Nightshade books continues its series of Glen Cook reprints and specifically, the Dread Empire saga with A Fortress in Shadow. This omnibus volume reprints The Fire in His Hands and With Mercy Toward None, which take place before the three novels in A Cruel Wind (A Shadow of All Night Falling, October’s Child, and All Darkness Met). The first part of the book The Fire in His Hands chronicles the rise to power of an enigmatic messiah figure – El Murid–the Disciple. Amidst the chaos of the windswept desert, the Disciple promises order and prosperity. Coming to prominence at the same time are the sorcerer Haroun and the Northman Bragi Ragnarson, both of whom eventually come into conflict with El Murid.
Events continue straight into the second novel, With Mercy Towards None. Though barely present in the first novel in the omnibus, Cook’s most enigmatic character comes fully onto the stage here: (also possible: into the spotlight) Mocker. When I read A Cruel Wind, Mocker was the character that stood out most to me and I really enjoyed seeing his origin unfold in these pages. Cook shows us that from his earliest age, Mocker’s mannerisms and speech patterns are present, and we also see how he acquired the name Mocker.
On the whole, the story has many parallels to the Middle East and the rise of prophets mentioned in biblical times. The setting is overtly described as a desert, with Ragnarson’s people mentioned as hailing from the north. Throughout the two stories, one of Cook’s strongest storytelling traits shines through, his ability to cast no judgment and show the opposing sides of a conflict with honesty, empathy, and resonance. Cook paints an extremely convincing picture of the rise of a leader who seems a religious fanatic to outsiders, and seems god-touched by his supporters.
As prequels, the novels work extremely well for people who read the initial trilogy, either in single book format or the lovely NightShade edition A Cruel Wind. On its own terms, these two novels tell the cohesive story of a world of mounting forces and conflicting beliefs. Though the story that unfolds between the covers of this volume is entertaining, it really is set up for grander events, more sweeping character arcs and might serve as only a teaser for people yearning for more of the same.
The physical book itself is great looking, adorned with Raymond Swanland cover art, continuing the thematic connection to A Cruel Wind. Furthermore, the Dread Empire books would sit very nicely on the shelf next to Tor’s recent reissue/omnibus editions of The Black Company. Another top fantasy author provides an introduction to this volume, Steven Erikson co-author/co-creator of the massive, popular Malazan, Book of the Fallen saga. Erikson, even prior to NightShade issuing this omnibus has praised Cook and singled out his writing as one of the primary influences of the Malazan saga.
All told, A Fortress in Shadow is another excellent book from NightShade and a must have for fans of Glen Cook. It also serves as a great primer on his fiction for curious readers who know him through Erikson’s repeated praise.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford