Ladies, gentleman ! Mesdames et Messieurs ! Good evening ! Bonsoir ! This is your captain speaking. Welcome on board I.S.S. Rover, whether you are here for the first time or a returning customer.. We have a clear sky with some 17 °C, totally unusal for this time of year. I mean it haven´t really rained for a whole month here. But that is of no significance for us tonight, as we are departing once again to a far away, and very possibly dark place in search for the Black Company, or what remained of it. So tonight, it´s time for Glen Cook´s Water Sleeps, the ninth and second to last book in the Black Company series, which also means that we are nearing the end of this whole (re)read project. But before we dive into the details, let me repeat the usual disclaimers.
This is a (re)read of the series that will encompass the better part of the year as I will be reading one book per month. I will be exploring the world of (what I till now believed is ) Khatovar, and as this is at least partly a reread there might be spoilers, so continue reading at your own risk, I did warn you. For the previous posts look up the links included at the end of this one.
This time there is nothing special about the cover. Actually there is, but I don´t know whether I want to write about it, after all it could be spoiler heavy. Oh why not, there is the disclaimer one paragraph earlier. So there we have a figure who seems to be crucified and turned upside down. First due to the events of previous books I thought that t might be a forvalaka ( shapeshifter vampire kinda being ), but after reading the previous book She is the Darkness and finishing this one I realised that it was a false idea. It´s actually the depiction of Shivetya, the guradian of the Plain of Glittering Stones, and of the tomb where the worst omnipotent Evil is slumbering. Yeah, that Evil, Kina, the Mother of Night or whatever name you want to call her, but we will get to it a bit later.
So lets start from page one. As you remember part of the company was captured at the caverns beneath the fortress they found in the middle of the Plain of Glittering Stones, among them Croaker, Murgen and Lady, the persons who had been the annalists, the storytellers of previous volumes. So it´s a valid question who is doing it this time. Is it One-Eye ? It would be a great surprise, but there was that chapter in Bleak Seasons where Murgen retells some events that were recorded in a manuscript by One-Eye. But no. Alas we have a new Annalist again, and it is none other than: … Oh, wait. Let her introduce herself (yes it´s a girl, and that narrows down the possibilities ):
They call me Sleepy.
I keep these Annals today. Somebody must and no one else can, though the Annalist title never devolved upon me formally.
There is precedent.
And as much as this is a Black Company novel, it is actually the story of Sleepy. Never before did we come this close to the actual annalist. Never did Glen Cook reveal so much about them. This annal, retelling of events is the most personal to date, and it just proves (again) that Cook is best when he zooms down to ground level, where personal struggles can be seen, and I can say that he has outdone himself. Till now Sleepy seemed to be a secondary figure. OK, Murgen chose her/him to be next standardbearer in line, like he was chosen before, so that he could take over fully the dutes of the annalist – but as we have seen that didn´t work out as planned. And till now we didn´t know practically anything about Sleepy, and now she is in the thick of it, and in charge of the company, but that is actually realistic. How many times have we seen in history lowly officers taking over command, after all the higher ups bit the dust …
For a bigger surprise: about fifteen years have passed. Yes, fifteen. Not six, not seven, not four, but fifteen, a whole generation later. The events following the departure of the Black Company for the Plain of Glittering Stones are accounted for only briefly, but that is of no importance. Or at least I didn´t feel anything missing, the most important facts get filled in through memories.
And once again the Black Company is back to doing what it does best ( yeah, I know this phrase might have been a bit overused by now, but I don´t care ): it fights a nasty campaign against nasty enemies, only this time it fights for itself, no employers, no sticks behind their backs. And there is no greater enemy than one that is driven by inner motives.
You might recall the operations peformed by the Black Company in the second book- Shadows Linger- infiltration of Juniper. There the company was at it´s pinnacle: full of veterans that were working together for years. And now we have remnants of the company, whose actual members however fresh at that time were not chosen to go to the Plain of Glittering Stones, which leaves the reader at a doubt if they trully are capable of being the Black Company. And yet these remnants surprise us. They perform actions that even the Old Crew would be proud of – and yes I´m remembering some bad ass motherfuckers like Raven here. Yes, there are Goblin´s partisans probably at the core of this “new” company, and the other members have seen some pretty vicious fighting during the Shadowlands campaigns, and yes some fifteen years have passed, they had time to gather experience, but still, one wouldn´t think them capable of doing much harm. And yet they manage to kidnap some high representatives of the taglian establishment, even the ruler, Radisha herself, and all this under the nose of the biggest ever pain in the ass of company history: the Soulcatcher. So much, that even Soulcatcher herself is seriously injured:
Willow Swan asked me, “What did you do now ?”
“Not me. Doj. He totally obliterated her means of transport. She is on her own two hooves now. She´s a hundred miles from her only friend. And Goblin´s already fixed up one of her feet so she can´t run or dance.”
“What you´re telling me, then, is that you´ve created another Limper.”
And this reference is a hell of an inside joke, so it´s not only the Black Company that´s outdone itself, but also Cook. We have the most interesting annalist till now, and more dirty action, than ever before, and I haven´t even revealed all the cards that were hidden in the hand of the writer. And I would be totally satisfied if the things remained at this stage, as this was what I signed for in the books of the north, the first story arc of the series.
But in the last four books Cook has hinted at something much bigger, and there were some strong hints in the last book, but nothing got really explained, but that´s what the second half of this book holds for us. After deciding that they have pissed Soulcatcher enough, the Black Company Decides it´s time to return to the Plain of Glittering Stones and free, or at least retrieve their captured brothers.
It´s here that the presence of the Nyueng Bao starts making sense. Cook just like he did it before in the fifth book, Dreams of Steel finds and or creates a convenient device ( which I didn´t like then, and I don´t like now either ) and tells of a much wider universe than what he has shown till now. First Doj explains to Sleepy that the Nyueng Bao, like the Nar are descendants of a Free Company whose mission was the resurrection of Kina, but that they come from a different place, not Khatovar. Next, when the Black Company is reunited at the Plain of Glittering Stones, the guardian of the fortress, and the plains in general offers help, and insight into the history of the Plains which reveals it to be a place in between of different worlds that are interconnected through the shadowgates. So we actually have science behind all the magic. And all the creatures: the shadows, the guardian himself, and the artifacts of the plain have been created for the purpose of waging war against intruders, conquerors from other worlds, or as defensive measures against those same intruders. Interesting development as it ties in to what we have seen on the Plain of Fears, and they might be connected somehow, but that remains to be revealed in the next book.
And of course we have some other new players beside Sleepy. Tobo for example. The fourteen year old son of our favourite standardbearer Murgen and his lovely wife Sahra. The youngster not stopping to surprise us throughout the book: he starts out as a fledgling rogue, just to become a talanted wizard apprentice as we near the end of the book. Is this a rise of a new “Raven” ? Well that remains to be seen in the next and ( for now ) last book in the series. But the tendencies are strong.
And we also have a game changing departure too to emphasize the message of the Company changing in form and substance. Goblin sacrifices himself in a direct clash with Kina – who is no god, but just another mad sorceress like the Dominator and the one burried under Father Tree – One-Eye suffers a stroke. And theabsence of Goblin, and diminishing of One-Eye is a strong message. They have been with us for nine books, them and their bickering being a constant and defining point for the whole of Black Company. But now there is no more Goblin, and no more shenanigans between the two wizards of the company. Almost like there is no more company, more so like when the company was reduced to seven members at the end of the fight against the Dominator in The White Rose. There was no such defining character death perhaps since the death of the old captain in Shadows Linger. I salute to you Mr. Cook.
And there is a minor mystery to be resolved at the end – also thanks to the guradian of the Plains. Do you remember Lisa Bowalk, first introduced in the second book of the series, mentioned above already couple of times. Her appearance, return in the fourth book was one of the surprises I wasn´t counting on, just as wasn´t counting on many others yet at that time, but that were trending then. Well as a part of a cosmic joke this poor soul that is captured in the form of a bloodthirsty beast manages what Croaker didn´t: to get to Khatovar. Is this just bad Karma or Cook playing another joke on the Black Company. I´m not sure, and also I´m not sure I care. I kinda lost the interest in getting upset for such things after the “unexpected” returns of the fourth book.
In general I did enjoy this volume, more the first half of it, than the second, but it did expand into something bigger than expected, though it could have happen at an earlier stage perhaps. Then I might have enjoyed more this expanded aspect of it, and even the storyteling might have benefited if it have beeen revealed at an earlier time. But even so this volume is a strong contestant at becoming a favourite volume of the series, but the first volume: The Black Company is still running strong, as I can still quote almost word for word the first chapter. No matter how much more expanded this universe has become in this last volume, and how good a storytelling has done in the first half of the book. that worldbuilding coupled with that gripping storytelling of the first chapter in the first book is still unmatched.
And that is all for tonight and this month folks. All that remains is to wrap up this project nexth month, and to wait for the next two books in the series that have been announced earlier this year. Till then have fun and take care ! Captain of I.S.S. Rover over and out !