Monday, May 30, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The Silver Spike

When last we left our heroes, quite a huge battle took place on the Barrowlands, where the evil Dominator was struggling to throw off his chains. Darling led the Black Company to prevent his rise, in conjunction with the Lady and her forces, who wished the same. Meanwhile Raven's reckless attempt to access the Barrow (possibly to murder the Dominator, or at least to ensure he still slept) threatened to raise him, and Raven found himself trapped alongside the physical body of the wizard Bomanz who was placed in suspended animation after his attempt to subvert control over the Lady centuries ago.

In the ensuing fracas, One-Eye managed to free Raven's spirit, while the company managed to revive Bomanz, and together with the Lady's forces, Bomanz himself, Raven and his soldier friend Case, the Company managed to subdue the Dominator, drive a silver spike through his head and burn his body, encasing his demonic will into the spike. They then drove the spike into a sapling that was the son of the great Father Tree, the god of the Plain of Fear.

Tracker and Toadkiller Dog, two demons that had been trapped with the Dominator but were accidentally freed by Raven, ended up taking two sides in the war: Tracker joined the Company but didn't survive the battle while Toadkiller Dog remained loyal to the Dominator, and while he was badly wounded in the battle, he seems determined to harry the sapling, doing his departed master's bidding.

Having their true names revealed, the Lady and Darling both end up losing their powers. The Taken are now free agents and the Company no longer has a White Rose to protect.

The Company itself barely survived the battle of the Barrowlands, Croaker, One-Eye, Goblin, Silent, Otto, Hagop, standard-bearer Murgen and three others we'd not spent time with before being the only survivors. Croaker, as the ranking officer still alive, assumes the role of Captain and decides it's time for the Company to disband. The only thing left is to deliver the annals to the mysterious country of Khatovar, where the Company began, over 400 years earlier.

Silent opts to stay with Darling, as do the three soldiers we'd not seen before, so the rest of the company heads south, the Lady traveling with them.

Their story will be told in The Books of the South, which begin in the next volume. For now, let's return to the Barrowlands and the fate of the silver spike.
Toadkiller Dog, in assumed form and true form

The idea behind driving the spike into the sapling was that eventually the trunk would grow around the spike and no one would even be aware it was there. The sapling had the same defensive powers as its progenitor, so none dared get too close. Except that old Toadkiller Dog is determined to raise the fallen Taken, the Limper, now only a head in a shallow tomb near the Dominator's crypt. While fending off Toadkiller Dog, the sapling fails to notice the gang of thieves who have come to steal the spike until it's too late.

The thieves, a pair of cousins named Tully and Smeds, along with their partners Old Man Fish and Timmy Locan, are only after riches, knowing the spike will be of value to powerful people, and they can sell it and retire off the money. That was Tully's idea, anyway, and Tully is shown to be a man who thinks small. Sure, there are people after the spike, but they're not particularly interested in paying for it. They steal the spike, but now the real trouble has begun for them.
Meanwhile, the Limper has been raised thanks to the efforts of Toadkiller Dog, but suffice it to say the process of being reduced to just a head has left him quite mad.
Raven and Case decide that only the remains of the Company can help deal with the stolen spike, while Bomanz heads off looking for Darling, thinking she and Old Father Tree are the only ones who can help. Eventually they all end up together in one group, facing the Limper, two sorceresses and the whole of the Empire's forces, all looking for the spike, or in the Limper's case, just revenge.

The Good
Three words: Old Man Fish. Man, talk about your basic badass grandpa! I wish this weren't his only appearance. He'd be an amazing asset to the Company, heck, he might be a better captain than Croaker. This is how you write good badasses. Don't make them a Mary Sue, but do make it so the reader believes in them. How he manages to turn Smeds into a respectable guy is pretty well done. He might be among my favorite characters in this series.

I also really like how Raven's story is fleshed out here. Raven has been a figure of mystery for the initial trilogy, and while Croaker always thought of him as kind of a badass, the fact is that he's got some deep-seated attachment issues. His dark side and his light side are in constant battle, and the dark side might be winning. Watching this through the eyes of Case is actually pretty revealing. While Croaker was kind of impressed with Raven, seeing only is battle skill and mysteries, Case cuts through the bullshit and reveals to us who Raven really is, and it works, even if it shouldn't.

Despite not really feeling the Bomanz chapters in the previous novel, I actually grew to like and admire the old boy here. Despite how full of doubt his inner monologues show him to be, he's pretty capable and more than once comes through where others fail. He is essentially the opposite of Raven; he has fears, but he ignores them because stuff needs to be done. Raven knows stuff needs to be done, but he ignores it because he has fears.

The Bad
Smeds is an interesting character, but there were two fatal flaws that kept me from rooting for him like I was obviously supposed to. One is that he's a pedophile. I'm not using that word lightly. When we're introduced to him he's having a threesome with two sisters, ages 11 and 12. Later he makes a date with a 14-year-old he's forced to break, thank god, but we're reminded of his tendencies when he meets Darling, who is now in her mid to late 20's, and he thinks to himself that she's fairly attractive but "too old".

I kept waiting for him to get some sort of come-uppance due to this, but that never happens. He lives to molest another day. Just because he only molests kids who are willing doesn't make him any less creepy. Seriously, couldn't it have been Tully, who we're not supposed to like, that has that quality? This is the second time a sympathetic character has revealed at least possible pedophilic tendencies, and this, I feel, gets a little close to the line when it comes to asking me to still cheer this character on. Thankfully the first character doesn't actually physically commit this crime, but Smeds does.

Also, Smeds's story has already been told in this series, and told much better. There's hardly any difference at all between Smeds's path to becoming a real man and Marron Shed's story from Shadows Linger. Heck, their names are even similar. But whereas I liked Shed and felt that the transition was natural, I did not like Smeds for the reason I stated above and felt that his transition from whiny little bitch to man of action happened too quickly to be believable.

I was also confused for most of the story. Who exactly are Gossamyr and Spidersilk, the twin sorceresses after the spike? I assumed they were new Taken, but the Lady never mentions them in future volumes, and neither do we get any further explanation as to who Exile is. He's a dignitary, apparently from "the Tower", but he can't be that highly placed or the Lady would have had to talk to him when she visits the Tower in the next book. For that matter, who exactly are the "Black Riders" that Toadkiller Dog devotes himself to after he decides the Limper is too crazy? This is when Cook's natural laconic voice starts to work against him. Some fleshing out of these characters and the threat they pose is absolutely necessary.

For that matter, just who's telling about half this book? Cook sets up each tale as though it's a narrative of one of the characters who lived it, now relating it to the reader. For The Black Company it was all Croaker, in his duties as Company annalist. In Shadows Linger, we got two perspectives, Croaker's and Shed's, but Croaker gets Shed's story in full and tells us he's going to be including it. In The White Rose, we're never really told who related Raven's story to us, but presumably it's Croaker again, making some educated guesses. For this book, however, Croaker is completely absent and Case only knows what he's around to witness. Yet we get perspective chapters Case could in no way have learned about or figured out. From whence come Smeds and Old Man Fish's stories? Or the chapters from the point of view of the Limper or Toadkiller Dog?

Let's also talk a little more about a wizard's one true weakness. Basically if you know their true name, you can instantly depower them. They can rebuild, but at the conclusion of the last book, once the Lady's birth name, Dorotea Senjak, is spoken aloud, she loses all her power. The idea of a wizard's power being bound up in their true self, represented by their true name, is not old, and in fact another of my favorite series uses this, which is The Dresden Files.

But in that series, it makes a bit more sense. First of all, you have to be a demon, fey or powerful wizard in order to use a wizard's name against them. And it doesn't cause them to lose their powers, it just gives you some measure of control over them. You have to know their full name, middle-names included, and you have to speak it with the same kind of authority that they would. I can't just say "Harry Dresden" and gain control over him. I would have to use his whole name and speak it in the same way he does, and even then all I likely accomplished was defending myself against his spells or perhaps momentarily weakening him.

But in this world, knowing a sorcerer's name means you pretty much end their sorcerous career. Too bad it's not applied with any consistency.

Practically as soon as he's back to health in the previous volume, Bomanz reveals that his real name is Seth Chalk. I assumed he was trying to depower himself by giving his true name out, but no one speaks it, so he keeps his powers. But here, a talking vulture from the Plain of Fear repeatedly uses Bomanz's real name, much to his annoyance, but it doesn't do diddly squat to old Bo.

The Ugly
Not to repeat myself but I'd say setting up an unrepentant pedophile as a sympathetic character is pretty ugly.

But moving on to other issues; hey, Cook, can we be done with the Limper now? Can we please never have him return? Any potential he may have had as a scary villain is 100% gone. Sure, he's a bit creepy still, being just a head with an artificial body, plus the creature he turns into at the end is pretty gross, but in no way compelling enough to make up for his chapters.

For that matter, Toadkiller Dog, too. Neither character is compelling enough to warrant several chapters from their perspective. I'm okay with never using these guys again. Any time I realized we were back to them, I wanted to put the book down.

Final thoughts and ranking: honestly, while there were some great parts of this, particularly those involving Raven, Bomanz and Old Man Fish, I wasn't as impressed this time. And it had nothing to do with this book sort of being outside the main narrative, thus not including Croaker, Goblin, One-Eye or a number of other characters I'd gotten to know and love. It was just missing something this time out. Don't get me wrong; large parts are compelling, and don't get the idea that you can just skip it. Some pretty momentous stuff happens here, including the ultimate fates of two characters that you definitely will want to be there for. Thankfully, as short as this book is, the parts I wasn't keen on didn't dominate.

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

Final Ranking: B-

From here, it's on to The Books of the South and the return of Croaker and the Lady.

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