Sep 2 2013 9:00am

The Black Company Reread: Bleak Seasons

Bleak Seasons Black Company Glen Cook Bleak Seasons marks the beginning of the final plot arc in the Black Company series. It also marks the point (at least in my editions) where the cover art stops being all cartoonish and 1980s fantasy, instead becoming a little more like the series that Cook actually wrote. Go on, take a look at this cover and then go back to my post on The Black Company and look at the cover there; you can’t deny it, can you?

It’s not something that I’d normally talk about (being more about the books) but it feels like such a change that I thought I’d see if you guys had any particular preferences. Do you like the later covers or are you a Raymond Swanland cover kind of person? Me? These Books of the Glittering Stone covers are where I’m at.

But anyway, back to Bleak Seasons

The same rules apply as ever. I’m making the assumption that, this far in, we’ve all read the book so I’m not going to go on in too much detail about what happens. If you need a quick reference (or to catch up) then Wikipedia has a pretty good summary. Along the same lines, there will more than likely be spoilers during the course of this post, just so you know.

Are we all good? Good, lets do this.

So, we’ve seen the goings on outside Dejagore that led to the siege being lifted and the remnants of the Black Company being able to rejoin Croaker and Lady. Bleak Seasons is all about what happened inside Dejagore while all that business happened outside. But wait a minute, Bleak Seasons is actually all about what happened afterwards and isn’t about the siege at all. Or is it? Is your head starting to hurt yet? It didn’t take too long for mine to start aching with a narrator who has been cast adrift in time and is reporting from both the past and the present…

This was a pretty big problem for me, I have to say. I get that another view of the Siege gives readers the big picture, and there is enough going on inside Dejagore to warrant that approach—fair enough. I also get that the story needs to move forwards at the same time, hence all the stuff going on in Murgen’s present. It just felt like three hundred and sixteen pages worth of book wasn’t enough to do the job properly. What I came out of Bleak Seasons with was the sense that the book that tries to move forward, but holds itself back all at the same time… Hence the headache and my tackling the book at a real snail’s pace, leading to some frantic last minute typing right now!

And the whole reason behind Murgen hopping backwards and forwards through time? Don’t get me started, at least not yet. I’ll have a little moan about that later. The upshot is that I’m still not a hundred percent sure what happened here or why Murgen was being thrown about in time. For the record, I don’t buy that it was Soulcatcher, which just seems a little too easy. I’d have bought Smoke being difficult to control, or an after-effect of the potion he was given to drink by the Nyeung Bao, but Soulcatcher…? I don’t know, maybe it will become clearer in the next book. Okay, I didn’t wait too long for that moan…

That’s not to say that there isn’t some cool stuff going on here though. There is, absolutely. Cook is putting things in place for later books and we get to meet some old favourites who were missing from the last book. There’s also the introduction of another new narrator, someone who wasn’t thinking much beyond carrying the Company standard and happened to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time:

I am Murgen, standardbearer of the Black Company, though I bear the shame of having lost the standard in battle. I am keeping these Annals because Croaker is dead, One-Eye won’t, and hardly anyone else can read or write. I will be your guide for however long it takes the Shadowlanders to force our present predicament to its inevitable end…

I like Murgen, as he’s like a much younger version of Croaker that we never got to meet. Old enough to have developed that soldier’s cynicism, yet young enough not to have let that cynicism take over his voice completely. Young enough also to fall head over heels in love and reap the inevitable outcome that such an event carries in wartime. Did that trauma lead, in part, to Murgen’s travelling in time? I don’t know… He’s a good man to be around—a man who will do his best to stay out of danger, but a man who’s close enough to the action for us to see what is happening.

And there is plenty happening—there’s a siege on after all. Not that you see a lot of that; there’s so much going on inside the walls that I was surprised the besieged even noticed what was going on outside. The Black Company has turned against itself for the first time since… the first time in a long time.

There is no love lost between Mogaba and the rest of us. His rigidity split the Company into Old Crew and Nar factions. Mogaba envisions the Black Company as an ages-old holy crusade. Us Old Crew guys see it as a big unhappy family trying to survive in a world that really is out to get us.

Mogaba sees the siege as a chance for him to take control of the Company, something that he feels must be done as only he is worthy. This leads to a whole load of back and forth where various attacks by Mogaba are repulsed by the Old Crew (with the help of the Nyeung Bao) and it all ties in very neatly with what we know is happening outside. What’s more interesting though is how Murgen’s perceptions match up against what we are starting to find out. I’d say there’s a pretty good argument that Mogaba’s Nar are actually the Old Crew and their descent into human sacrifice and cannibalism could well be them holding true to much older Company traditions. I really have no idea where the next three books go (almost ten years since I read them), so I’ll be interested to see if I’m right or not. In the meantime, the Old Crew do what they do best and thwart Mogaba at every turn until the siege is lifted.

The Old Crew is ready Mogaba. Are you?

We will become invisible, Your Arrogance. We have played this game before. We read the Annals. We will be the ghosts who kill.

That is essentially the plot of ‘Murgen in the past,’ apart from his romance with Sahra; a bittersweet affair that really stands out as a moment of loveliness amidst all the grime and horror (Cook does a good siege, it has to be said). Heading into the ‘present’…

I’m really not sure what to make of the present here. It feels partly like Cook is taking stock of everything that is going on, in preparation to move things forward later, but also trying to move things forward at the same time. Like I said earlier, I found these parts confusing, although the death of Sahra made for very powerful reading.

Interesting bits to note though are that Mogaba and Blade have now gone over to the service of the last remaining Shadowmaster, Longshadow. With Mogaba I could see that happening, but Blade…? Plenty of people have fallen for Lady, but Croaker has only ever lost it with Blade—I wonder if there is more going on here than we think. Croaker and Lady’s daughter makes a few fleeting appearances here and there; she’s a scary little child who I think promises to get a lot more scary later on.

That’s about it for me this time round. Bleak Seasons has some very cool moments but the time travel thing really messed with my head and has left me a little confused about what actually happened (apart from all the obvious stuff, that is). If anyone can help me out there I would really appreciate it!

Which leads me to the comments. Please add anything you like here that will clear things up. I’ve said before that you guys lend a whole new perspective to the books, I need some of that more than ever!

See you all in a fortnight’s time when, hopefully, the path to Khatovar should become a whole lot clearer…

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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1. Dedic8ed
I agree that, especially reading it when it came out after five years of no Black Company, the book seemed to be very disjointed and in a different voice than what had come before. Looking back now, however, it really does serve as a bridge for a stylistic change in Cook's writing, where we began to see a lot more foreshadowing and "big picture" in his writing of this series, which does make sense when it's building towards an end-game. Definitely the most "challenging" book of the series, but it really does fit in quite well with the other three books of Glittering Stone.
Alicia Dodson
2. LynMars
Because I read reviews of this book and how confusing it was, I think I was perhaps better prepared for the time-shifting and it wasn't so confusing to me (also, other SF&F novels with time and space issues that have prep'd me over time). I don't believe the Soulcatcher explanation either, and I think that supposition changes in a much later book when the events on the Glittering Plain become more clear.

I rather like Murgen and agree he seems like a younger Croaker. This also marks quite a shift in the Company and its makeup, as the Nyeung Bao join the cast and Mogaba changes sides after the horrors he inflicets on Dejagore.

Blade and Croaker's falling out is also explained later; Murgen seems to be incapable of learning the details with his own ghosting off Smoke, but the reveal on that conflict is pretty awesome, I thought.

Smoke is himself interesting, with his unique ability that seems to infect Murgen somehow, with the shifting in place and time. I read Bleak Seasons back to back with the next novel Murgen narrates, so it's hard for me to remember where the plot splits between them and Murgen realizes certain things from this book aren't what they seem and the war with the Shadowlanders changes with the return of other old characters, Soulcatcher's meddling, and the continuous shuffling of the Daughter of Night's status as free little terror or surly prisoner of one side or another.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
I again bought this one from Glen at Minicon 31 in April of 1996. We chatted a bit and I recall him mentioning that the others would be coming out more regularly (than the 6 year break between this and "Dreams of Steel").
I then did other Con stuff and recall that I read the whole thing in one go for the rest of the night. Reading it at a fever pace actually worked quite well with the adrift in time story mode and I enjoyed it quite a lot. The introspective tone worked quite well for me.
The next day I mentioned to Glen that I had stayed up and read the book through the night. He said that I should have gone to more Con parties and talked to actual people but he was glad I liked it. I agreed, but choosing between people and books is sometimes a weak spot of mine.
4. wyoarmadillos
I always thought that Murgen's time travel problem was more of an after effect of Smoke combined with the Shock of Sahra's death, what Murgen's in-laws did to him, rather than anything Soulcatcher really did. Murgen only thinks it was Soulcatcher. I could be wrong, I will have to reread this one again.

To me the past in Dejagore was the best part of the novel, and I found the shifts to the present more disconcerting.

I also found it interesting that in the end, the Nar faction of the company splinters, with not all of them following Mogaba, finding his treatment of the Old Crew and the old traditions too harsh.
5. Cool Bev
This was the book that made me realize that Cook was a conscious stylist - he didn't just write transparent, simple prose. (Although he does that too.)

The protagonist of the next book (SPOILER) is un-anchored in space, instead of time. Nice trick.
Julian Lighton
6. jl8e
The reasons for Murgen's condition are at least strongly hinted at in a later book.

I think that it also serves to bring Murgen's PTSD further into the foreground of the story, by making his flashbacks into something that's not just in his head. (Probably. I don't recall if there's ever any conclusive evidence he's really jumping around in time or not.)
7. Marc Rikmenspoel
Good points have already been made by all. Here's something not mentioned yet. This series is known to have unreliable narrators. Bleak Seasons provides an example. When the siege of Dejagore is first broken, Lady meets with Murgen outside the city. In her account, in Dreams of Steel, he simply leaves afterward. But in Murgen's account in Bleak Seasons, he reveals that Lady actually put a spell on him at the end of the meeting, treating him like an insignificant peon.

Is it in Bleak Seasons that we get to read the small section of Annals by One Eye? Those lines were hilarious!

I think Murgen's problems, more than simply PTSD, are one of addiction. This really becomes clear in She is the Darkness. From Bleak Seasons through SITD, he's slipping into addiction to the "going out" to escape from the pains of his life (first the siege, then the Sahra situation).

Bleak Seasons is really the first part of SITD, they are almost one larger work. I really liked the latter, much more apparently than did most readers. The weakness of Bleak Seasons, to me, is that it is incomplete. Combine it, mentally, with SITD and I find it a stronger whole.

Can't wait for the next installment, thanks for doing these rereads Graeme! I miss your blog.
Julian Lighton
8. jl8e
That bit with Murgen shows the limits of Lady's devotion to historical accuracy. Cut a deal with a death cult? Sure. Admit to screwing over a brother of the Company? No way. Presumably she actually feels guilty about the latter, or just doesn't want Croaker to find out.

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