With Bleak Seasons (1996), Glen Cook broke a six year hiatus from the series that had made his reputation as an important voice in epic fantasy. The previous book, Dreams of Steel (1990), had ended in chaos, with Lady and Croaker reunited, but their newborn daughter stolen by murderous Deceiver, Narayan Singh. The siege of Dejagore was finally lifted, but Soulcatcher remained at large and the Shadowmaster Longshadow continued to build his mega-fortress, Overlook, and field powerful armies. During that six very long years, I became increasingly doubtful I’d ever learn what happened next, or just what made the siege of Dejagore so horrible.
And then Bleak Seasons appeared — just showed up on a Barnes and Noble shelf one day. I bought and devoured it almost immediately. I couldn’t really say my questions had been answered since it had been so long since the last book I forgot some of them. On top of that, the book was a mess; its narrator literally jumping around in time with no clear rhyme or reason. That it was packed with tons of great stuff made it a frustrating read. All the good bits were enough to tilt it to the good side, and I trusted Cook enough to hope the next book would be a return to form.
My reread of the book over the last two days didn’t change my opinion one bit. Well, except that reading Bleak Seasons right up against Dreams of Steel does make all the cool stuff cooler. The jumping around in time, that remains frustrating and poorly explained and with little obvious justification.
Bleak Seasons opens with a short chapter that clearly tells us four years have passed and terrible things have happened. Based on the timelines in the previous book there would seem to be no way this could make sense unless something drastic had happened.
The second chapter introduces us to the book’s narrator, Murgen. The youngest member of the six Company survivors from the original trilogy, he was standard-bearer and, before the disaster under the walls of Dejagore, Annalist-in-training. He opens with a tour of the city of Dejagore during the siege and an introduction of the factions defending it against the army of the Shadowmaster Shadowspinner.
The Black Company and its Taglian auxiliaries have split into two camps. The first is composed of the Northerners and most of the men recruited on the road to Taglios, and is led by Murgen — because no one else wants to be in charge. The second, and stronger, is led by Mogaba and his fellow Gea-Xle warriors. Mogaba is not happy with the situation and soon it’s clear he has it in for Murgen and friends.
Mogaba, possessed of a will of steel and a willingness to do every single bloody act necessary, is the overall commander of the defense of Dejagore. As supplies dwindle, Mogaba routinely ejects members of the Jaicuri population to almost certain death. Later, it’s learned he has returned his fellow Gea-Xle to the darkest part of the Black Company’s origins as soldiers of Kina, the goddess of destruction.
The Nyueng Bao are a third party; a group of pilgrims from the distant Main River delta in the east who had the misfortune to be caught in Dejagore when the siege started. They are secretive, insular, and, it becomes clear quickly, dangerous. Finally, the native Jaicuri, peaceful by nature and beaten down by years of Shadowmaster rule, just try to stay on the good side of Mogaba’s and Murgen’s soldiers and hope for the best.
Things go well for twelve chapters. Cook brings the desperation of the defenders of Dejagore to life in filthy, starvation-plagued detail. We learn about Mogaba’s schemes as well as those of Murgen, One-Eye, and Goblin. We also meet the Nyueng Bao’s leader, Speaker Ky Dam, and deadly old fighter, Uncle Doj. In Chapter 13 things start to go wrong.
I firmly believe Cook wrote Bleak Seasons as he did in order to 1) tell the inside story of Dejagore 2) speed the reader through a fairly dull four-year period of logistical build up, and 3) fill in a bunch of narrative gaps to smooth things over. The way he did it, however, is not good.
Somehow, in a way not explained in this book, Murgen is able to attach his consciousness to the mind of the comatose wizard Smoke, and transport himself psychically into the past and behind bolted doors. This happens four years after the siege of Dejagore is over. For all the time-jumping, the book is actually happening in the “present.” During these journeys, Murgen is completely aware.
Simultaneously, something unknown is dragging Murgen into the past against his will. In these moments, all of which bring Murgen back to the siege, he is completely oblivious of the future he’s really a part of. He isn’t remembering his past as much as reliving it.
If the description sounds confusing, understand it’s no less so when actually reading it. Like Cook’s character, the reader gets yanked back and forth and then spun around while blindfolded several times over the length of Bleak Seasons. Cook’s attempt to concurrently tell two major storylines separated by years would work so much better if he had just written them side by side without any gimmickry. Instead, the time-jumping undercuts the tension, of which there are copious amounts, if only because the reader wants to know just what is causing it as much as what is going on plot-wise in the book. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not a good thing, and it’s frustrating in a book which, as I wrote already, has lots of good things going for it.
The most important part of Bleak Seasons is the introduction of Murgen as a major character. He brings a less cynical and more honest, or at least self-aware, voice to the Annals of the Black Company. There are several whole paragraphs where he lays out the flaws in both Croaker’s and Lady’s writings. He also has a more empathetic approach, something which will be a major factor in forging an important new alliance for the Black Company. Murgen seems to naturally attempt to understand and communicate with the people around him, in particular the Nyueng Bao, as opposed to figuring out how they can be manipulated for the Company’s benefit, as Croaker or Lady would do. It’s also interesting to see how someone so different from Croaker manages the Company. Even though not officially the captain, it’s Murgen who takes the reins of the veteran faction during the siege and, with constant prodding and poking from One-Eye and Goblin, manages to succeed. He also gets a genuine romantic interest in Sahra, granddaughter of the Nyueng Bao Speaker. Even amidst the blood and carnage of Dejagore and its aftermath, it’s surprisingly sweet.
Then there’s the siege, and what a terrible thing it is. Cook delivers, and the horrors within the walls of Dejagore more than live up to what was only hinted at in Dreams of Steel: the press of dirt, hunger, and steady warfare and the toll it takes on civilians and soldiers alike. Mogaba becomes a monster in so many different ways, the least of which is tossing civilians, and anyone even suspected of disloyalty, off the walls to cut down on the number of mouths to feed. Where he ends up taking the core of his Gea-Xle brothers is blacker than pitch, and a place of no possible return.
Murgen might not be as sneaky as Croaker, but he’s pretty good. As soon as the Company is sealed up inside Dejagore by Shadowspinner’s armies, he and the rest of the veterans start planning how to defend themselves from Mogaba. Having survived for years in the warren under the Plain of Fear way back in The White Rose, the first idea is to build down and excavate tunnels connecting basements and cellars in a complex impenetrable to anyone not schooled in its secret ways. When the time finally comes veterans withdraw, closing the doors behind them and leaving Mogaba completely flummoxed.
Periods of near-unbearable tension as the Company waits for the next axe chop from Shadowspinner or Mogaba, are broken only by moments of violence and chaos. It’s in the latter bits Cook does his best writing, managing to raise the emotional stakes every time. Cook deploys violence ruthlessly in these books, and never once lets the reader forget it isn’t some romantic undertaking, but a horror that can stain and destroy everything.
We ran through that alley where I had stumbled before and had plunged into hell. For a second I thought I had run from Dejagore into another nightmare.
Taglian soldiers were dragging Nyueng Bao women and children and old people out of the buildings and throwing them to soldiers in the street. Those soldiers hacked and slashed. Their faces were distorted with the horror of their actions but they were out of control, far past the point where they could stop. The flicker of firelight made everything seem more hellish and surreal.
I had seen this before. I had seen my own brothers this way, a few times, back in the north. The blood smell takes control and kills the mind and deadens the soul and there is nothing human left.
Thai Dei howled a tortured cry and flung himself toward the building the Ky family occupied, sword wheeling overhead. The place showed no obvious signs of having been invaded. I followed him, my own blade bare, unsure why, though I thought fleetingly of the woman Sahra. Probably my actions were as thoughtless as those of the Taglians.
Taglians got in our way. Thai Dei engaged in some sort of bobbing, weaving dance. Two soldiers fell, their throats spurting. I beat another around with my sword, leaving him a collection of bruises and a lesson about dueling a guy a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier.
Then there were Taglians everywhere, most paying no attention to us. I did not have much trouble defending myself. Those people were smaller and weaker and had a much shorter reach. And what I managed by brute power Thai Dei accomplished through maneuver. Hardly anyone was interested in us by the time we reached the Speaker’s door.
The later narrative, four years after the relief of Dejagore, has its moments, but mostly it’s stage-setting for the next book. One-Eye builds a secret base in Taglios and a vast network of shops across the countryside to build up a huge arsenal for the final march on Longshadow. Croaker, perhaps tainted from his imprisonment by Soulcatcher, seems to have become a little unglued. Lady is becoming obsessed in her quest to exterminate every Deceiver and recover her abducted daughter. An important friend of the Company, Blade, is hounded out of Taglios and goes over to Longshadow. Mogaba, unable to face the returned Croaker or Lady, much less the hatred of Murgen and the others who know he had it in for them during the siege, also goes over to Longshadow and becomes his senior field commander. These are important things, but there’s little of the urgency and impact of the siege storyline, and there’s a constant sense that all is happening primarily as a precursor to something bigger and more important.
There’s a great section where we get an example of a campaign record kept by One-Eye. From a box of notes, stained, wrinkled, and filled with misspellings and self-serving tales, Murgen can salvage only a few useful pages. It’s a typically unromantic Black Company-style tale of drunkenness and bloodshed under the command of the Prince of Taglios.
We spent a week at Forngaw, then the Prince ordered us south to High Nangel, where we were supposed to join the Fourth Horse in trying to drive Blade’s bandits into the Ruderal canyon, but when we got there we found only one old woman in the whole territory and nothing to eat but rotting cabbages, most of which the peasants had buried in the earth before they fled.
Then we went up to Silure by way of Balichore and in the forest there we found a tavern almost like those in the north. While we were drunk an enemy witch sent an attack of poisonous toads against us.
Mostly, though, the present portion of the book is about getting things ready for the next book, She Is the Darkness (1997). Of course you have to read Bleak Seasons to have any idea of what’s going on in the series, and it does introduce Murgen and the Nyueng Bao. For those last two things alone, I can’t hate Bleak Seasons. I can be disappointed with it, though.
Cook’s understanding of his characters continues to grow. The changing of the Company, from one thing into another, long commented on by Croaker, is happening slowly but inexorably. Old veterans dying and new ones rising up from the ranks, and Cook makes you care about this, and desire the best for it. I want Lady to find her daughter, Croaker to defeat Longshadow, and the Company to find Khatovar. I just want it in a better-constructed and less frustrating book. Oh well, this came out over twenty years ago and no one’s going to fix it now. Come back next week for the eighth installment of my Black Company reread with She Is the Darkness.
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.