Water Sleeps, by Glen Cook

water-sleeps-by-glen-cook coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: fourhalfstars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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By the way, if you’ve never read the Black Company, crawl out from under your rock and get a start with the first novel, the Black Company. If you’re already a Company brother or sister, and are wondering about Water Sleeps, read on.

Water Sleeps is Book Three of “Glittering Stone” and another in the amazing “Black Company” series, which started in 1984 with the Black Company. Water Sleeps, however, is a departure from the rest of the series. Croaker, also called the Old Man, has next to no presence in this novel, and no dialogue at all. The narrator is Sleepy. None of the Old Crew make any marks on this novel save the two wizards, One-Eye and Goblin. This is a story of an underground, desperate to resurrect the mystique and power of the Black Company, buried on the plain of Glittering Stone.

She Is The Darkness ended with a huge surprise, and it is impossible to discuss Water Sleeps without giving away the ending of She Is The Darkness. If you haven’t read Book Two of “Glittering Stone” (She Is The Darkness) and you don’t want a more than strong hint about how that books ends, stop reading now. No, really, I mean it. Stop now!

You still here? Okay, so the Old Crew, including Croaker, Lady and Murgen are buried in the fortress that dominates the middle of the plain of Glittering Stone. Trapped with them are many Nyueng Bao, Blade and Cordy Mather, as well as Longshadow and the Prince of Taglios. They were put there by Soulcatcher’s treachery, aided by the lovesick Willow Swan, who decided if he couldn’t have the Lady, her sister might do.

Fifteen years later, the remains of the Black Company, a pathetic few with their Nyueng Bao allies, still plans to free the Captured. Soulcatcher is now the Protector of Taglios and believes–or at least wishes–the Black Company died on Glittering Stone. Sleepy and Murgen’s wife, Sahra, lead what is left of the Black Company. They decide the time has come to make their presence known. Along the way, they figure out a plan for freeing the Captured and making Soulcatcher and all their other enemies pay. It’s a long shot, and they have less then a prayer considering the odds against them, but the Black Company has always been part deceit, part bluster and all tough.

Through all this, we learn that Murgen and Sahra’s son, Tobo, is some kind of prophesied hope for the Nyueng Bao, and the wizards Goblin and One-Eye say he’s the future of the Black Company. Sleepy can’t be sure if they’re all correct, but she has to accept that the kid has talent, if no discipline.

With unlooked for allies, powerful enemies and little hope, the Black Company does what it always does–fight unspeakable odds with guts, verves and all out nastiness.

This novel is a slight departure from what came before, and is much more like the beginning of Shadow Games or even the White Rose, which saw the Black Company hiding out from the Lady (then their enemy) on the psychedelic and dangerous Plains of Fear. The Company isn’t a military unit anymore. It’s barely more than a bunch of losers who haven’t figured out they’ve got no hope. It’s a story of an underground of determined fighters, biding their time and taking the opportunities fate offers them. Sleepy is a new voice as a narrator, a woman not at all sure that’s what she wants to be. She doesn’t have the baggage of Company mystique that Croaker had, or the cynical egoism of Murgen, but she has her own vision of the Black Company, informed by both of theirs, and she is bright. While Sahra isn’t really Black Company, she’s the Company’s other leader, determined to free her husband from imprisonment.

There are no set battles. There are no scenes of armies clashing. There are very few battles at all. There is tension and plans hiding within plans, something Cook is very good at portraying. Everyone’s got an angle, and everyone’s got an agenda. Sometimes they mesh and sometimes they don’t. The Black Company, also, have guts enough not to need luck. The SAS have a motto: “Those who dare, win”. It could apply to the Company in this novel.

And there is no real happy ending for this crew. That might come in Soldiers Live, which is the last book of Glittering Stone, and, for now, the last chronicle of the Black Company. Glen Cook has never been one to turn a blind eye on reality. Sometimes things just don’t work. Sometimes good people die because other people do something stupid. Sometimes the heroes just aren’t nice guys. That’s all in Water Sleeps. It isn’t exactly depressing to read–it’s far too exciting for that–but there are no sylvan glades for the unicorns to frolic in. There’s no wedding of the Prince and the beautiful Princess. There’s death, pain, sadness and grim determination. There are triumphs, but, as with life, even those are tainted by the failures.

Most of all, Water Sleeps is as gritty as the other Black Company books. Given that they don’t have the muscle or respect that the Black Company can usually boast, it may even be grittier. To me, that’s a plus. Croaker, as he is portrayed in the first trilogy and Shadow Games, is my favourite narrator, but Sleepy’s voice is interesting, and, it’s still Cook, so how couldn’t I like it?

Bottom line: Water Sleeps is the Black Company in the wonderful Cook tradition. It’s got everything the other novels have, plus a departure that takes it along a different tack from its predecessors in “the Books of the South” and “Glittering Stone”. If you love the Black Company, you’ll love Water Sleeps. Glen Cook doesn’t let us down. I knew he wouldn’t.

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