Many years ago I read Glen Cook’s first Dread Empire trilogy, A Shadow of All Night Falling, October’s Baby, and All Darkness Met. I was impressed. Here was a heroic fantasy that cast aside the mold of Tolkien and Andersen, incorporated what was useful from Leiber and Moorcock, and then struck out on its own. Night Shade Books reissued the trilogy in an omnibus edition, graced with another of Raymond Swanland’s expressionistic covers, A Cruel Wind, and believe it or not, it’s better.
It starts off as the story of Mocker, a mountebank and con man of unknown origins, Nepanthe, the daughter of the Storm Kings of Iwa Skolovda, and Varthlokkur, the last heir of Ilkazar and the most feared wizard in the West. It becomes the story of Bragi Ragnarson, a Trolledyngjan adventurer and friend of Mocker, driven from his home by politics and civil war, who finds himself involved in the politics and wars of the Lesser Kingdoms, particularly Kavelin. Moving in and out of the story is Haroun bin Yousif, the King Without A Throne, another intimate of Mocker and Bragi, who has his own agenda. We also learn of Mist, a princess of Shinsan, briefly Empress, and then an exile in Kavelin. And it’s the story of a great war, the greatest that anyone has ever known — except for one or two who have lived much longer than anyone else.
How can it be better than the original three books? I read them over time back in the early ’80s, in between other books. They were good. Then I recently got the omnibus, with all three in one volume. Cook is such an engaging writer, such a strong storyteller, that I found it impossible not to read it from beginning to end, with no breaks for other stories. (Well, I did take time to eat and sleep.) It’s that continuity that allows one to appreciate the scope of the story, the sheer epic breadth of the places and histories that Cook leads us through.
The places — we travel from ancient Ilkazar through Hamad al Nakir, the desert kingdom — at least, it is now — into Shinsan, the Dread Empire, ruled by an Emperor and the Tervola, the Shinsaner sorcerers, and the Lesser Kingdoms of the West. The history starts before the fall of Ilkazar and continues to the near-loss of Kavelin and the Lesser Kingdoms to the might to Shinsan.
It’s truly epic in scale, but like the rest of Cook’s work — or any book worth reading — it’s intimate in focus, and that focus is people. There is an intense humanity to Cook’s characters, a reality to them that pulls the reader in. This is an early series, first published in 1979-80, and already Cook’s ability with characterization is evident: Bragi, Mocker, Nepanthe, Queen Fiana of Kavelin, Elana, Bragi’s wife, are all frail, human creatures who have their failures and their faults but somehow rise above them to become admirable. Even Haroun, as cold and remorseless as he is, shows evidence of humanity.
There’s a strong element of realism to the situations and events, as well. Battle scenes are bloody, muddy, and brutal, the devastation of war is appalling, and yet there are scenes of domestic comfort, portraits of children growing up, political chicanery, and everything else that forms part of the daily life of the people in this world.
Speaking of chicanery, this is Glen Cook. There are layers of deceit, dishonesty, double-dealing, backroom deals and mysterious players with their own agendas who aren’t playing fair. And Cook isn’t letting us in on the secrets until it’s time for us to know.
He jumps around in time, here, which can be disorienting. Each chapter is headed with a date, or range of dates. Pay attention, otherwise you’re going to be scratching your head as people seemingly come back from the dead: they’re not dead yet, the narrative has just gone back a few years.
It’s not perfect. This is among Cook’s earlier works, and we hit patches where there are more words than story, interrupting the pacing. It’s not as lean as the Black Company novels, nor as much a unity as The Instrumentalities of the Night, but it’s still damned good.
(Night Shade Books, 2006)