Aug 5 2013 10:00am

The Black Company Reread: Shadow Games

Glen Cook Black Company Shadow Games As of right now, I am officially heading into territory that I haven’t stepped foot in for a number of years. The promise of Khatovar lies in the distance but there is a lot of pretty much unknown territory to cover first. And can the remnants of the Company even make it that far? Only seven men were left at the end of The White Rose after all…

Okay, maybe that’s over dramatising things a little bit. With another five books to go (and blurbs easily found online) we know that Khatovar will be reached by at least whoever is telling the story at the time. I guess what I am trying to say is that Shadow Games marks a whole new beginning in the history of the Black Company and anything could happen here on in. Exciting isn’t it?

Before we get started though, lets just take a second to go over the ground rules of this post. Apologies to those who have already read this, in the other posts, I really don’t mind if you skip this paragraph and go straight to the good stuff…

For everyone else, I’m not one for dumping copy and pasted plot or rehashing the plot in my own words. If you do need to catch up then there is a very detailed plot summary over at Wikipedia. This is a good one by the way, perhaps the best of the summaries that I have come across so far. I’m also making the assumption that we all know the plot (or are catching up on Wikipedia…) so there will more likely than not be spoilers. You’ve been warned…

Are we all good? Good, lets get cracking with the first of the Books of the South…

We were not really the Black Company anymore, just rootless men from nowhere headed the same direction.

Is it me or do the events of The White Rose seem all the more apocalyptic the further away you get from it? What was once one of the most feared mercenary companies in the world has now been reduced to six men and Lady, sticking together almost out of habit and following a man who is doing the only thing he can think of: getting the annals back to Khatovar (wherever that may be). There is a big question of identity to be resolved, then, and Cook takes his time answering this, all the way from the crossroads, by the Barrowlands, to Trogo Taglios deep in the southern continent.

What is interesting here is that while Croaker and his men still see themselves as the Black Company, it is not something that they can really shout out loud. Certainly not when they are having to make their way through a fragmenting empire that they have helped to bring down. Going off on a tangent slightly, it is also interesting to see Lady do what she can to hold her empire together before she runs off and leaves it. While she may have been a dictator, I think it is becoming increasingly fair to say that she was a benevolent one, looking out for the interests of her people (and still doing so, even though she’s leaving them behind).

As the Company heads further south though… It’s almost like they are becoming the Black Company again, whether they want it or not. Not only are they picking up recruits, on the strength of their reputation, but that identity is also being thrust upon them and for differing reasons. It’s something that Croaker and his men need (in terms of regaining some identity and purpose) although Croaker is right to be a little wary. Especially when they are being shadowed by a walking tree stump… For some reason I thought this was Limper but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Talking of which, I got a lot out of the Company’s near encounter with the Limper at the Temple of Tranquil Repose; I’m not so sure how much I would go along with “a soldier’s instinct saving the day” but it was a nice little nod back to The Silver Spike (although not so heavy that you would be missing out if you hadn’t read that book)

I stalked through the old neighbourhood, past the old tenement. I saw no-one I knew – unless a woman glimpsed briefly, who looked like my grandmother, was my sister. I did not confront her, nor ask.

Backward in time. Backward into our own history.

It’s strange to watch the Black Company embarking on a new journey that is taking them backwards in time as they go. It is especially poignant for Croaker, not only walking back through the streets of his childhood (you really can’t go back and he knows this) but also in his position as Company Annalist (a position that he isn’t keen to relinquish, even though he is the Captain as well). There is a lot of Company history, in the southern continent, so much of history in fact that Croaker and his men cannot help but assume it. This is most evident in the city of Gea-Xle where the descendants of the original Company (who had taken on a commission there) insist on sending their best men to join up.

The Nar [a word meaning Black] were indeed the descendants of our forebrethren. They did form a separate caste, a warrior cult built around the myths the Company left behind. They kept their own set of Annals and observed the ancient traditions better than we did.

What a great way for Cook to basically bolster the ranks of the Company while reminding his readers that the Black Company is something pretty massive in this world. Wherever the Company marches, it will leave footprints that last for centuries. Footprints so large in fact that when the Company reach Taglios no-one will even mention the word Khatovar to them.

Shadow Games isn’t just a book about history though, although I think this is the most important theme of the book. The other emphasis lies on the word Games; this is a book about games being played by all sides against each other. Games that see the Company’s identity forced on Croaker a little earlier than he would have liked. Games that I think Lady would have used to take charge herself if Croaker wasn’t on top of his game… And before I get ahead of myself, there’s a growing relationship that needs to be looked at. I loved the awkwardness on Croaker’s part and the fact that Lady could have pressed things, but chose not to (waiting for Croaker to get his act together). It was just like some kind of gritty fantasy romantic comedy, and just goes to show that you can be two of the most powerful people in the world but still end up suffering all the pitfalls on the path to true love.

But where was I? Games, that’s it. I’m not good with intrigue at the best of times so I’m not going to lie, I sometimes had trouble keeping up with what was going on and who was trying to hoodwink whom. This was one of the occasions that I was glad that Cook can be a plain speaking kind of writer; he paints a very good picture of bubbling intrigue but will have a character offer some kind of explanation (generally Cordy Mather or Willow Swan as the Company slowly become more entwined in the schemes of the Prahbindrah Drah, crown prince of Taglios). The Shadowmasters have their eye on Taglios and Croaker is slowly convinced (by the Prahbindrah Drah) that the only way to Khatovar is through their territory. Train the people of Taglios (this reminded me of The Magnificent Seven for some strange reason), defeat the Shadowmasters and the way to Khatovar is clear. Sounds simple doesn’t it? If only it was.

The Black Company (at the head of an army of Taglian citizens) are back to doing what they do best, fighting dirty wars for other people. This time though, there is the promise of Khatovar if they can win through. From where I was standing, it looked like the Company did as well as they did not just through their ability (and training the Taglians), but also because the enemy suddenly found that they were being attacked from somewhere else entirely and couldn’t focus.

Now, I think Cook writes some very good battles and totally gets what it is to be a “grunt” on the front line while the big magic is going down. Why (oh why) did he have to bring back the Taken though? It’s been a long time since I read Shadow Games so this came as a surprise to me… I liked the sound of Shadowmasters, an entirely new threat in a brand new continent. To have one of them revealed as someone whom I was pretty sure died when Lady lost her powers (along with the others that we have already met during the book)… I wasn’t so keen, although we do get to see the Forvalaka again as a result of this. (I probably should have guessed from the front cover…)

And what a way to end the book… Wars can turn on the slightest thing and to see Lady buried under a pile of corpses while Croaker is captured by none other than Soulcatcher…? Well, I’m not too impressed at seeing Soulcatcher return either (she died books ago) but it’s such a powerful ending that I’m prepared to let that go and see how things develop in Dreams of Steel. And just what is happening on the Plain of Glittering Stone? Seriously, I can’t remember. Talk about leaving it all hanging…

That is about it for me this week. I’m painfully aware that there are bits that I either haven’t covered or not covered enough (there has been a lot of childcare duties this last week) so I am hoping that people will chip in, in the comments, and keep this going. I may not be able to answer but I do read the comments; you guys have already got me looking the series in a whole different way.

Enough of that though, I’ll see you 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.

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1. Batonga
I have read the first three books in the series, many many times.....but whenever I got to the Books in the South, the series always fell apart for me. I think I was too connected to Croaker and the gang.
So with your reread I finally reread, and pushed through the series.

Shadow Games is the last of the old company stories for me. I think because of quote you posted, of the company going into their past. This book started to do that and had all intentions of building towards that, but as the next set of novels go.... that thought "Backward into our past" gets lost and muddled in a new adventure story, or rather muted by the new adventure. We never really get into their past as much as we get told their ancestoral begginings while they are having another adventure.

As for the Taken returning, I didnt mind it here. Made sense that each of the Taken had come from somewhere, had other power plays and back doors to crawl back to. What I did not like, was that Lady would not have known about the Shadow Masters/ and or other powerful mages. That the other shadow masters where not known before hand, and she and by extension Croaker and company would not have had any idea what they were getting into by heading South. Seems to me Lady's character as written and described in all the other texts, I find it hard to believe she wouldnt have known about all this in the hundreds of years she was dominating and taking control. Way to much power/ place/ people and other wordly for a dominion to not know about.. just my thought.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
I really enjoyed getting this book for a couple of reasons. It had been four years since the last book and in 1989 I didn't have many sources of forthcoming books.
Except, in March of 1989 I attended my first Con -- Minicon 24. This worked out really well as when I was wandering through the "huckster" room (where people sell stuff) I did a double take at the name badge of one of the book sellers--it was Glen Cook. I managed to work up enough courage to talk with him (and bought the Tower of Fear) and found out that "Shadow Games" would be out in a bit.
When I finally got "Shadow Games" a couple of months later I devoured it. I enjoyed the travel both back in time to the Companies roots and forward in time to the future of Croaker and Lady and the new Company.
I actually liked the return of various of the Taken. What's a little death to stop these people?
Julian Lighton
3. jl8e
I don't think it's that surprising. The northern continent is huge, and the empire has only recently finished conquering the whole thing, and hasn't spread that far into the south. With the Barrowland as the primary focus of her attention for so long, goings-on far to the south aren't going to have caught her attention.

As for the Dominion, it may not have been as big as the Lady's empire. It certainly never got to Juniper. It got far enough south that some of the Company had heard of it, but with the Dominator in charge, it was probably limited in range by how much he and the Taken could personally pay attention to; he pretty clearly didn't have the Lady's mind for organization and bureaucracy.

I've got to take issue with the description of the Lady as a benevolent dictator. Responsible and organized, certainly, but benevolent is too far a stretch. I think she's working to keep it going partly out of habit and a reluctance to leave, and partly because it's hers. She worked hard to build it, and doesn't see any reason why she should let it fall apart just because she's leaving. (Taking steps to keep it going may be the only way she can bring herself to leave.)

My biggest issue with the later books is that the story is about the Black Company in a way it wasn't before; they're no longer pawns in a larger game, but are one of the players. It's not a big problem, but it changes the feel of the story.
4. Brandon Ketchum
The Black Company has always held a special place in my heart. This series speaks so much to me as a veteran because it captures the realistic interactions of a military unit.

To the point, certainly this series changes drastically as it heads south, but I don't see this as a negative. The Black Company is always morphing, losing members, adding members, being whittled down to just a few members and growing to huge ranks. In returning from whence they came, the company changes all over again. I love the transformations this series makes, and always will.
5. wyoarmadillos
So ends the last of Croaker's Books as well. I forgot how much happens in this book as it easily could have been two books by itself. And this was the first of the series to have the cliff hanger ending which had me wanting even more.

I do agree that after 4 books devoted to the "old veterans" in Croaker's voice it was a little disconcerting to move into the rest of the series as we get new viewpoints, voices and motivations. Though Cook handles it well - changing voices, intrigue and laying the groundwork in this volume for future betryals.

I also loved the reintroduction of certain Taken. They are ruthless and planning for the Long Game.

Thanks for the reread
j p
6. sps49
The rest of the books were good, although I felt they got too bogged down in Taglios. And I don't feel the final final ending is that strong. But the Company grows and changes, avoiding stagnation. And the Taken are just too good as characters to not recycle, although maybe some different ones would've been better.

And how did Catcher avoid being true named by the Lady? DId the sisters not know each other's names growing up?
Julian Lighton
7. jl8e
The Lady knew all of the Taken's names. In one of the later books (She is the Darkness, I think), Murgen mentions in passing that she can't use the names anymore, but is still unwilling to tell anyone.

As for why nobody else tries naming her, I assume you have to be a wizard to use a name, and she isn't in the presence of the Company's wizards very often.
8. SwissArmyCheese
Why no one else tries naming her?
It is because Lady never told them Soulcatcher's name.
Why hasn't Lady told anyone else her sister's name? It is because doing so would be a very heartless thing to do. You just don't physically go out of your way to make your sister, even your evil twin sister, a cripple. It is just not a very nice thing to do.

"I stalked through the old neighbourhood, past the old tenement. I saw no-one I knew – unless a woman glimpsed briefly, who looked like my grandmother, was my sister. I did not confront her, nor ask. "
When reading that line, I always took it in that this was Croaker's camp follower from Berryl, only seen after the Forvalaka incident, but before the company disembarked to the north
I spent a sad, gentle hour with a woman to whom I meant more than I suspected. We shed no tears and told one another no lies. I left her with memories and most of my pathetic fortune- She left me with a lump in my throat and a sense of loss not wholly fathomable.
“Come on. Croaker,” I muttered as I clambered down to the beach. “You’ve been through this before. You’ll forget her before you get to Opal.”
And forget her he did.

Two characters I felt deserved mention in any reread of Shadow Games are Willow Swan and Mogaba. Swan for being the one bloke who ain't never gonna try to screw nobody. In a world where "Darkness wars with darkness" he serves as much needed relief.
And as for Mogaba? Well... All I will say for the duration of this comment is that he is Mogaba.
Dixon Davis
10. KadesSwordElanor
To me, Mogaba was one of the most interesting characters in the series.
11. SwissArmyCheese
"You must tell me more about this Raven. Each time I hear of him he sounds more intriguing" - Mogaba
If the Books of the North were Raven's tale; then the events of the South pivot from Mogaba
Remember when Murgen said that Croaker likes to fictionalise his sources? I am getting strong vibes of this from reading chapter 10. The intercourse of the Shadow Masters sounds like a play.
With the benefit of hindsight on this reread, I found it rather humorous in Chapter 10, that Longshadow would swear on his Name as a display of honesty. It just goes to show how worthless Longshadow's name is due to the potential catastrophic ramofications of him being Named.

Shadowspinner... Well, despite his lack of Screen time (or maybe in spite of?) I find him a really interesting and pitiful character. For starters his closest friend is constantly trying to kill him.
12. SwissArmyCheese
I just got up to Willow's War, I feel like I am falling behind on this reread...

I laughed when reading the scene in Beryl, when Croaker tells Otto to ride "... like the Limper himself was after us" . I never would of gotten that had we chosen to read them in release order.
One last Spike reference for me. Anyone else reckon that those 18 Tower Guards (whom stayed behind instead of joining the Company at the Imperial border) were the same guys who were harrassing The Limper during his mad rush north?

Anyways, a couple things I've noticed:
All the narrators, when given the opportunity, profess a distinct dislike for One-Eye's hat. Croaker inparticular wishes for the hat to be burned... forshadowing much?
Each book of the south occours concurrently with the events of another Black Company book. Shadow Games goes with Silver Spike as Dreams of Steel is to Bleak Seasons
I wish to devote a segment of this post to the High Priest of Khadi Jamarah Jah... However unfortunately I haven't gotten to the chapters with him yet. But I remember on my first read there was gonna be some ULTRA MEGA FORSHADOWING of how important this character would become.
13. SwissArmyCheese
Still haven't gotten passed the pirate fight on the Second Chaterac yet, and I can't but not help notice more parrallells between Raven and Mogaba.
In their introductory novels, both Raven and Mogaba become love interests to their captains.

On this reread I picked up this little gem:
"I went down to the wharf and accepted thirty-two recruits into our brotherhood of arms. Mogaba was so pleased I thought he might hug me"
This line just got to me, since I remember on my first reading, I-I just wanted Croaker to hug Mogaba so badly... *sniffles*.
14. Swiss Army Cheese
Finally gotten past Thresh, and I have a couple more thoughts on Croaker and Mogaba.
Croaker is starting to look more like Longshadow in terms of generalship traits. During the Cataract fight Croaker yells at the bargeworkers to stop pumping oil (to prevent the ship from burning), yet once the oil fires burn out he scoffs at the bargeworker, accussing then of lazieness, for not pumping enough oil. Croaker seems to be an overtly micromanagement kind of leader, and when things go wrong it is never his fault.

Plans are mayflies when the steel begins to sing
-Mogaba - before the battle of Ghoja Fjord.
During an aside comment, Croaker tries to convince Mogaba not to buy "enough supplies for a 6-month campaign". There we have it again, Croaker micromanaging his lieutenants, but this paragraph is about Mogaba. Considering the events of the next two novels in hindsight, this shows a splendid amount of foresight on Mogaba's part. Which, along with the fact that he has a priest for an ancestor, makes put forward that he is a closet wizard...

Blade's corner:
Blade has always been the most hyped enigma throughout the books of the South. I found it intriguing that all of the other negroid characters in the Company look at him funny when they see him for the first time.

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