Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The White Rose

And so we come to it; the final volume in the initial Black Company trilogy.

I guess I didn't make it more clear that Glen Cook divvied up the books in this series. While there are ten volumes in all, the first three make up the trilogy called The Books of the North, and are followed up with a "stand-alone" novel that serves to wrap up the loose ends for some of the characters from that first trilogy. Then there's The Books of the South, in which the Black Company tries to return to its roots, and then The Books of the Glittering Stone, which I know little about. We'll see what those are like when they get there.

But with this book, The White Rose, we officially cap off The Books of the North.

First, a recap. Again, spoilers from Shadows Linger will be many, so please don't read further if you have not read that volume unless you just don't care about spoilers.

Shadows Linger ended with the Company aiding the Lady and her bound sorcerers, the Taken, in their effort to ensure the Lady's former husband, the Dominator, was unable to break the bonds of his prison-like tomb. The "Black Castle" turned out to be a portal powered by human bodies (both freshly dead and alive) that would serve to allow his escape, and Raven had been unwittingly aiding his rise by selling dead bodies to the creatures from the castle that served the Dominator. He only needed money to get a ship so that he could take his ward, Darling, who was the reincarnation of the White Rose, far from where the Lady could get her hands on her, but in the process was bringing forth one who makes the Lady look like a Care Bear.

To make a long story short, the Dominator was prevented from rising, thanks to the combined efforts of the Company and the Taken, but as soon as the battle was appearing won, the Company got some strange orders that they knew meant they were about to be herded up and disposed of; they simply know too much at this point.

Breaking away from the city of Juniper and fleeing the Taken, the Company is reunited with Darling, learn that Raven is apparently dead, and devote themselves to the White Rose.

Old Father Tree protected by his minions
Now the Company, serving as the White Rose's personal guard and strike force despite there only being about a hundred of them left (there had been hundreds upon hundreds before), are holing up on the Plain of Fear, a stretch of land that needs to be seen to be believed. Populated by strange, otherworldly creatures like "Wind Whales" (which are just what they sound like", flying mantas, walking trees, backward centaur-like creatures and talking stones, the Plain is ruled by Old Father Tree, a mysterious guardian from ages past, and afflicted by "change storms" that...well, just read it.

The creatures of the Plain have formed a temporary alliance with the Company, and all are protected by Darling's magical null. See, what makes Darling the White Rose is that her mere presence prevents magic from being affective. When she was a little girl, it protected only her from magical attacks, but as she's grown, so has the null, which now extends around her in a miles-long radius.

The Taken have been skirting the Null's edges, trying to strike at the Company where they can, while the talking Menhirs of the Plain keep watch for intruders, and repeatedly warn Croaker of "strangers on the plain". Most of the strangers are couriers bearing mysterious letters for Croaker, informing him in a very dramatic manner just how the old wizard, Bomanz, managed to contact and raise the Lady and her Taken all those centuries ago.
But they talk.
Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Corbie (yeaaaah) has arrived in the Barrowlands, moved into Bomanz's old house and begun piecing together the Barrowland's history and Bomanz's place in it. You don't get any points for guessing who this really is, or that he's the one sending Croaker all those messages.

Meanwhile, realizing that the Taken have regrouped, added to their numbers and retaken a lot of lost ground since the Company took to the Plain, Darling decides the time to strike has come, and organizes a raid. The Company is aided by a mysterious traveler named Tracker and his pet mutt, Toadkiller Dog. Also, once Croaker lets Darling know about the letters he's been receiving, she sends him to the Barrowlands to discover their source.

The Good
Dangit if Glen Cook hasn't addressed my primary concerns yet again. I wasn't happy with the way the last book ended, mainly because I knew Raven wasn't really dead even before I knew it, and I didn't think it was in character for him to abandon Darling like that. Well, the answer as to why he did it is in this book, and it is heartbreaking. It reveals so much about two characters, and I love how it was handled. This is one of the reasons why I feel like even with Cook's laconic style, he still ropes you in. You care about these characters. And you're justified in doing so. Maybe Cook won't address all your concerns in one book, but he hasn't let me down once yet. I admire that.

I also enjoyed the Plain of Fear. There's enough weirdness going on here that it's practically ready for a story of its own. I can even see the cover art in my mind, like something by Robert E. Howard: "Conan and the Plain of Fear". And don't worry; Cook lets you know what's up with it. I like that he answers the mysteries of the plain by introducing another mystery and leaving it mysterious. Somehow that's even more satisfying.
Wind Whales and flying Mantas!

And here's something I've been waiting for since the series began; the Lady actually gets a great bit of face time in this story, and we learn a bit more about what she's really like. There are discussions on the nature of evil, whether or not something like true evil can exist, and whether the Lady matches that description, but now that we're spending some time with her, it becomes clear that she's not even sure what her motivations are anymore, and finds this entire conquest to be exhausting. I enjoyed this humanizing of a character whom we've spent two books fearing. I already knew that she couldn't be as brazenly evil as Sauron, but I was wondering myself what her end goal is. Turns out she might be doing all this conquering because that's all she knows how to do.

And the ending is great. That's all I'm gonna say since I won't include spoilers until my recap in the next review. But I really was moved to tears. I never thought this series would do that to me, but it did.

Finally, I like that we're getting more POV's as each book goes on. The first was entirely Croaker's POV, while the second book added Shed's, and this one splits between three: Croaker, Corbie and Bomanz. That said, it did lead to some issues...

The Bad
For one thing, I began to wonder as of this book why Croaker's chapters are the only ones that are first-person perspective. In the first book it made sense, and in the second, it also did, because Croaker mentions putting Shed's story in full in the annals. But here, I don't think he was given Raven's whole story, nor does he mention deciding to include it if he was. I can understand why he included the Bomanz chapters, but then, that's another issue.

I couldn't really get into the Bomanz chapters. I don't know why, but they just weren't all that interesting. There's a lot of family squabbling, some conversations with the guardian of the Barrow, a twist ending that actually was sorta cool, but not cool enough to spend all that time with him. We're not done with Bomanz, by the way, which isn't much of a spoiler, but let's say I enjoy him better later.

I also was not keen on the characters of Tracker and Toadkiller Dog. They added nothing to this story whatsoever, and their endings didn't make much sense, in my opinion. Even knowing what happens in the next book didn't make me think they needed to be included at all.

Finally, it's been mentioned in the other books, but here it comes to light just how silly a wizard's one weakness is. More on this in a future post.

The Ugly
I'm starting to wonder what the point of the Taken are. Not the originals, who were interesting (and maybe not 100% written out, either), but the newer additions. Whisper, Feather and Journey, expanded upon in the last book, barely appear here at all (Feather is already gone) but at the beginning of the book, a scout tells the Company about the newest members of the taken, and they seem like they could be interesting...if we ever even once got to meet just one of them.

And no, I don't think we're ever going to. I'm midway through book 5 right now and there's been no mention of them since book 3. Kinda pointless to bring them up if you're not going to use them. Chekhov is very angry with you, Mr. Cook.

Final Thoughts and ranking:

If you muscled your way through The Black Company and enjoyed Shadows Linger, as I did both, The White Rose will not disappoint. It's a fitting and moving conclusion to The Books of the North. And it still keeps you interested enough to move on to the next collection. Aside from a couple of smaller problems, this one's a winner.

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

Final Ranking: B+.

I'm truly enjoying my journeys with the Black Company, and I hope you are as well.

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