Aug 19 2013 9:00am

The Black Company Reread: Dreams of Steel

Glen Cook Black Company Dreams of Steel 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.

Graeme Flory is a London-based writer and lover of fantasy and science fiction literature. Read his book reviews at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review and at his blog.

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Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
Lady is wildly more pragmatic than Croaker. However, as we see, she has her blind spots. I liked Lady's voice as the narrator here. I am unsure if I recall when I decided they were going after the child.
Rejoining Croaker in the depths of the swamp was a fun ride for us readers but had to be pretty wierdly horrible for Croaker.
I bought this one directly from Glen at Minicon 25.
Graeme Flory
2. graemeflory
Last time round, I remember reading 'Dreams' and much preferring Croaker's voice but this time...? It's actually makes a nice change to have a different narrator and it is good to see what actually goes on inside Lady's head instead of just seeing what she does. I can't remember when I realised they were after the child, last time, but it totally caught me out here.

Croaker's story made for some good interludes but Soulcatcher is so mad by this point that it felt to me that this sub-plot wasn't going anywhere. I expect that to be resolved in the next book though. But yeah, weirdly horrible for Croaker but what a surgeon he is!

I would love to meet Glen Cook but don't expect to see him over here any time soon. Consider me jealous!
Alicia Dodson
3. LynMars
The moment where Lady gets to the Grove and they find the remnants of Soulcatcher's little camp, and the warnings Croaker left behind with his little models--and Lady, writing in hindsight, realizing she utterly missed the message that Croaker was still alive through them, was so poignant. As well as their missing each other by mere weeks. Their love story is an important part of these novels, but it's not overplayed; they're both too old and practical for that. It feels like a realistic, mature relationship.

I agree with the entirety of this reread review. Lady's brutal warfare was a great read (man, that priest slaughter; I saw it coming as soon as she set it up and thought the Prabindrah really, really didn't understand), but her bigger picture view left her vulnerable in the worst way. I got to the end of this novel and thought "Oh crap, someone done screwed up!" I had even been spoiled by the wiki summaries/character lists and TV Tropes before hand (I've never really minded spoilers, and the entries piqued my interest in the series when it was recommended) and the moment still left me shocked and upset and rooting for Lady's revenge.

I also agree that it feels more like the Black Company's early days than it has for awhile--or does again, in some ways, due to how the rest of the series plays out. Just a hint of magic, a lot of showmanship and obfuscation, playing plans close to the vest, and being utterly pragmatic and merciless when called for--and getting screwed over despite that, but eagerly coming back for another round to make up for it.

Lady shows the beginning of the end of the Company's contract with Taglios--which manages to go an awful lot like their contract with her Empire by the end, in a nice narrative structural way.

But Murgen will be telling us more about that; I don't mind his annals as much as I know some folks do, and I don't find his skipping around that disconcerting. Maybe because I had some forewarning and so kept it in mind when reading.
4. Narsham
One of the wonderful things about Lady's narrative is that while she's perfectly happy to be seen as "evil," she's remarkably vain. That vanity, of course, is reflected in the big mistake she makes about the Deceivers.

This book, of all the books, best illustrates the brilliant way in which Cook generates mystery and interest by concocting plots which would be fairly straightforward if only someone had the complete context to events. But of course, none of the parties involved have anything close to enough context to figure out what's happening. That approach also makes rereading very rewarding.

The Murgen books allow Cook to have a narrator with more context than he should have, and permit him to get more perspective on events. I'm not convinced the costs were worth those benefits, but that's a conversation for the next two threads.
5. hoopmanjh
I remember reading this book for the first time in 1990. And then having to wait years for the next installment.
Drew McCaffrey
6. PallonianFire
This remains my favorite of the Black Company books, despite Croaker being my favorite Annalist (Soldiers Live is a very close second). In this, I was drawn in much more than I was in the books of the North, and the REAL story in the South begins to unfold.

I remember reading that last bit (I think it was titled "Envoi") and just DYING to get my hands on Bleak Seasons.

"In the night the winds die and silence rules the place of glittering stone."

Seriously, chills.
7. Sean Fear
I think this is my second favourite in the series, so far, after Shadows Linger. The twist at the end is, as you say, excellent. I don't know whether the Decievers were planning to seize her child from her at the outset, or whether Kina changed plans once she realised that Lady wouldn't allow herself to be possessed. I enjoy getting inside Lady's head. Her world vision is so bleak, desolate, and dismal. She's hardly ever known happiness, never had a friend or lover prior to Croaker, and her life is quite joyless. She lives in a hell that she's created for herself.
8. SwissArmyCheese
I'm thinking that had Lady kept the position of Captain, there may have ended up some open rebellion in Taglios. Remember who the backbone of the rebellion in the North were? Pissed off disposessed nobility. Kind of like how she is making enemies with the priesthoods of Trogo.

Note how she spends more time fighting the priests in Taglios then she spends going after the Shadowmasters. And it was only after Blade started skirmishing with Shadowspinner that Lady did her commando raid on the shadowmaster.

Blade's Corner:
In Shadow Games' thread I went on about how much hype there was over his mysteriousness, but a few things I had not recalled from my previous reads were his military prowess and... how much he opens himself up to Lady. And when he says that for the first time in his life since Swan saved him from the crocs, he was glad to be alive. That got to me.

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