Oct 7 2013 11:00am

The Black Company Reread: Water Sleeps

Glen Cook Water Sleeps Black Company I am so sorry for another delay in the long march towards Khatovar; not going to bore you with the details here, suffice it to say that despite all my best efforts… Here we are and my face is suitably red. Thanks for bearing with me!

It was completely unintentional on my part but it’s funny how fiction and real life can dovetail sometimes. She is the Darkness saw a large chunk of the Black Company (and assorted hangers on) become trapped, by Soulcatcher, with Khatovar closer than ever before. Imagine being that close… In the meantime, all sorts of stuff conspired to keep Khatovar just beyond my grasp as well. I’ll bet that I dealt with it better than Croaker did though…

I’m ready to get back on the trail though and so are the remnants of the Company hiding in Taglios. Let’s pick up Croaker, and the rest, on the way shall we?

Just one quick note. Wikipedia has steadfastly refused to give me a decent synopsis for Water Sleeps so the likelihood is that I’m going to be incredibly spoilery here. I’m assuming that this shouldn’t be too much of a problem but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Right, let’s kick things off with something that I’ve always wanted to say,

Fifteen years later…

In those days the Black Company did not exist. This I know because there were laws and decrees that told me so. But I did not feel entirely insubstantial.

There is a lot more to Water Sleeps than this but the book essentially boils down into two parts. You have the remnants of the Black Company, in Taglios, waging a psychological war against the Radisha and Soulcatcher (calling herself the ‘Protector’). Following this, the Company gets the hell out of Taglios and makes for the Glittering Plain to rescue their comrades and see what comes next. Like I said though, there’s a lot more to it than that.

First up is the passing of the Annals to another new Annalist. Remember, way back at the start of the series, when Croaker did all the talking? He will be back for Soldiers Live but right now it’s the turn of Sleepy to wield the Annalist’s quill. The last couple of books led me into not really expecting great things from Sleepy, a character who never really said an awful lot and felt like part of the background until Murgen really took her under his wing. This series continues to blindside me, Sleepy is possibly the most interesting Annalist of the lot (I’m still mulling this one over so reserve the right to change my mind). For such a ‘grim and gritty’ writer, Cook is surprisingly sensitive about the events that led Sleepy to close off, emotionally, and pretend to be a man in order to enlist in the Company. You get a sense of the damage she has suffered as a survivor of abuse and the fact that she can’t revisit it does more to convey that feeling than anything else could.

It’s also interesting to see what fifteen years, in hiding, has done to her. Sleepy isn’t just the Annalist, she’s the unofficial Captain as well (although Sahra perhaps does more than her fair share) and has taken on responsibility for everyone. It’s a tough job but Sleepy rises to it every time and then goes back to updating the Annals. I found Sleepy’s voice engaging here as (being Taglian, I think…) she brings a level of spirituality to the Annals that no one else has done previously. A lot of talk about Taglian religion and how Sleepy’s own faith is tested by what she sees on the Glittering Plain. It’s a whole new approach that makes a lot of moments, which could have dragged, suddenly become a lot more interesting. So right now, my vote is for Sleepy as ‘Annalist of the Series.’ How about you, who would you choose?

But back to the story itself. If you thought that the Black Company were good at infiltrating Juniper (Shadows Linger) and preparing to take it by surprise… You haven’t seen anything yet. What the remnants of the Company (and it’s only the remnants that we’re talking about here) are able to do with some magic fireworks, and words whispered in the right ears, is awesome when you see the end results on the page. Key figures in the opposition are kidnapped almost under Soulcatcher’s nose and any Taglian protest (the monks burning themselves at the palace gates) is anticipated and made part of the ongoing war of attrition. I’ll be honest, I don’t get on with espionage/psychological warfare in books and felt that bits dragged here in terms of Sleepy and co setting things up to happen. When they did happen though, I was happy to take the payoff.

Most of this was down to their adversary, Soulcatcher, a lady twice as devious as the most devious Company members (I’m looking at you Goblin and One-Eye) but ultimately undone by her own arrogance and the number of personalities warring in her own head. There are some great moments though when Soulcatcher turns the tables without even realising it. Like when she realises the Radisha has been kidnapped but no one else knows. What could have been a crippling blow is suddenly an opportunity for total control. The passages where Soulcatcher chases Goblin through the palace also make for gripping reading; two devious minds bouncing off each other until the best man wins. Soulcatcher is still limping now I’d imagine.

The Taglian Section of the book really brings the whole “Water sleeps but your enemies don’t” phrase into sharp relief with a war waged just at the corner of the Taglian eye and the affects felt everywhere. That said though, I was glad when the Company decided to hit the road and make for the Glittering Plain. This was what I’d signed on for and some big revelations were just over the horizon.

The thing is, I didn’t realise just how big those revelations would be. The Glittering Plain is basically a crossroads for travel between a number of worlds so all of a sudden, Cook turns the world of the Black Company into a universe. It was like when I saw Star Wars in wide-screen for the first time; loads of new stuff to see and a picture that suddenly starts to make a bit more sense.

Uncle Doj becomes a lot more talkative (I wondered whether Water Sleeps was meant to be the last book, with all this exposition, but I don’t think it was) and confirms that the Nyeung Bao were another Free Company that marched at the same time as the Black Company. What I liked here wasn’t so much the revelation itself, more an afterword about the Black Company itself. Apparently, soldiers will be soldiers no matter when they marched:

The Black Company came off the plain, which was called Glittering Stone even then, and mostly minced around from one small principality to the next, squabbling internally over whether or not they were going to sacrifice themselves to bring on the Year of the Skulls. There was plenty of enthusiasm among the priests attached to the Company but not so much among the soldiers.

Does that remind you of a certain Captain eager to get to Khatovar while everyone else is just trying to stay alive? This makes the big revelation even bigger:

No. The Company can’t go back to Khatovar. Croaker will never reach the promised land. That Shadowgate is dead.

Again, it’s a very casually delivered line, in the book, that just turns everything on its head. The Company has been marching towards Khatovar since Shadow Games and I’m sure we all thought that they’d get to Khatovar, didn’t we? Cook shows us, yet again, that it’s a cruel world and even when you try and do the right thing there’s no guarantee that you will get what you deserve and have fought for. Or will you? It’s a real stroke of irony that Lisa Bowalk, of all people, gets closer to Khatovar than Croaker will.

The Company rescues its own but this is kind of glossed over when Kina herself takes control of Tobo (Murgen and Sahra’s son, gearing up to be a pretty powerful wizard) and starts to awaken. I was expecting this to be fair, I’m pretty sure Cook wasn’t going to drag the Company all this way and have Kina fast asleep as well as the gateway to Khatovar broken. What I wasn’t expecting was for Goblin to play the hero and pay the ultimate price for it. Company men have died over the last few books and that’s the way it goes. Goblin though… It feels like the Black Company isn’t the same anymore, especially with One-Eye crippled by a stroke. Sad times and one of the few times I’ve actually mourned a fictional character.

So where does that leave us for now? Well, the Black Company makes it though another shadowgate to the Land of Unknown Shadows and I can’t think of any people who deserve a rest more at the moment. Soulcatcher and the Daughter of Night may be up to something, on the other side of the gate, but that is clearly for Soldiers Live. Lets leave Sleepy, Murgen, Croaker and the rest to work out where they are and what happens next. Soldiers Live is going to have to work hard to top Water Sleeps but I think some pretty big stuff is still to come.

That’s it for me but with a book this size, I’m painfully aware that I have skipped over bits that could probably do with more discussion. That’s what the comments thread is for, so please leave a comment if you can. I’ll see you in a fortnight (no, really, I will this time).

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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Alicia Dodson
1. LynMars
Sleepy was from Dejagore, the city besieged. She calls it a different name, as the place has been settled by so many factions and conquered and reconquered. Bucket was the one who saved her from her uncles (and she suspects he always knew she was female) and was a father-ish figure for her, and the scene where she finds his corpse on the Glittering Plain was affecting.

Despite the scattering of the Company's remnants in the last book, they managed to come together, and the intrigues of Sahra and Sleepy were incredibly deep. The false personas with detailed fictions are fallen into so entirely that Sleepy even writes the annals in character (if third person, as one of her personas is mentally incapable). I have to agree that she's perhaps the most interesting annalist. She does follow somewhat in Croaker's legacy (as Murgen does), by only hinting at her troubled past and telling far more by what's unsaid. Her focus is on the Company itself, both its shared history--out of duty to Croaker--its dangerous present, and its future.

Until the last book I wasn't even sure Sahra could speak, given Murgen didn't report on her saying anything when they first met. In this, she's perhaps the most vocal, and holds the Company together even as she fears her time-stopped husband won't want her anymore as she's aged and changed. Murgen's own disassociation in his spiritwalker form doesn't help that.

I also think this is where we get the first impression that it wasn't actually Soulcatcher or Kina responsible for Murgen's flittering through time and space, but we don't learn more until Croaker takes back the pen in Soldiers Live, and even then it's not spelled out, mostly assumed by the characters who spend the most time seeking answers on the Plain.

From the beginings in the Lady's north Empire, the magic and cosmology of this setting has built in scale and complexity. Tobo rising as the Company's new wizard as One-Eye and Goblin's stories finally end is a signal that the series itself is coming to a close and what the Company will be after the current generation passes will be different--but will still be The Black Company.
2. SwissArmyCheese
On the late tax collector.
After some thinking last week, I have began to suspect that the time he spends in a "Pleasure House" may have been a lie fabricated from Goblin. Remember the part in Beryld in Shadow Games where Croaker talks about Goblin's passionate hatrid of tax collectors, and where for Goblin the only thing lower than a pimp is a taxman?
The Radisha notes that the late taxman was very effective in collecting revinue, but that just begs the question of "How can someone so corrupt be so good a good taxman?".
Why I feel certain characters died
#1, we have Big Bucket. I feel like the main reason Big Bucket kicked it was just because Cook didn't want to write for this one minor character now that Sleepy has been promoted so he just chose to close such a potential thread before it reopened. But as I write this, it occoured to me that Bucket was always an unwritten, yet highly detailed character.

There was much to be said of him, yet about all of it was unsaid, although his mysteriousness to the reader was no fault of his own. Each analysts had their reasons: Sleepy's repression, Croaker's apathy, Murgen's introversion, and Lady's not being a true part of the Company.

Even at Bucket's introduction, the character had a long and colourful history, hence his name, "Big Bucket", presented throughout the annals. For the annalists of the Black Company there was little written of Bucket, because there was nought they could write down about the man which couldn't be preserved throughout the Company's oral histories. Throughout the annals facts that are assumed to be common knowledge to the annalyst are often ommitted. Big Bucket never made it as a major player throughout the annals, and that was because everyone knew Big Bucket.....
Wow. What started as a list and reasoning behind the killing off characters ended up as an essay on just one...
Philip Thomann
3. normalphil
@1, 2

Coming across Big Bucket's body and then later his bodyguards while going back over the Glittering Plain is like forensic archeology in that the story unfolds and is then understood. As an act of fidelity, Bucket's last moments were perfect. As a commentary on the Nyueng Bao's Dejagore Expedition's choices, it validated them as strongly as anything ever could.

Nyueng Bao religion is esoteric, and to a Taglian, alien. That Big Bucket even knew the proper funerary rites in the first place is incredible. That he seems to have selected and carried them out perfectly in the midst of a red rout while being swarmed by millions of hell-wraiths, well, I've already used “incredible”. As an expression of brotherly love, it's perfect. It moved me to tears, when I understood it.

In memorializing his Suyen Dinh Duc, he memorialized himself.
Alicia Dodson
4. LynMars
Yeah, for such a minor character, Big Bucket has a major impact as the mentor of the future Captain and in showing the deep ties between the Nyueng Bao and the Company. It's not the first time, either, that such minor characters as part of the Company's tapestry have such an impact, like the ever-present Otto and Hagop (and the off-page end of their side story feels like such a betrayal and yet perfectly rendered, in Soldiers Live).
5. SwissArmyCheese
Nice point on the Glitttering Stone bit being an episode into forensics.

Out of all the offscreen stuff that happens in the books that I would like to be shown in a hypothetical film adaption, the scene I would be most torn (from a narrative perspective) to show would be Sir Cordwood Mathers' death. While on one hand I think it would be cool watching him outwit Soulcatcher by playing possum, but (in an ironic twist) only to get himself and a few Company members killed during his escape attempt; but on the other hand I feel that it might ruin the impact of Mathers' death.
An unshown scene that I reckon, without a doubt, would work well in a film adaption is the final fight between Goblin and One-Eye.

Picture this: It has been almost two films without the Day and Night wizard duo having one of their infamous squables, then all of a sudden the two are at each other, neck-on-neck, like a couple of Rockem Sockem Robots. The mood is cheary and folks are already taking bets on the winner, like the old days. Goblin parries One-Eye's latest spell, then counters with an upper-cut - knocking One-Eye's block off.
The black mage is down for the count. The mirth and the cinematic music stops. To check for consciousness, someone approaches the magical negro. For the time being, One-Eyes only "response" was drooling and soiling himself.
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
Goblin and One-Eye. Rival friends, friendly rivals. That hit me hard also.
7. SwissArmyCheese
On Sleepy's Tonk skills.

While it has established that Taglios and its territories are based off India, specifically what parts of India is something I have never seen discussed.
I propose that the Shadowlands is Rajasthan.

Sleepy is from Stormgard/Dejagore/Jaicur; a bergburg of a city with four gates on each of the cardinal directions, and a dry climate. Jaicur is based off the city of Jaipur, another bergburg with a dry climate and four gates on each of the cardinal directions. Both are planned cities with gridlike streets.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan. Rajasthan has many towns, one of which is Tonk. Coincidence? I think not!

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