And so we come to end of the line for several of the main characters of the Black Company trilogy. The end of the third book, The White Rose, saw the storied mercenary company whittled down to a handful of survivors. The group — five veterans, the empire’s erstwhile ruler the Lady, and Croaker in the lead — decided to travel south and find Khatovar, the fabled home city of the Black Company.
Darling, otherwise known as the rebel leader the White Rose, chose to remain in the North rather than accompany Croaker and the rest of her friends. The wizard Silent, in love with with Darling, chose to remain with her despite her not having reciprocal feelings. Raven, also in love with Darling, stayed behind too, but rejected, went off with Case, the young imperial soldier he’d befriended.
Published four years after The White Rose, The Silver Spike (1989) is a sort of odd book that attempts to tie up several loose ends. It covers a lot of ground, constantly bouncing between several narratives and the better part of two continents. Concerned as much with giving ends to a host of characters as he is with the aftermath of the rebellion, Cook doesn’t tell a totally cohesive story.
Over here, several characters are chasing down a revived enemy only to be suddenly yanked away to face a different threat. Another storyline follows a new set of characters as they commit an act of great stupidity that leads to many deaths and horrendous destruction. There’re lots of very cool bits of business, but The Silver Spike feels like several books jammed together rather inelegantly. Perhaps if Cook had written a giant, sprawling work, like one of today’s thousand-page tomes, he could have made it come together better. But at only 313 pages, there’s little space for the rambling the book is given to.
The Silver Spike begins with Philodendron Case introducing and explaining himself. A minor character in The White Rose who found himself attached to Raven, now he’s a primary character.
This here journal is Raven’s idea but I got me a feeling he won’t be so proud of it if he ever gets to reading it because most of the time I’m going to tell the truth. Even if he is my best buddy.
Talk about your feet of clay. He’s got them run all the way up to his noogies, and then some. But he’s a right guy even if he is a homicidal, suicidal maniac half the time. Raven decides he’s your friend you got a friend for life, with a knife in all three hands.
My name is Case. Philodendron Case. Thanks to my Ma. I’ve never even told Raven about that. That’s why I joined the army. To get away from the kind of potato diggers that would stick a name like that on a kid. I had seven sisters and four brothers last time I got a head count. Every one is named after some damned flower.
Following months of drunken self-pity, Raven decides he must catch up with the Black Company and confront his old friend Croaker. The last time they saw each other, Croaker left an arrow in Raven’s hip. Not for revenge but for reconciliation, Raven, with Case by his side, heads south.
At the same time a band of crooks comes up with a plan for a gigantic score. The great villain of the trilogy, the Dominator, can’t be completely destroyed, only imprisoned. Part of how this was most recently accomplished was by trapping much of his essence in a silver spike (gotta work that title) and nailing it into a sapling from the god-tree Old Father Tree. The thieves — cousins Tully and Smeds Stahl, Timmy Locan, and Old Man Fish — plan to sneak into the Barrowlands, steal the spike, then sell it to the highest bidder.
Under cover of terrible chaos raised by the sudden reappearance of major fiend Limper, the thieves snag the spike. Back in their home city, Oar, they soon become trapped with the rest of its citizens. The theft of the artifact has become common knowledge among the empire’s surviving wizards and they’ve tracked its location. They put the city under quarantine and start pulling it apart in a contest to capture the spike.
The third storyline, told from the point of view of Toadkiller Dog, the vaguely-canine demon servant of the Dominator, follows the resurrected Limper’s quest for vengeance against Lady. Limper, never a stable sort to begin with, goes increasingly mad and murders thousands upon thousands of people in his pursuit of retribution. When he learns of the spike’s theft, he abandons that hunt and heads back north toward the city of Oar.
Finally, Darling and Silent, under the direction of Old Father Tree, get sent off with an army of windwhales and all sorts of other mad denizens from the Plain of Fear to track down Limper in the distant south and kill him. When the spike is snatched they are forced to return to the North to secure it.
Eventually, everyone ends up in Oar. Armies, wizards, monsters — all converge in a series of spectacular betrayals and battles. At the last, thousands more are dead and plenty of people get the ends they’ve earned.
Few characters get a heroic or noble death in The Silver Spike. Cook may have a romantic streak that comes through in even his darkest stories, but not when it comes to death. Some characters die off stage, lost to chance and pestilence; one gets shot through the head after doing something stupid; many spend their lives in fruitless efforts to stop the unstoppable. From the very start of The Black Company series Cook drained all noble sentiment from fighting and killing. Even when carried out for the best of reasons, he confronts the reader with the permanent costs in blood and soul. That may not sound so revolutionary to contemporary fantasy readers, but thirty years ago that attitude stood in sharp contrast to the bulk of genre fantasy.
The greatest weakness in The Silver Spike is the herky-jerky pacing. First Raven goes south, then he gets dragged back to the North. The same thing happens with Limper and Darling. Goals built up as things of great importance suddenly get dropped and never mentioned again. It makes a lot of the first half of the book feel a little pointless.
Overall the book rides along well on Cook’s normal, solid prose punctuated by paragraphs of face-punching power. There are times, though, when it’s not good. Like when he’s trying his hardest to write contemporary profanity, he fails utterly. Instead of sounding tough, or even just ill-educated, characters sound like middle-schoolers from the seventies:
Raven crawled, unable to get back up. I felt like a total Daryl Dipshit standing there doing nothing to help, but my legs just wouldn’t move.
The wizard caught up, hoisted Raven. They cussed each other like a couple of drunks. I got my feet going finally and leaned into the heat. “Come on, you guys. Knock it off. Let’s throw this dork on a horse and get out of here before we all get turned into pork cracklings.”
Fortunately, there’s not a lot of that in The Silver Spike. Enough to be irritating, true, but not enough to ruin it. Most of the time it’s pretty cool, like when Limper attacks Oar single-handed:
The snow was pretty torn up out there now but he strayed onto some virgin stuff while he was making up his mind which breach to charge. About fifty slimy green tentacles shot up out of it, glommed on to him, and started trying to pull him apart. The snow all around erupted. A whole pride of monsters piled on Limper. Toadkiller Dog got his head in his jaws and tried to bite it off. Something else shoved a hoof in his mouth so he couldn’t do no hollering. The people who had ridden those monsters ran toward the excitement.
Exile and the twins paid no attention. They faced the city now, making concerted, complex come-hither gestures. What looked like a flock of birds rose from deep in the city and headed our way. Close up I saw it wasn’t birds at all but lots of chunks of wood.
The flock settled outside the wall, neatly building a monumental pyre. Did they think they were going to roast Limper? They’d tried fire already.
A giant pot followed the wood, sloshing, settled amidst the pyre. A big lid followed. It just hung around in the air, waiting.
The black riders got in on the fun down below. Everybody and everything was trying to cut the Limper up or tear him apart. I asked Torque, “You got an onion we can toss in?”
Brigadier Wildbrand said, “That’s the spirit.” She winked when I looked at her.
The spirit? I didn’t have no spirit left. This wasn’t even my fight, when I thought about it. And my hip was hurting so bad I expected to fall off everything in a minute.
The Limper bit the hoof off the thing that had one in his mouth, spit it out, let out a howl like the world’s death scream. Bodies and pieces of body flew. Only Toadkiller Dog hung on. He and the Limper rolled around growling and screaming while the others tried to get back into it.
Exile assessed the damage. He looked at me. “He’s too strong for us. It wasn’t a great hope, anyway. Will you contribute?”
I signed to Darling, “He wants help.”
She nodded, fixed on the action. For a moment I thought she wasn’t going to answer. Then she made a complicated series of hand gestures. The eagle plunged off her shoulder, went flapping off and up.
I saw what Exile meant about Limper being too strong. One of the monsters was doing the foot-in-mouth trick to keep his sorceries silent. Toadkiller Dog was on his back, hanging on with all four limbs, his jaws still locked on the Limper’s head, which he had almost completely turned around. But the others could not keep his limbs pinned. He used those to devastating effect.
The shadow of the windwhale grew more and more deep. It was coming down. Already I could smell it.
The Silver Spike is important to finishing off the story of the Black Company in the North. It’s fun to see how Cook ties up the loose ends left over from the previous book and the fates he metes out to characters we’ve met throughout the series. But it isn’t an especially cohesive book; it’s made up of too many pieces that never join together into something greater. The most compelling of the various plot lines is that of the thieves. The growing desperation that gnaws away at them as they succumb to one bit of bad fortune after another is chilling. Against their own judgment, bad men allow themselves to become terrible men. Unfortunately, nothing with any of the veterans of the Black Company is as intense or satisfying.
If you’ve read the initial trilogy and didn’t read The Silver Spike before continuing the series, I don’t think you’d miss that much. If Cook had written another trilogy, heck, even just a duology, I think it would have been better. Instead, this book comes across like a pile that the reader has to sort through to find the valuables. There are some very good things but they’re housed in a ramshackle house of a book.
I’m looking forward to picking up the next book, Shadow Games (1989). It and all the subsequent volumes in the series follow Croaker and the remaining survivors of the Black Company on their quest for Khatovar. I’ll be back with that next week. In the meantime, if you’re not up to speed, you can go back and read my previous Black Company reviews at the links.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him. Right now, he’s writing about nothing in particular, but he might be writing about swords & sorcery again any day now.