The Book of the Week is back! This time, we’re going to talk a little bit about one of my favorite series, and specifically one of my favorite books: Dreams of Steel, Book Five of The Black Company by Glen Cook. By necessity, there will be some slight spoilers that follow, but nothing major in any way.
Glen Cook’s Black Company books are sadly obscure, especially considering what a landmark it was in the fantasy genre. When we think about fantasy nowadays, and look at the bestseller lists, it’s predominantly grimdark. People are writing and reading about grey morality, bad guys who are also good and good guys with a dark side. Gone is the heroic journey archetype that we got in Tolkien’s work. It’s all about “realism”, which is amusing in itself when used to describe fantasy. We have colossally popular stuff like A Song of Ice and Fire and cult favorites like Malazan Book of the Fallen and The Gentlemen Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch.
Well, Cook’s Black Company is the spiritual ancestor of all of these. It was a groundbreaking work that brought the focus of a grand, second world fantasy epic onto the everyman. The protagonists are ruthless mercenaries; their benefactor is the evil Lady of Charm. Even the “good guys” in the White Rose rebellion aren’t so good. It’s full of twists and redemption and treachery.
Beyond that, the series is noteworthy for the narrative style: Cook uses a first-person retrospective, in the form of “Annals”, written by, of course, the Company’s Annalist, Croaker. This allows him to expedite the storytelling process, as less important things can be glossed over—it also provides a very rich platform for developing Croaker’s character.
Dreams of Steel, however, is the first book in the series that features an Annalist other than Croaker. The result of this is manifold. For one, it gives us another character to really delve into, both by their thoughts and actions—and what is left out or embellished. Over the last half of the series, Cook makes a point of emphasizing the unreliability of the Annalists, and their unique perspectives on events provide for numerous mysteries and developments.
Additionally, Dreams of Steel marks a major turn in the series, setting up the plot arc for the last chunk of books. The world gets a lot deeper here, with new cultures and religions taking the forefront, pushing the story along.
The series was recently reprinted in four compendia: The Chronicles of the Black Company, The Books of the South, The Return of the Black Company, and The Many Deaths of the Black Company. Technically, Dreams of Steel is the second “Book of the South”, though it takes place after The Silver Spike, which is listed as the final Book of the South. These four compendia are a little misleading, really.
The first compendium is straightforward. It chronicles the “Books of the North” sequence, of which The Silver Spike is more properly a part (or an epilogue, as it were). The Books of the South are Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel, essentially providing a transition between the northern plot and the endgame in the final four “Books of Glittering Stone.”
Yes, that final sequence is awesome.
Dreams of Steel holds an important spot in the series, serving as a sort of lynchpin for the preceding books but also providing a major narrative departure. It’s absolutely packed with evocative mysteries, compelling (and creepy) characters, and some great action. One scene is essentially the first-generation incarnation of the type of shock that people have come to associate with George R. R. Martin. I highly recommend The Black Company, and I give Dreams of Steel 5 out of 5 stars.