The Black Company Reread on

The Black Company Reread: Water Sleeps

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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