I think by now we all know I mean this as “I am bad at reviewing books” not “the books are bad”. But just in case we didn’t, I’ve said it now.
The Dread Empire series by Glen Cook is an epic dark, and epically dark, fantasy series about – variously, a woman behing
wooed stalked by an ancient wizard while her husband tries to save her, a mercenary viking stuck politicking and fighting for various city states and becoming hopelessly entwined in a less powerful one, a religious war amongst a desert people set in motion by a sneaky background person with no clear goal other than to set the prophet and the last prince (an epically awesome sorcerror assassin type) against each other, and an ominous empire to the east which is, as they politely like to put it, “unacquainted with defeat”. The series was started in the 1980s and is, despite some issues, still totally worth the read.
If I hadn’t read the prequels – The Fire in His Hands and With Mercy Toward None – I probably would never have bothered to finish the first of Glen Cook’s main Dread Empire series (A Shadow of All Night Falling) let alone continued on to read the next two instalments (October’s Baby and All Darkness Met).
I am very, very glad I read the prequels first. You can tell on reading that A Shadow of All Night Falling is one of Cook’s earlier works. I mean, he was always really good, but he got SO MUCH BETTER. While a lot of the characters are awesome and the technical side of the writing is good, certain major characters leave a lot to be desired. Specifically, the main/only female character – Nepanthe – is a useless, stupid, annoying brat. Seriously, when this woman is kidnapped by a centuries old wizard who has been creeping on her for a long time (he saw a divination saying she would be the woman he loved – before she was born – and decided that the universe owed her to him) she runs around in a negligee, worries about her looks during a battle where her brothers are dying to rescue her, and decides that Varthlokkur, the wizard, is not actually that bad of a guy. While she is his prisoner. While he is actively trying to kill her brothers. And husband. And all her friends. And the story seems to agree with this.
That was my big takeaway from the first-written of the Dread Empire series. That and that the Star-Rider’s backstory and motives weren’t intriguingly vague, they were too vague to be anything but oh-no-not-this-unintelligible-babble-nutter again vague. Annoyingly vague. And yet, the end of that book with it’s handling of certain deaths was actually fun and good. Possibly because it was the only time Nepanthe wasn’t fucking annoying – specifically because she was portrayed in that moment as actually fucking annoying instead of looked favourably on.
Then there was October’s Baby. It was far better than A Shadow of All Night Falling for several reasons – the most notable being Nepanthe not being a major character and that her seven brothers had been reduced to a more manageable number by deaths in the previous book, even though they never quite became identifiable by personality.
The second book focuses around wars and political intrigues in a lot of tiny western countries which I struggled to locate and keep straight in my head, because – unlike almost every other fantasy book out there – the Dread Empire series does not include (what in the case actually would not have, had they existed, been gratuitous) maps!
Bragi – who actually was one of the protagonists of the first book – takes a more central role and the story is the better for it. Whereas the first focused on assaults on two wizard’s towers – both times because someone wanted to remove Nepanthe from the wizards’ grasps (in the first case, the kidnapping, from her brothers’ and in the second case a rescue from kidnapping), the second focuses on the tactics and strategies and Bragi, a mercenary general, gets roped into the political struggles of first one kingdom (the name of which I struggle to spell and cannot find by flipping back through the book as I write this, but which begins with an I) and then another: Kavelin, a tiny kingdom which holds one side of the best pass through the mountains that divide the ever-fighting western kingdoms and deserts in the middle and east) from the mighty eastern empire of Shinsan …which, naturally, makes Kavelin a centre for power grabs and intrigues.
A succession crisis occurs because that weird annoyingly vague guy from the first book has some sort of plot in motion – exact expectations of success never quite made clear – to swap out the young Queen Fiana’s baby (which they put in her with sorcery while she slept and yes that is creepy and no the creepy is not examined) with a child-shaped agent of their own. It’s been two books. I still can’t make sense of that plan.
Thus the story tells of the politicking and warring by Bragi, Mocker (Nepanthe’s husband and an epic conman) and Haroun (the King Without A Throne, who spends most of his time elsewhere as that throne he doesn’t have is nothing to do with Kavelin) in an epic power struggle to keep Kavelin free from Shinsan’s control and win the succession wars.
It’s not really that stand out on its own, although the improvement in female character writing is notable, and sort of melds into the third book: All Darkness Met.
If you think GRRM is impressive about killing off beloved characters, honey I have news for you. The first half/two thirds of this book were slow, and then major characters started kicking it left right and centre. And to my utter joy there are no long drawn out death scenes where characters can somehow string together poetical sentences when they should be groaning in pain. Glen Cook writes really realistic gritty dark fantasy. He doesn’t pull his punches.
As is usual for Cook, the tactics and strategies are a major focus – as Shinsan, and the conspiracy within Shinsan which is somehow secretly run by that annoyingly vague guy who still doesn’t have much of a clear effing motive are, are going to war with the Kavelin again. And if you’re thinking, “wait ‘again’ weren’t they defeated last time?” the answer is Glen Cook is very good at showing how complicated politics is, how “final battles” are usually anything but, and how wars ripple throughout decades. Cook is not afraid to let his characters – if they survive the battles all through each book – grow old. That’s something that a lot of writers don’t do. They either leave dates vague and characters perpetually in the 25-35 vague age range even when it becomes impossible for them to have so many adventures or leave the story off on a high note while the characters are still young and pretty. Cook does not do that. He’s not afraid to make his main characters grow old and ugly and worn from too much war.
I spent the first two thirds of the book reading slowly, here and there, with days in between chapters. I read the last sixty pages literally on the edge of my seat with my nose practically touching the pages, muttering frantically to the characters to please not do things and yet being pleased when bad things happened because they stayed in character and Cook did not pull punches (and a sense that it was inevitable that people would do what they did because of who they are and a pot had no other options is always a plus for me) and I’m writing this all having just finished All Darkness Met and with the next one sitting next to me to read and I may be slightly freaking out because last time we saw one of my favourites he was deep in enemy territory all on his own and another favourite died unceremoniously in this one and I’m not sure I can cope!
What I’m saying here is DO read these books. Just start with the prequels, which are about the backstory of Bragi, Haroun, and Mocker – and show how, during a conflict called the El Murid wars, they went from being a usurped norther chief’s exiled son to a respected mercenary commander, from a fourth son of a side branch to a king without a throne but an amazing guerrilla army, and from a random conman to a man who cons countries.
If you like dark fantasy, absolutely read the Dread Empire books. Just do prequels, then the main series, not the other way around. And now I’m off to read the fourth, fifth, and final books and find out where my poor surviving favourites are (and probably be devastated later, but not until after the deploy some of the cunning awesomeness they, and the books, are known for). You likely won’t hear from me for a while. If you need me, I’ll be in Kavelin.