Friday, May 6, 2016

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Shadows Linger

I'm really burning through this series, for me, anyway. Reading is often a slow process for me because I have to be able to see and hear what I'm reading. Character looks and voices must be securely in place. I need to be able to see a scene in my mind. I need to see it as it plays out. I find that people who read quickly often come away with the wrong impressions of what was really going on, or don't accurately recall what certain characters, said, did, or looked like.

I finished this one several days ago, and I'm nearly finished the third in the series. I wanted to get ahead of my reviews for a bit so that I could be a bit more knowledgeable about where this series was going. I should warn you that spoilers from the previous volume may come up here, so if you haven't read the first, please do so before you read this review, unless, of course, you're the type that doesn't care about spoilers.

First, a bit of a summary. The ending of The Black Company found our main character, Croaker, and his titular company, still in the service of the Lady, a diabolical sorceress of great power whose goal is to conquer all of humanity. She tried once, centuries earlier and for her reward was defeated by a woman known only as the White Rose, and entombed in a deathless sleep until she was woken by a curious wizard.

The Black Company, the last mercenary company from the southern continent of Khatovar, was contractually bound to serve the lady at the start of the first book, and there they are, still stuck in her service despite the fact that the Rebel (the name Croaker uses to refer to those who are fighting back against the Lady's rule) is all but beaten. Raven, a mysterious man who enlisted with the company in the previous book, and Darling, a young girl he rescued and became fiercely devoted to, desert the company and go on the run, and Croaker realizes that this is because Darling is, in fact, the White Rose reincarnated, and as Raven will do anything to protect her, he decides running from the Lady, and thus, the Company, is the only option.

Raven is now in a city called Juniper, a northern shithole built upon worshipping death, and as such, is now falling apart. Juniper is a strange place. Above the city is a huge black fortress known only as the Black Castle. No one knows why it's there, who's in it (and there is someone in there) or where it came from, and they don't want to know. But it's there, and it's growing. Legend says it began as black chunk of rock, and grew from there.

Marron Shed, an inkeeper and bartender, doesn't know or want to know what's up with the Castle. He just wants to be able to survive the coming winter, keep his place and keep his aging, blind mother safe, but that means he needs wood to keep his fire going and food, but how's he to get that when he's in debt up to his eyeballs? A mysterious customer named Raven might be able to help there...

Meanwhile, Croaker and a few other Company members, including the forever-squabbling wizards One-Eye and Goblin, are sent ahead to Juniper, after a request from its governor comes to the Lady. They're tasked with figuring out what's up with the Castle, and partly the way they'll find out is by tracing old coinage. See, someone's been delivering bodies to the Castle, and being paid handsomely for it, in coins that are still legal tender, but quite old. And then there's Croaker's visits from the Lady, who tells him that the Castle has its roots in the Barrowlands, where her husband, the Dominator, still lies restless in his crypt, looking for a way to break free. And as bad as the Lady is, the Dominator is far worse.

The Good
Nearly all my complaints from the first book are redressed in this one. I wanted at least one other point of view than Croaker's. About half the chapters take place from the perspective of Marron Shed, and he's a surprisingly relatable character who, though incredibly flawed, sort of takes us on a journey of what it means to be human. I wanted the narrative to slow down a bit and let us catch up. It definitely does that here. I was still somewhat mystified as to what exactly was going on at the conclusion to The Black Company, but felt I was really learning about this world, these characters, and this story in this book.

One thing that made the first volume hard to read was how bloody long the chapters were. In a book that is over 300 pages, there were only seven chapters. Seven. Think about that. It almost felt like I was reading a series of novellas that had been welded together. Cook completely reverses course on that score. The chapters here are much, much shorter, some only a page or two. They gradually grow longer as the book goes on, and as the reader grows more involved. Because there are alternating points of view, that also makes it that much more readable. I like Croaker, and I was glad to get to spend more time with him and get to know him and his fellows better, but I also liked the Shed chapters. Neither one kept up too long or made me want to put it down. Instead, they complimented one another and made me all that much more eager to keep going.
The Black Castle

Then there's the under-representation of the fairer sex. In the first book, the Lady, her minion Soulcatcher and the young waif Darling were the only female characters that we spent any real time with. Darling was a deaf nine-year-old child, Soulcatcher spent a majority of the book pretending to be a man, while the Lady doesn't really take an active role in events until the book is nearly over. Here, the Lady has a bit more to do, and her minion Whisper (a wordless cameo in the first book) gets quite a bit of page time. Also, Shed's barmaid, Lisa, plays a pretty large, important role, and Darling, now 18 (yeah, these books time-jump between volumes), gets a bit more to do, or at least we're further educated on how important she is.

The chief difference between this volume and the first is that Cook lets us in. With this volume, he wants to let the reader see, feel and experience his world, while still not betraying Croaker's thinner narrative. And it works so much better. If you've read the first novel and struggled through it, this one makes it all worth it.

The Bad
Despite this novel being more accessible, the simple fact is that Cook still sticks quite a bit to his "tell, don't show" style of writing. This shows up the most often when the wizards start working magic. I've said before that because Croaker is our narrator, we primarily get his perspective on magic, which is that he doesn't understand it, and doesn't care to, but accepts it as part of his world. This means that some vital questions about magic just aren't answered, or even addressed. One-Eye and Goblin are supposedly not all that powerful, Silent is a bit more so, the Taken blow them all away, but what are magic's limitations? What can it not do? What does it cost the user? These and other questions need to be asked if you're going to include magic as a large part of your story. Every now and then Goblin or One-Eye will inform Croaker "I can't do that!" but they never explain why. When we've seen them do something amazing, and Croaker asks them to do something that seems borderline mundane by comparison, why can they not do that?

There are also times I wish he'd slow down a little. There's a joyous reunion in this book that he takes less than half a paragraph to describe. Yes, I know that's just Croaker's terse writing style, but I could have used more emotion in that scene. The chapters from Shed's point of view do seem a bit more descriptive than Croaker's, even though he allegedly wrote those, as well.

There were also a couple of characters I wish had not died. They died just as they were getting interesting.

The Ugly
Well, mainly the cover art. Look at it up there. I said look at it!

Seriously, though, if I have to mark anything as ugly, it's how Raven is treated in this story. As before, he never gets any point of view chapters himself, but we're now two books in and we still have next to no idea who he is or what makes him tick. This book has him take some pretty seriously dark actions, all in the name of protecting Darling, only to do something crazy out of character that I suppose we'll have explained in a future volume (I'm nearly finished the third novel and his motivations still seem unclear). The way it leaves his arc is so blatantly a red herring that I'm sure no readers were fooled even then.

Final thoughts and ranking:

This is a major step up for the series, and despite the continued uber-modern style of dialogue and the often stilted prose, I recommend this one heartily. This made me see why this series is so loved, and I think if you're a reader of fantasy, you'll love it as well.

Story: A
Writing Style: B-
Characters: B+
World-Building: B+
Readability: A
Accessibility: B
Consistency: A

Final Ranking: B+.

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