Glen Cook’s bibliography indicates he’s been publishing fiction since the early 1970s. So 1982’s The Swordbearer shows the work of a writer with a good decade of craft under his belt. Ten years isn’t really that long in the scribbling biz, but even at this early stage in his career, some of the stylistic quirks of Cook are apparent: the naming conventions, the fast pace, the glossing over of detail, and the complex interlocking of backstabbers that makes figuring out who shot Nice Guy Eddie seem child’s play.
Anyway, Swordbearer is relatively early Cook, but nonetheless solid. How to pigeonhole the genre? Tough. A synopsis would suggest that there are enough quests, continent spanning wars, battles, and deep time backstory to easily qualify Swordbearer as epic fantasy. But the book isn’t even 240 pages long. It is told with Cook’s typical economy, sometimes reading more like Sword and Sorcery, even though the opening chapters suggest more of a YA, coming of age tale.
As usual with Cook, the characters are almost all morally complex. If Cook were a digital photographer, he’d be baffled by the chromatic spectrum, working only in grayscale. Even the big bad emperor assaulting the West is, ultimately, a sympathetic character. Some of the foul, murderous, nigh-immortal beings are portrayed as possibly redeemable, their actions understandable. But don’t trust any of the characters in Swordbearer. Keep spinning in a tight circle, because if you ever come to a stop, you’ll find a knife between your shoulderblades.
Sounds a bit like The Black Company, doesn’t it?
The hero of the tale is a likeable kid, forced to grow up fast, and selected/compelled to take up a cursed sword. A sword that has an evil will of its own. Swordbearer is fundamentally a tragedy, going over ground you’re already familiar with if you’ve read the doings of Elric and Stormblade and/or Túrin Turambar and Gurthang. But for fans of S&S, familiar ground isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
If I had to summarize Swordbearer, I’d call it preliminary concept work for The Black Company, combined with Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer and Mournblade, along with a special guest appearance from Tolkien’s Nazgul. I’m an admitted fan of Cook, so take this recommendation for what it’s worth: pick up a copy of The Swordbearer, crack open a beer, enjoy.
It almost feels as if a gap in my life has been filled. The saga of Rick Galloway and his mercenaries, whisked away by a flying saucer from a hilltop in Africa just before being overrun by Cubans, is complete at last. Maybe, anyways.
I’ve been reading the Janissaries books since I was a teen. Unfortunately, after publication of the third book, Storms of Victory, in 1987 (the year I graduated highschool), the series appeared defunct, ending on, if not a cliffhanger, at least with uncertainty. Once nigh instantaneous access to information came along, some years later, I began to check every now and then for rumors of another volume. When I learned that Jerry Pournelle was working on it, I was happy. I seem to recall even reading a few pages at his website of the work in progress. But, alas, years continued to pass. And then, tragically, he went the way of all flesh. I thought that was it.
I was very pleased to learn that David Weber, and Jerry Pournelle’s son, had completed the book. Having waited so long, I was willing to stick it out longer for the paperback, so it would fit better with the first three books. (OCD? Maybe.)
Perhaps I could have dragged out the reading of it, savoring the experience longer, but I tore through it nearly as fast as I would have as a younger man with fewer responsibilities. Now I’ve finished, and I have a few thoughts.
I liked it. It can serve as a conclusion to the series. The plot is far from wrapped up, but the book ended with an indication of how the surviving characters might proceed. I’d like more, of course. Ideally I’d be able to read how Pournelle intended to resolve the issues involving galactic politics. I’d learn if Rick ever managed a quiet retirement with Tylara. Who ends up running the show on Tran. What happens to Gwen and Les. Etc., etc. But, we learned enough that I can make some guesses. All at the end of a massive battle that occupied about the last two hundred pages.
Bringing me to another point. The hand of David Weber is clear. None of the first three books exceeded 383 pages (and those were illustrated.) Mamelukes weighs in at 822 pages. Lengthy battle planning sessions and exacting descriptions of the mechanics of sailing suggest the influence of Weber’s exhaustive style. I’m fine with it. All interesting stuff, and well done. Never dull. But I couldn’t help but wish for an alternate future in which Pournelle had been able to take those 800+ pages and produce two books, carrying the story farther.
We meet new characters. In the book chronology, at the commencement of events, it has been thirteen years since Galloway left earth. So it is interesting to introduce characters who experienced the eighties and early nineties. What are laptops? We are introduced to a highschool professor, an ex-soldier, and an ex-SF policewoman. (The policewoman is one of the plot threads left dangling at the end. Was she plotting something? Was she an agent of an alien faction?) And we meet the leaders of a British Gurkha unit, bringing along a welcome complement of 60 deadly Gurkhas.
I noted in an earlier post on Janissaries, that I believed Rick’s mercs were armed with H&K battle rifles. In the later books I raised an eyebrow on reading mention of M-16s. Mamelukes clears it up by mentioning that they were primarily armed with H&Ks, along with a few M-16s. Good enough. The Ghurkas bring the British variant of the FN FAL. They also bring along one of the bits of news that seems to shock Galloway’s men as much as word of the fall of the Soviet Union: that the US Army adopted the 9mm Beretta in place of the .45. I chuckled at that.
Will there be more? Messrs. Pournelle and Webber leave the door open for continuing the series. If they do, I’ll certainly check out the first. If not, I’m content. My imagination has been provided enough information to devise a satisfactory fate for Rick Gallowy, et al.
Science Fiction has its big three. Most often these are listed as Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. The line up varies, of course. It can’t be objectively determined and prominence waxes and wanes with time. Weird Tales had its own holy trinity: Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith. Three seems to be a magic number. Who, I wonder, would be Fantasy’s big three?
There is a certain freedom attendant to writing about The Once and Future King with the knowledge that I cannot possibly do it justice. I can write without the pressure to reach an unattainable goal. Now, if young Wart — Arthur — had commenced with such foreknowledge of inevitable failure, he’d never have bothered tugging the sword from the stone.
We all have one, constantly growing or shrinking. A heap of books; the to-be-read pile. (What did you think I was writing about?)
Mine expanded a bit in Florida. We stopped at a thrift store on the way to the airport. I wanted something to read while waiting for the plane. I grabbed three paperbacks to get the three for two dollars deal. I’m nearly done with a J.G. Ballard collection, Passport to Eternity. But waiting to be read are the other two, contributing to the TBR pile.
I’m waiting for my paperback copy of Mamelukes to arrive, sometime in May, so I can finish reading Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries series. I began reading these books in the 80s. I think I’ve waited about long enough. Sitting here and waiting I have mercenaries on the mind, given the premise of that series: human mercenaries sent off-planet to fight an alien conflict. (That’s not an entirely novel concept, now that I think about it.)
Another birthday approaches. That can often mean the sort of deep navel dive that requires oxygen tanks, acetylene torches, and a rescue party on stand by. What have I accomplished? What is left to accomplish? Have I reached my potential? Where did all the years go?
Not gonna do it. (Those readers of a certain age should read that sentence in the voice of Dana Carvey imitating George Bush.)
I can’t always be reviewing anthologies, you know. I do have other matters to occupy my attention. Here’s a snapshot of some of those matters.
What I’m reading:
Andrew Offutt’s introduction to Swords Against Darkness II deals with what term to apply to this genre of stories. He writes of sitting on four different panels over the course of a single year concerning this very topic. I wish convention panels would include such subjects nowadays. Currently about half of the list of panel topics I’m asked to consider consist of topics I’d gnaw my own head off to avoid. Offutt’s introduction is as personable and chatty as ever, informing us we have eight stories to look forward two. That’s one fewer than volume I, and — happily — six fewer than the overstuffed volume III. So, on with the show.