If you stop think about it, it’s rather remarkable that a living writer of speculative fiction finds himself with reissues of seemingly all of his earlier works hitting the market while he’s working on new ones. I think it says something about the popularity of Glen Cook’s writing that not one but two publishers have undertaken just that. (Happily, they’re divvying up the spoils, as it were.) In this case, Tor has published the final two books (to date, and more on that later) of Cook’s Annals of the Black Company as The Many Deaths of the Black Company in a handsome omnibus edition.
Water Sleeps finds the Black Company in hiding in Taglios, now ruled by the Radisha Drah and the Protector — none other than our old friend, Soulcatcher. The Company is now under the joint command, such as it is, of Sleepy and Sahra, who spend their time as subversively as possible — mostly involving politically charged graffiti, with the occasional targeted assassination or kidnapping thrown in to keep people on their toes — while preparing to rescue the Captured. You see, what they know and no one else does — except that Soulcatcher may suspect it — is that the Captured are alive, frozen in time in a cave below the nameless fortress at the center of the Glittering Plain. They know this because Murgen, whose propensity for wandering around outside his body is well-established at this point, comes to visit his wife, Sahra. Actually, she is able to summon him, with some difficulty — he often seems rather distracted.
And throw Narayan Singh and the Daughter of Night into the mix, too — they’re hiding out in the thieves’ quarter, and everyone is looking for them. The dark goddess Kina is certainly not out of play.
Due to the success of their subversion, the Company has to beat it out of Taglios. But that means they’re on their way to rescue the Captured.
In Soldiers Live, the Company has recovered Croaker, Lady, Murgen, Thai Dei, the Prabrindrah Drah — in fact, most of those who were captured. (Some didn’t make it — stasis isn’t foolproof.) (And before you start yelling about spoilers, what did you think was going to happen?) Sleepy is now the Captain, Goblin is lost, One-Eye is nearing the end, but Tobo, son of Murgen and Sahra, has proven to be a gifted and powerful wizard, with a stable of tame Shadows of his own, and the Company has arrived at what should have been Khatovar, but isn’t — at least, not any more. The inhabitants of “The Land of Nameless Shadows” aren’t out to get the Company, but they’re not particularly welcoming, either. The Company doesn’t really care — it has a score to settle back in Taglios, and now it knows how to travel the Glittering Stones safely. And now they have the help of the demon Shivetya, the Guardian who sits in the fortress at the center of the plain.
Just when you think Cook can’t get any better, he boots it up a notch or two. Let me put it this way: I had read Water Sleeps, but had never laid hands on a copy of Soldiers Live before, so of course I read that one first — and then very happily settled into read the first for about the sixth time (at least — after a while, you lose count).
Let’s talk first about style, since that’s such an important element of Cook’s writing. Sleepy narrates Water Sleeps, and her personality comes through vividly. It’s another illustration of my contention that Cook’s narrative style is largely a function of character — and it’s not by chance, I think, that most of his novels are told in the first person. We get another taste of this in Soldiers Live, when Croaker once again takes over the narration — and if anything, Croaker has gotten more cryptic and close-mouthed than ever.
The stories are multi-layered, complex, and, of course, there’s always a wild card in there somewhere. As it happens, Soldiers Live ends with a mind-bending plot twist, a raft of new characters, and a wide-open field for the next installment. And I’m not going to tell you about that — read it yourself.
(Tor, 2009 [Water Sleeps orig. 1999, Soldiers Live orig. 2000])