Glen Cook: The Second Dread Empire Trilogy

Reap the East Wind
An Ill Fate Marshalling
A Path to Coldness of Heart

Reap the East WindSomehow, and I’m not sure how it happened, I managed not to read Glen Cook’s second Dread Empire Trilogy back in the day. I did read the first trilogy, with great enthusiasm. Indeed, A Shadow of All Night Falling may have been my first encounter with Cook’s fiction. (It’s been a lot of years, and it’s sometimes hard to remember your first love — in books, at least, particularly when an author’s work has become a more-or-less constant in your life.)

This is the universe that provides the setting for An Empire Unacquainted With Defeat, a collection of Cook’s short fiction. The “Empire” in question is Shinsan after the collapse of the Pracchia conspiracy, now fighting a desperate war in the East (Reap the East Wind) against someone known as the Deliverer — none other than Ethrian, the son of Bragi Ragnarson’s old friend Mocker, abducted by the Pracchia and believed dead. He’s not — he just doesn’t remember that he’s Ethrian. Someone has the bright idea of bringing in Nepanthe, Ethrian’s mother, now married to the wizard Varthlokkur, to try to shake Ethrian from his new identity.

Bragi himself, the Trolledyngian adventurer who became king of Kavelin, one of the Lesser Kingdoms to Shinshan’s west, is up to his nose in politics, most notably because the Chatelain Mist, exiled princess of Shinshan, has plans to regain her throne. (An Ill Fate Marshalling) Partly it’s because he needs to open the border so that trade between his kingdom and Shinsan can resume. Partly it’s because he can’t seem to avoid playing dangerous games. Varthlokkur tries to dissuade him, unsuccessfully, which leads to a rift that has calamitous results.

an ill fate marshallingA Path to Coldness of Heart wraps it all up. (And then some, but more on that later.) Bragi is a prisoner of Shinsan, Kavelin, under the rule of Queen Inger, is falling apart — at least, her reign is on shaky ground, although the merchants and peasants seem to be doing fine in the absence of war — and Haroun bin Yousif, the King Without a Throne, is roaming around Hamad al Nakir to the south, seeking something, but we’re not sure what. Varthlokkur, having retired to his fortress of Fangdred, is keeping tabs on everyone but refusing to get involved. And gradually, as events unfold, we realize that the next conflict is not going to be between the various kingdoms, but a united effort (insofar as such a thing is possible with this bunch) against the Star Rider, the force who is largely responsible for the world’s woes.

This is Glen Cook, so you have every right to expect a dark edge, a very complex story, and layers of secrecy and deception. You get it. Reap the East Wind is one of the darkest things I’ve read from Cook, with no ray of light until the end. The succeeding volumes are somewhat less grim, but there the complexity and the tricky take over — everyone has an angle to play, and we’re watching some of the best manipulators in the business, although Bragi is no match for Mist or even his own spymaster, Michael Trebilcock. It only complicates matters that Mist has the Tervola, the Shinsan sorcerers, to deal with, although they seem to be as tired of fighting as everyone else. And of course, the Star Rider becomes the random element, pushing things toward chaos just to keep himself amused.

The characters here are strongly but subtly drawn. Mist, in particular, was a revelation — I don’t recall her being that human. She is still, however, a ruler on an uneasy throne, although one gets the definite sense that she’s happy enough when politics, self-interest, and human feelings all work together. Take that as a marker for the rest of the characters — the naturalism of Cook’s characterizations is amazing, the more so because it makes these kings, empresses and wizards into real people.

These books, like so many of Cook’s series, are epic in scale but intimate in focus, which gives full play to the characters and saves them, I think, from becoming less than human. Even in what would be large-canvas battle scenes, the focus remains tight. On the other side of that, the books, because of Cook’s penchant for short chapters and frequent changes of scene, become somewhat kaleidoscopic. They almost demand to be taken in large helpings, lest one lose the thread of the story. Given that Cook’s prose is as engaging as it is, I, for one, have no problem with that at all.

And that about wraps it up — speaking of which, I promised more about A Path to Coldness of Heart. It seems that what became this volume was actually written twenty years ago, but the original manuscript was stolen. The project was shelved because of other projects and because prior volumes of the Dread Empire series hadn’t been all that successful commercially. (I would find that hard to believe, because I think Cook is a brilliant writer, but then I think about what has been commercially successful and fight down the urge for a stiff drink.) He finally went back to it and folded the original story, once titled The Wrath of Kings, and three others into a blockbuster final volume. And now we have it in print.

(And for the cherry on top, more of Raymond Swanland’s striking covers.)

Good things are worth waiting for.

(Night Shade Books, 2011, 2012) For an excerpt from A Path to Coldness of Heart follow this link.

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