Glen Cook has been credited with single-handedly changing the face of fantasy in the late twentieth century. I’d argue with that — there are too many antecedents for contemporary heroic fantasy noir to give credit to one writer. What Cook has done is build on them very effectively, sometimes brilliantly, to the point that if you don’t know Cook, you don’t know fantasy. He’s come close to doing the same thing with science fiction.
Darkwar is the omnibus edition of Cook’s Darkwar Trilogy, composed of Doomstalker, Warlock, and Ceremony. It’s not really a “trilogy” as such — it’s a single story in three volumes, a Bildungsroman that follows the rise of Marika, orphaned while still barely more than a pup by the destruction of her pack. She has the powers of a silth, though, and finds herself being trained to join what is in effect the ruling class of meth society, the silth, the females gifted with the ability to see and control manifestations of the psychic forces of the world.
As he seems to do effortlessly, Cook has built a rich, fascinating universe. The meth are somewhat wolf- or dog-like humanoids, and their social structure stems from that: the basic unit, at least in the hinterlands where Marika has grown up, is the pack, which establishes a packstead as their home base. They are still, in the North where the story starts, largely hunter/foragers, although more settled than the nomadic tribes who live even farther north and who raid the settlements every winter. The winters are getting worse, which is the long-term crisis: the world is entering an ice age because its sun is moving into a cloud of interstellar dust. That leads to the more immediate crises, which are also fueled by the perfidy of one of the silth Communities, in alliance with elements of the Brotherhood of the tradermales. (Males being otherwise fairly useless, they are relegated to “lesser” roles, including trade and manufacturing. Females are the hunters and the leaders.) It seems the traitorous Community, the Serke, have also come in contact with aliens in interstellar space and have managed to acquire some of their technology. (Yes, the silth are also starfarers, which is accomplished by their control of the forces that Marika thinks of as “ghosts” and is reserved to a few powerful Communities.) These aliens are blind to the ghosts, but they make marvelous and very powerful machines. And there is something in the northern territory of the Reugge, the Community that rules Marika’s part of the world, that the machines need.
It’s an ultimately riveting character study wrapped in a series of puzzles, although it starts off much more slowly than I am used to with Cook. The pacing is leisurely enough that I came close to giving up. This series dates from fairly early in Cook’s career, originally published in the mid-1980s, and doesn’t exhibit the absolute mastery that marks his more recent works (“more recent” in this case meaning the last two decades). It took forever to get into this one, not only from the pacing but from a lack of the immediacy that is a hallmark of the Black Company novels or The Instrumentalities of the Night, although it eventually redeemed itself. And true to Cook’s general tendency, it’s not a “nice” story: Marika starts off headstrong and in a way supremely self-centered, and, as she develops her powers, becoming the strongest silth ever known, she finds herself facing choices that most of us would rather avoid. Cook has a fine-tuned sense of the depths to which necessity can take us, and that sense is in full play here: Marika makes her choices in line with what she sees as her own self interest, and if someone else is going to suffer, so be it. She’s not a nice person, particularly, but she sure as hell is effective. That her motives are ultimately pointed toward saving her people and pushing what had become a corrupt and tottering society into a rebirth — bloody and painful, but a rebirth nevertheless — moves an otherwise dark-edged adventure story into the realm of nobility: Marika becomes her legend.
There’s a fair amount of social commentary that can be read into this series if one is so inclined. I’m not going to do that. What you’re going to find along those lines will depend on what you bring to the reading of the story. I will say, though, that as a portrayal of the development of a fractious and headstrong child into a true hero, this one is up there, in spite of its flaws.
(Night Shade Books, 2010 [orig. 1985, 1986])