stuff out; please feel free to redress the balance by leaving comments below. I can’t reply to the comments as often as I’d like but I do read them all and I’m constantly looking at these books in a whole new way because of them.
See you guys in a fortnight.