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Glen Cook’s tales are all gritty; they portray worlds that, no matter how diverse, resemble each other—and our world—in being hard, nasty, dirty, raw. Cook’s characters are heroic in the way Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe was: “down these mean streets must walk a man who is not himself mean.” Cook’s people have failings of all sorts and no false idealistic notions about their world or themselves; but they are fundamentally decent and inevitably, despite their their instincts and experience, end up being paladins—though they would wince in rue to hear the term.
Almost invariably, his characters are soldiers: often literally, sometimes figuratively, as policemen or PIs, and their worlds are correspondingly worlds at war, again often literally but always at least figuratively. And war is not Heaven.
Cook’s tales are each a clear exemplar of the phrase “a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts”; even his least-successful books appeal, and his best triumph, despite the fact that when we examine the component elements of Cook’s writing, those components are weak or defective. Cook is not unique in that, even in these lists (David Lindsay springs to mind at once), but it is scarcely a commonplace quality. Let me now turn to those component elements—but keep in mind as you read that this is an author that, in the end, I have rated high.
Cook's plots, which are often thought to be his greatest strength, are complicated but not really complex. They are complicated in that they are invariably populated by several diverse parties at interest, each with hidden agendas and secrets, each at some odds with all the others, each tricky, sneaky, and unreliable, each hatching off-stage moves that will come onto the stage of the tale at some crucial moment to throw everyone else’s plans awry. But they are not “complex” in that these blocks of action are just that, blocks, pushed about by the author for the sake of developing a story and scarcely interacting with each other in any more subtle way than the armies in a battle. Nor is any given block much of a tale in itself, just a complication for the larger plot.
Those larger plots are usually just that: large. Cook’s tales tend to operate in very large-scale arenas—nations, empires, continents, worlds, those are his characteristic scales. Nor are they normally the adventures of everyday people—small people—caught up in the larger tides of their times: they are tales of those who move and shake the pillars of their times. Even in his cop/PI tales, the protagonists are normally end up dealing with very much larger interests and issues than those of a client with a personal problem.
Cook’s many series tend to have background situations—developing puzzles—that exceed the scope of any one book of them, and the characters, while working their way through the happenings in one book are also advancing, by intent or fortuity, to a solution or resolution of the background situation. Yet those background puzzles are just that: puzzles. When once a reader has finished a given series, and all is finally revealed, the large background questions that tantalized for so long can be summed up in a relatively few words. It’s just that it takes the protagonists a long, long time—many books and many years—to themselves slog through the seemingly endless obstacles to reach some final understanding of what was what. There is, as a generality, an decidedly anticlimactic quality to his series resolutions.
In concocting setting, Cook also, with one notable exception I will return to, does nothing special. His imagined worlds do have a tremendous degree of three-dimensional realism, but that realism exists because those worlds are largely only slightly inaccurate mirrors of times and places in our own. He doesn’t stint detail, but it is the same detail one can find in historical novels or even good encyclopedias: it represents research (or experience) rather than imagination. Indeed, in his fantasy tales (the decided majority of his work), the one thing that necessarily is quite different from our world, the working magic, is badly scanted. While I despise novels whose authors feel compelled to explain the mechanics of their world's magic at tedious and trivial length, one does like to get the feeling that there is in an author’s mind some pervading sense of a basic pattern or mechanics. Cook’s handling of what magic or sorcery is or how it might work seems thoroughly ad hoc—and that inattention to consistency regularly results in plot holes you could drive the proverbial truck through. (But without “spoilers” I cannot get more precise.)
The one notable exception I mentioned is the world of his “Garrett” tales. Those tales are a deliberate cross of fantasy and the “hard-boiled dick” school of detective fiction. In them, we get a world with politics and criminal gangs and wars and characters in general not so very different from our own, but in which sorcery and magic work, gods intervene in human affairs, and foreigners are really foreign: centaurs, elves (light and dark), trolls, vampires, and even a Dead Man (who really is). Now it doesn’t take a lot to make a world of either genre, but it takes a lot to blend them with sufficient neatness into a reasonably consistent place. Cook still scants the mechanics of magic, important even politically in that world, but nonetheless it is quite a tightrope-walking trick to meld the two genres without a serious misstep anywhere, the misstep that would be the short one from sublime to ridiculous; Cook has kept his balance admirably.
Cook’s language use is reasonable but nothing special, save insofar as we can say that his dialogues, which largely drive the telling of his stories, are thoroughly realistic-sounding. (Since a large number of his books are narrated in the first person, in a sense even the narrative in those books is “dialogue”.) That is a positive in one sense and a negative in another, since real people do not usually speak or write like professionals at the task.
Here’s a reasonably representative specimen:
He was on the right track. Coming through the hills I had been considering going after the group left at the southern approach. Not till Swan spoke did I realize that I would be unable to sneak up on that group. Night had come. Night belonged to Shadowspinner. He would know where we were and where we were headed. Unless that was away from him he would be waiting when we arrived.
It is narrative, but it is in a sense a dispatch from the front and as writing it pretty much plods like one.
As to Cook’s characterization, there is, as they say, good news and bad news. The good news is that his characters, even most of the minor ones, are plausible, in-the-round, fully credible human beings, with fancies and foibles. The bad news is that they are generally unoriginal and what the critic calls “static”—they do not much show change and growth. Their realism derives in good part from their being portraits of familiar, almost standard personalities. In lesser characters, that is not only acceptable, it is a good: they provide that sense of three-dimensional familiarity that makes a tale seem realistic. But in the chief protagonists, we hope for something beyond the hard and sarky but at core decent troop leader and other such old friends. At bottom, the driving motivation of almost every character can be summed up concisely yet fully; there are not many complexities or subtleties.
Finally, to what degree might the books stimulate one’s mental processes? Very little, unless the idea that war is hell comes to one as a revelation. Various large-theme concepts get picked up and held briefly to the light—loyalty, duty, comradeship, honor, decency—but after a desultory look they get put back down again. There is no attempt to develop moral or psychological crises or otherwise mine any of those concepts. They are attributes that some of the characters have to varying degrees, and that’s that.
It is now time, after so much hard saying, to remind you what I said at the outset: Cook’s tales are each a clear exemplar of the phrase “a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” It is often hard to pin down how certain authors (Conan Doyle was another) manage such a trick; in Cook’s case, I reckon that it is a combination of two things. One is characters with just the right balance of humanity and hardness that we can both like and respect them, and consequently—paramount for fictions—care what happens to them. We would like them to be our friends; or, perhaps more accurately, we would like our friends to be them. Such liking alone might not be sufficient to redeem the tales from their failings, but much augmenting it is that Cook consistently sets those likable characters in ugly, dangerous situations not of their making (though, in a sense, of their choosing), situations that veritably shriek out the “life is unfair” motif, settings that lend their struggles to just get done what humanly needs to get done an especially sympathetic and thus appealing quality.
Here is a quick look at some of Cook’s individual works. (It is not complete because I haven't yet read a couple of his older, shorter series, but it encompasses his more recent and most popular books.)
Cook originally conceived a single long novel; practical publishing considerations eventually turned that one novel into the original “Black Company” trilogy, but it remains pretty clearly one tale in actuality. That tale is an outstanding one, one of the better ones of modern fantasy. Would that Cook had left things there…
In that original tale, Cook goes to some pains to make the world indeterminate, generic, so that we do not know then if it is another world altogether, some shadow of our world, our own world in a far past or far future, or just what. People tend to go by nicknames only: the Captain, Croaker, One-Eye, Raven, and so on; the geography is rather amorphous. Curiously, of the few people with actual names, many have distinctly ordinary ones: Lisa, Elmo, Asa; but others are strange. The overall feeling is of a world that, however grittily real and dirty and bloody, is some sort of fever dream.
The three-volume tale has a definite arc of progress, arriving at a satisfactorily definite climax and conclusion. Bad people and bad things mostly get their due bad cess; but bad things happen to some good people too. No plausible books about wars have “happy endings”.
There are two phases of the Black Company cycle past the original tale: “The Books of the South” and the “Glittering Stone” books. To me, at least, it seems that the telling gets weaker with each volume. The books were immensely successful, and one cannot quite avoid the idea that Cook, and his publisher, was milking it for all it was worth; but I at least also cannot avoid the feeling that Cook cared less and less with each book, that each was more and more forced an effort. (That might be entirely untrue so far as it goes for Cook, but I think they do read that way.)
As the series expands into its world, we get ever more detail: ever more geography, ever more cultures, and—above all—ever more politics and war. The geography and the cultures are much borrowed from our own world: picked up, tweaked a little, then set down on a new map. It is at best mildly interesting. The politics is, well, politics; those who find politics little different from what they can read in any history book, or, for that matter, newspaper, to be fascinating will be fascinated; no one else will.
Past the original tripartite tale, we read only because the characters have engaged us and we want to see what happens to them. The first two or three books continue to interest us to some extent because Cook rings in some shifts to vary the progression: one book set somewhat outside the main flow of events in the saga, another with a different narrator, and a developing background tease of some vaster mystery about to be unveiled any book now. These books are enjoyable—all the Black Company books are, after all—but they are not quite up to the white-hot inspiration of the first tale.
The last four books, collectively called “Glittering Stone”, are at best ordinary. Were they not continuations of a justly popular series, I would consider them outside our lists. In some of these books, the characters that were the wellsprings of our sympathy for the series are largely off-stage or totally absent. The unspeakable nameless that has been brooding in the background eventually comes into the light as just another situation, another problem; big, yes, but cosmic only in a technical, not a literary sense. One who starts the series ought to finish it—assuming that now it really is finally and for all “finished”—and will likely find each book in it pleasing; but it’s a shame that the idea was pushed so that that pleasure declines, if only a little, with every further book.
(It is interesting to recall in this connection that in 1890 William Morris wrote a book entitled The Glittering Plain, “which has also been called the Land of Living Men or the Acre of the Undying”, telling of the strange adventures of a man who was of a tribe or family called the House of the Raven, having a raven for their crest, and of a land called the Glittering Plain, ruled over by an undying king; we should not suppose that Cook borrowed much of anything save perhaps the name from that book, but the points of contact are curious.)
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This series preceded the Black Company, but never caught on to the degree the latter did; it did not really “wind up” but simply stopped because sales had fallen too low.
These tales are like yet unlike those of the Black Company. Perhaps the chief difference is that they lack the concept of the Company, a central uniting link between the diverse characters.
Even allowing for the many years now since I last read any of the Dread Empire books, I find I have remarkably little to say about them. Taken on their own, I suppose they would rate about two stars, largely because the characters are real and the dialogues plausible (increasingly rare cases these days). The adventures themselves are generic, and the characters somehow just do not seem to engage the reader as did his later ones.
Nonetheless, I would say that a reader who has enjoyed anything else by Cook would be pleased enough with this series—a core trilogy and some prequels and sequels—to make reading it worthwhile.
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This, for my money, is Cook’s finest work, in part because it is his most distinctive and personal. The protagonist, Garrett, is a one-time soldier now making a living as what we would call a PI—a shamus, a dick, a private eye, though none of those terms are extant in his world. His world is one that is much like ours: not in detail—it has the classic fantasy-world habit of lacking gunpowder and some other technologies—but in “feel”. It is a world of urban and urbane cities that, like ours, are ultimately controlled in part by mostly crooked politicians and in part by organized crime. It is a world man seems to dominate, but shares with numerous other sentient species, from centaurs to trolls.
The series seems to have been conceived as a twinkle-in-the-eye humorous homage to the classic twentieth-century sub-genre of crime fiction called the “hard-boiled dick” school, of which Raymond Chandler is probably the foremost exemplar. The author the tales most invoke by allusion, however, is Rex Stout (who, curiously, never did write “hard-boiled” stories): Garrett is a stand-in for Archie Goodwin, and the Dead Man—a huge nonhuman corpse, inanimate but still occupied by its technically deceased telepathic owner—stands in well for Nero Wolfe.
That sort of thing could very easily be a disaster for fantasy fans, Nero Wolfe fans, Raymond Chandler fans, or anyone: but, by gum, Cook has brought the thing off handsomely. The trick, I suppose, is to allow some nudge, nudge, wink, wink humor in without allowing the characters to lose either their own dignity or the dignity of the figures they to some extent represent. We don’t expect, or really want, a fully serious Archie Goodwin in fantasyland; a scaled-down, more fallible version is acceptable so long as we don’t get farce, so long as we feel that the author is having fun with, not poking fun at, the originals.
As the series runs on, we find Garrett invariably dealing with matters that are a lot more than simply part-elves with personal problems. In one way or another—eventually owing to his reputation as an honest player—Garrett becomes the focus of matters of huge import, things on which, with little if any exaggeration, the fate of civilization might hinge. And there are the thoroughly to-be-expected hidden agendas, double-crosses, hidden players, and like factors. Perhaps the main differentiating point of these books from Cook’s other tales is not so much the humor, for there is a lot of sarcasm, wisecracking, and irony even in those deadly serious tales—as in the continuing good humor and good fortune of the protagonist Garrett. It is not that he never gets hurt, physically or otherwise: it is that by tale’s end all is well again, at least with him, at least mostly.
The series is uneven in tone. It begins with a tale, Sweet Silver Blues, that is serious enough overall, despite light moments in it. This is a more or less representative sample of the more sober parts:
Barbera came blazing out of the shadows. He climbed all over the ratman. When he had him pounded down to about three feet high, he took off, headed my way.
A little message for me from Denny’s pals. Misdelivered.
I reckoned they needed an answer.
I stepped out of the shadows as Barbera lumbered past. He caught me from the corner of his eye. I said, “Hi, there,” and smacked his ear with my sap as his eyes grew big and he tried to turn.
He did not go down. But his knees got wobbly and his eyes glazed. I kicked him low, punched him high with my left, bounced the sap off his forehead.
He wobbled a little more.
They need a lot of pounding when they’re hopped.
I gave him all he needed, and then some, and when he no longer knew what planet he was on, I snagged the seat of his pants and walked him into an alley, where I gave him a few more taps with my sap. Then I took his pouch of weed. A while later I paid a half-dwarf half-goblin wino to deliver it to Vasco with the word that he had not gotten his money’s worth.
The lighter touches look like this:
There was another one outside the door. It looked exactly like the other one—Big, wide, and ugly. I guessed it would stand twenty feet high in its socks—if it ever wore socks. It didn’t wear much else, except a loincloth, a utility belt, and an empty pack harness.
The loincloth did not do much to preserve modesty.
So from here on I have to call them both He with a capital H. Mules would go gibbous with envy.
Both grolls noted my amazement and grinned. That’s the sense of humor such creatures have.
“I’d invite you in if you'd fit,” I said. One is polite to grolls at all times, irrespective of one’s prejudices. Otherwise one finds oneself reassessing one’s attitude while being squished between warty green toes.
A short one stepped around the big one. “I expect I'll fit,” he said. “And I could use a drink, actually.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Dojango is the name, actually. These are my brothers, Marsha and Doris.”
“We’re triplets actually.” He responded to my unspoken question, “But with different mothers, actually.”
Triplets with different mothers. Right. I didn’t ask.
The second Garrett tale, Bitter Gold Hearts, slightly increased the levity, but at bottom was still a serious story about ugly people doing ugly things: people get hurt, people get killed, and they aren’t extras falling off horses in a sleazy western movie. The third book, Cold Copper Tears, continued that style.
The fourth Garrett book, Old Tin Sorrows went really Chandleresque. There was hardly a spot of levity in the extraordinarily grim business of the tale, which ends so depressingly that a trifling deus ex machina is rung in just to lighten the closing.
Book number five, Dread Brass Shadows lightens up a bit, but only back to the tone that we have become accustomed to in the series: a little levity and a lot of gravity. Indeed, the series seemed on a relatively even keel until number eight, Petty Pewter Gods, which, while readable and even enjoyable, is a come-down. It reads as if either Cook’s conscience or his publisher, or both, said “Hey, laddie, this is a comedy series here: time to remember that comic protagonists are dummies who take pratfalls!” Eep. The tone is constant and sorely strained poor attempts at cheap humor—it reads in many parts, including the opening, like something an eighth-grader who had just stumbled on the idea of satire and had read a copy of The Big Sleep the night before might have churned out. Garrett, ex-Marine and knight of the mean streets is reduced to saying “Huh?” so many times that one needs a chalkboard for the count. Whatever possessed Cook while he was writing this tale was, fortunately, not omnipotent, and the real Garrett peeps out more and more frequently from the cloak of stupidity Cook tries to throw over him; in the upshot, the book is the weakest in the series by far, but still a good piece of work, albeit largely despite itself.
The next Garrett book Faded Steel Heat, saw something of a return to the Garrett of old, so we may hope that its predecessor was just one of those things. But there was, in that book, a certain sense of things running down a bit, of loose ends being not so much tidied up as cut off.
The tale after that, Angry Lead Skies is a mixed bag. Cook does something in it that I can’t report, because it would be a spoiler, but it comes off neither terribly well nor terribly badly. The series is still fun, even here, but one has the sense that Cook’s interest was waning, and that the characters are more or less just going through their now-expected motions.
The next two Garrett books, Whispering Nickel Idols and Cruel Zinc Melodies, are adequate Garrett, worth reading, but one gets the feeling, especially in that last, that Cook is again milking the cash cow; it also begins to sound like a lead-in to a series wrap-up (Garrett and some of the supporting characters are taking a closer look at their ongoing lives).
In the series’ penultimate book, Gilded Latten Bones, Garrett starts out essentially retired, but is forced by circumstances back into action, albeit a little older and slower. In the process of his dealing with a huge civic problem, he finds his personal life being turned upside down, almost—but not quite—resolving some long-standing personal issues. And that “resolution” becomes the basis for the final book in the series, Wicked Bronze Ambition, wherein we get an oddly happy ending for the series: I say “oddly” because it just feels like Cook said to himself, “Right, send everyone home happy.”
Finally, I should mention that in this series, as in most of Cook’s others, there is a running “background situation” about which we learn a little more with every book—except that in that last few books it just sort of fizzles out. We expected something bigger and more from it, but it looks as if it had just gotten to be something more than Cook could really bring himself to deal with as its apparent size suggested it needed (it might have taken another book or two to resolve more fully).
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Having not yet read any of them, I can offer no comment on either his “Darkwar” trilogy nor his “Instrumentalities of the Night” tetralogy, nor yet his “Starfishers” four-book series (a trilogy and a one-off).
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Lest one think Cook so much a fantasist that he could not do straight science fiction, there is The Dragon Never Sleeps in opposition. It too is a novel of soldiers and soldiering, but has the curious twist that both of the major forces are, in their way “good guys” (and in other ways, arguably both “bad guys”). Cook delivers a well-wrought action tale that nonetheless keeps us engaged with sympathetic characters while avoiding the typical cliches of "big empire in space" action tales.
The Swordbearer also exhibits classic Cook: war, fighting, death, hard times all around. The Swordbearer is by no means the routine thud-and-blunder fantasy tale that a summary of it (orphaned nobody acquires magic sword that drinks its victims souls and dominates its bearer) might suggest: it is much elevated by the moral strains its protagonist endures, obliged to do bad things to avoid much worse things; it comes to a hesitant conclusion that suggests a sequel might be possible, but, after twenty years, that seems—unfortunately—to be unlikely.
The Tower of Fear, another one-off novel, is set in a quasi-Arabian environment. It involves—here’s a surprise—wars and scheming and politics and sorcery. And gutty determination and things won and things lost, all at great price. And ironic comment on all of those things.
Of the three remaining one-off novels—The Heirs of Babylon; A Matter of Time; and Sung in Blood—I have read none yet.
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There is The Black Company Wiki, the Glen Cook entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and a much-outdated fan-made Facebook page. There are also some interviews: The Instrumentalities of the Night: An Interview with Glen Cook by the estimable Jeff VanderMeer at The SF Site ; SFFWRTCHT: Glen Cook on Dread Empire, Garrett P.I. and the Dos and Don’ts of Writing by Bryan Thomas Schmidt at the SF Signal site ; Interview: Glen Cook by Donald Mead at Strange Horizons ; and Glen Cook Interview. Author Of The Black Company Series by Jean Marie Ward at Buzzy .
While there are a few other small info pages and interviews, there is—surprisingly, considering Cook’s popularity—little else of consequence to be found.
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I could find none.
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