When it was announced that Glen Cook would be penning his first new The Black Company novel in seventeen years the hype was, understandably, at fever pitch. There are very few authors who have revolutionised a literary genre like Glen Cook did for fantasy fiction. Steven Erikson, the author of the renowned Malazan Book of the Fallen series is most often quoted regarding Cook, saying that Cook “single-handedly changed the face of fantasy … He brought the story down to a human level, dispensing with the cliché archetypes of princes, kings, and evil sorcerers. Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote.”
You can see the impact of Cook’s contribution to fantasy literature in the works of authors like Steven Erikson, to name but one great author. So, when Glen Cook announced that he would be publishing his first new Black Company novel in seventeen years, one would certainly have hoped for something that lived up to the genre-breaking days of yore.
Unfortunately, all that hype – justified though it may have been – has led to, what I believe, is a growing trend in the publishing industry. We have seen it with authors like Neal Stephenson, Brandon Sanderson, and others, and now I think we see a glimpse of it with Glen Cook; In short, the level of fan hype and critical success gives the author too much control and, in turn, relieves an editor of the necessary tools and influence to do their job properly. In the end, therefore, we end up with a book that needed an editor’s firm hand on the tiller.
For those intent on going in to reading Port of Shadows with a critical eye, an unfortunate harbinger of trouble is seen on one of the very first pages of the book under the heading “Copyright Acknowledgements”. Specifically, three chapters from the book have already been published as standalone short-stories – and, regardless of whether you have read them before or not, you can certainly tell this is the case.
In fact, the whole book feels very much as if it is a collection of short stories, desperately wrangled into a full-length book through a semi-coherent framing device which, while interesting – and certainly in line with Cook’s desire to never shirk the dirty realities of humanity at war – seems both contrived and plodding.
Which is disappointing in the extreme because, in my opinion, this is where the lack of proper editorial control can be most vividly seen. All of the parts which went in to making Port of Shadows are pure Cook: the Black Company are contracted for a job which puts them at the heart of mammoth political intrigue, spun out and manipulated by the Lady; Croaker is close to his very best as an unintentionally biased observer, and his bias allows for the author to sneak some clever plot lines past the reader; and the overall plot of the main story – which isn’t, really, clearly seen until halfway through the book, due primarily to the use of three pre-written short stories being dragged kicking and screaming in to form the first half – is captivating, shadowy, and much in line with other Black Company stories.
So, in the end, while Port of Shadows is by no means a failure or a flop, it is nevertheless disappointing, in that it seems Cook did not allow for the sort of editorial control which might have smoothed out many of the crinkles and warps.
A minor note for fans of The Black Company series, there is an intentional attempt on the part of the author to convey the idea of untrustworthy narrators and historical inaccuracies, as passed down through later compilers. This leaves the reader of previous Black Company books baffled and thinking that a mistake has been made in editorial, rather than some clever literary ploy. For those wanting to avoid this, there is a Postscript at the very end which, if read first, might smooth matters out.
While Glen Cook’s contribution to the fantasy genre can never really be overstated, and the thrill of reading another Black Company book remains, Port of Shadows will likely not go down as one of Cook’s better entries. With a more involved editor and a willingness to rely less on previously-published short stories, Port of Shadows could have been a thrilling, captivating, and twisting addition to the series. Instead, it ends up just being mostly confusing and out of place.
Review by Joshua S Hill
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