She is the Darkness, by Glen Cook

she-is-the-darkness-by-glen-cookGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor
Published: 1998
Reviewer Rating: fourhalfstars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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She Is The Darkness is the second book of “Glittering Stone”, the tail-end of Glen Cook’s “Black Company” series. This novel is followed by Water Sleeps and Soldiers Live. The Black Company first appeared in 1985, and is still quite popular. This book is an excellent example why this series has exhibited such enduring popularity.

Like the other books in the “Black Company” series, this novel is infused with brotherly camaraderie, paranoia, personal agendas, monumental villains, megalomaniacal sorcerers and a healthy dose of cynical wit.

Written in first person, the narrator is Murgen, Standardbearer of the Black Company. He follows Croaker, the original narrator of the original series, who was once the physician and is now the Captain, or, as most call him, the Old Man. The Old Man is still determined to reach Khatovar, the semi-mythical birthplace of the Free Companies, of which the Black Company is the last. The Lieutenant is now Lady, once the powerful sorceress-empress of an impressive Northern empire. Ancient in knowledge and evil, the Lady has reformed and has become the lover of the Old Man. Having lost her magical abilities at the end of the White Rose (the last book in the original trilogy), Lady has somehow regained them.

Rounding out the cast are the eternally feuding wizards, One-Eye and Goblin, finally separated in order to save the Old Man’s sanity. The Nyeung Bao, a group of swamp dwellers who have attached themselves to the Black Company in payment for a debt of honor, remain secretive and Murgen, though related to them through his murdered wife Sahra, begins to suspect their motives.

The villains of the piece, Longshadow, Howler, Mogaba and Soulcatcher are still dedicated to wiping out the Company, and are still facing the Old Man’s bag of tricks. Much of what the Company does is for show or to confuse the enemy, the rest of their actions are just plain dirty. The men (and Lady) who came out of the North are hard-bitten, experienced mercenaries, and they only care about themselves and their Company brothers. They’ve created a force of thousands from the paltry handful that arrived out of the North. The Company’s attitude is that they take care of their own, and the rest of the world can go to hell. The problem is, most of the rest of the world is trying to send the Black Company to hell.

Don’t begin reading the “Black Company” series with She is the Darkness. There is so much back-story that diving in so near the end would be a disservice to you. It would be possible to begin with Shadow Games, the first “Book of the South”. I would suggest, if you haven’t read any of the “Black Company” books, start with The Black Company, the very first of the first trilogy. You won’t be disappointed, as that first book is the best introduction to a setting and a style that I can think of. If you get hooked on The Black Company, you’ll be hooked on the rest of the series.

She is the Darkness is a great continuation of a fantastic tradition. Cook is on top of his game, upping the sense of paranoia and ‘us against them’ mentality that runs through the series. There is a sense of menace, of impeding doom, through the entire work that leads quite logically to its conclusion. There are great battles and very personal moments, all woven together with the world-weary, cynical and somewhat pained voice of Murgen, still getting over the loss of his beloved wife.

The change from calling Croaker by his name to the Old Man makes a great transition. The name Croaker, for any reader of the “Black Company” series, conjures up images of the sarcastic but caring physician who had narrated the original trilogy. The Old Man is not the Croaker of old. The Old Man is mean and conniving. He is even starting to give up his illusions of honor, and, for the first time, considers screwing the employer before getting screwed. Murgen has taken up the cause of the honor and tradition of the Company, but he does not exhibit the same amount of compassion that floated through Croaker’s chronicles.

Not everyone is going to love this book, especially if one hasn’t enjoyed the previous “Black Company” books. Glen Cook fans, of which I am one, will be thrilled with the further chronicles of the toughest, smartest and sneakiest band of soldiers in fantasy history. Put these guys up against Agaememnon and Odysseus, and they might just come out on top. Would Arthur and Lancelot stand up to this crew? Maybe not. Sauron may have scurried into a hole, faced with these vicious, determined mercenaries. Perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much.

Fans of military fantasy will love this series, and certainly this book. If you enjoy fantasy with a darker edge, you’ll definitely enjoy this. The sense of real, in-the-dirt life permeates this book. The military aspects ring true, and Cook doesn’t go overboard with the band-of-brothers mentality. It works just right, which has been one of the strengths of this series.

Hop on board for another ride on a magic carpet more wicked and exciting than anything the Howler can whip up (that’s an in-joke for you Company brothers and sisters). There’s everything from set-piece battles to personal angst to political intrigue. Secret agendas, betrayals, in-fighting, back-stabbing and sex are all here, with touches of high-level wizardry and pyrotechnics thrown in.

She just might be the darkness, but you’ll want her anyway.

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