When I read a book I tend to focus on an author’s craft, especially the elements in which I am weak. I’ve been trained to learn this way for the last decade or so. During this time, naturally, my weaknesses have changed. So when I read Glen Cook’s The Books of the South, my major foci were structure, characterization, setting and plot.
The Books of the South is the second collection in Cook’s Black Company series. The book is separated into three stories, telling what happened to a few of the people who fought in a mercenary outfit(the Black Company) after a major war.
The first and second books follow basically the same plot, and are told from two different POVs. Both of which were in the first story. So when I got to the third section and found no familiar characters I was a little confused and disappointed. But it makes sense. When I remembered this a follow up to the first book, in which Cook introduced all the characters from the first, second and third stories. The jump however, was quite large. Spending 2/3rds of a book on one set of characters then jumping to another set, who actually trace the first set of characters, and show what’s going on in their wake is a little disconcerting to me. I would have worked the third story into the rest of the book. However, I think my distaste lies in the fact that I read an omnibus, where all the novels are right in it together. When each story is considered as its own novel, with a separate cover and back, the distinction is clearer.
As far as story structure is concerned, Cook jumps around a lot. Using different POVs to show different angles of the story can help build suspense. We readers know stuff the characters don’t. We know what they’re walking into, or what their enemies are throwing against them. Interestingly, Cook spends large chunks of story on the protagonists, and only very small sections on the antagonists. We do get glimpses of them, but not too much. This is necessary, I think, because the first person is so limited. Were this story written in third omniscient, the jumping around would be unneeded. An example of Form Following Function.
A great deal of the characterization comes from the POV of these stories. Cook tells the stories of the Black Company in first person from the POV of soldiers in very plain, soldiery language with lots of individual flair. It’s not just they way they speak though, each character is very ordinary, could be anyone you walk by on the street, with no delusions of grandeur (except some of the antagonists). One of the characters for instance, Lady, used to be an empress of unsurpassed power. That’s not all that easy to relate to for most people. However, when we follow her, she has lost all her power, doesn’t know anything about where she is, has few friends and has just lost her lover. Now that kind of thing we know about. There is more. The first two books, I thought were great. However, in the last story, The Silver Spike I had a few issues. One problem with telling the story from the POV of the soldiers is that it is easy to have too many similar characters. This story falls prey to that condition. The not-so-great, I’m just a normal guy character that Cook is famous for become a little hard to distinguish between. So I got a little confused on a couple of occasions as to which character was going through the “tough” situation with their less than super hero capabilities.
I can’t help but say a few words about the setting. There are many references to a lot of cultural landmarks from Our World and its history. I could tell what parts of the world influenced Cook’s settings at most junctures. Another thing Cook employed to connect to readers was the use of many modern descriptives and objects. However nice it is to see familiar things in a strange place (a fantasy novel) anachronisms just jerk me right out of the story. I wonder, “how does someone there know about that?” It doesn’t fit and to me, it denotes sloppy world-building or at least sloppy disclosure of the world an author built. But here, it is done so much, I think it must have been intentional… but why I don’t know.
Plot will be difficult to discuss as this “book” that I read is comprised of three different books. So I’ll just touch on a few generalities. Cook has plot down pat. Even while traveling, all events are tied into the unfolding of the end, or in building important characterizations that are necessary later. I wonder if he layers those in as I do, or if he puts them in as he goes, laughing at what will come. Either way, he uses all the track of the STORY to thicken it. In this way, he keeps the pace up. Something is always happening, and when it’s not, characters are drawing connections between events.
Fantasy: Chronicles of The Black Company – Glen Cook
Scholarly: The Mabinogi – Patrick K. Ford
Writing:(I’m slacking here)