Darkwar by Glen Cook

Night Shade Books, Trade Paperback
December 2010


Glen Cook is a rare beast of a writer – he can vacillate between military fantasy, space opera, epic fantasy, mystery, and science fantasy with great ease.  His writing is often marked by a purity; that he is depicting life in its most real sense, from the thoughts in a character’s mind to the wind rushing across his or her face.  Despite the characters in this novel not being human, Cook still pulls off this purity, this realness with great effect.

The book under review here, Darkwar, was originally published as three books in the mid 1980s, right around the time Cook was making waves with his Dread Empire series and his most famous work, The Black Company.  NightShade has been re-issuing Cook’s Dread Empire novels over the past couple of years with very eye-catching book design and cover art by Raymond Swanland (Tor followed suit with a similar brand repacking of the Black Company novels), and Night Shade continues the Swanland trend here.

Having read novels of both Dread Empire and Black Company to an extent, I can say that Darkwar is different in many ways, even though it is Cook through and through.  For starters, Cook’s protagonist in this story is a young female, and in one sense, this trilogy, or rather story, can be considered something of a Bildungsroman. Cook plays a bit more on myth in this story as well especially with some of the closing scenes. The protagonist is Marika, a young female meth, a canine-humanoid who we follow from her upbringing and early years in a very low technology world to her voyage across the galaxy. 

The first novel in the omnibus, Doomstalker, introduces Marika, her world, and the basic premise of the saga.  Her land has been invaded by nomads and she soon gains mental powers and is adopted by a group of witches.  It becomes clear early on in the novel that Marika’s world is very raw.  Nothing comes easy and life is a constant struggle.  One of the main struggles, early one, is the onset of what many characters think will be the worst winter in memory.  Couple that with the ever present threat of attacking nomads and the political machinations of the coven of witches (or as they are referred to – silth) of which Marika finds herself a part, and it becomes evident that Cook is stacking the deck against Marika.

The second novel, Warlock, takes the story a bit wider than the part of the world where Marika lives. Though it focuses on Marika, she learns more about the other societies on her world.  While the packstead (or village/nation) of her birth is matriarchal in nature, other societies are more patriarchal and more importantly, in possession of greater technology. As the storyline progresses, Marika becomes less likeable, more selfish, and more ruthless. To say that she isn’t quite likeable is an understatement.  However, Cook’s ability to keep the narrative flowing and the interest in such a character high is quite impressive.

The last novel entry in the omnibus/trilogy is Ceremony, in which Marika and her people fully enter the darkness of space in wooden rockets no less.  The blend of the science fictional element of space travel and the fantasy element of witchcraft come together most strongly at the close of the trilogy.  The ending was perhaps fitting and had a strong mythic resonance I appreciated, but was in a bit of contrast to some of the character arc for Marika that led up to it.

Darkwar is an interesting book and shows a contrast in themes. A traditional story dressed up in different clothing, one might say.  In other ways, the setting hearkens to some early planetary romances.  As the pages were turning and I was becoming more acquainted with Marika, I couldn’t help but compare her to another harsh protagonist – Hekat from Karen Miller’s Empress. While I was not a fan of that book, the similarities between the two protagonists who appear nearly 25 years apart was not something I could ignore – both ‘heroines’ are easy to anger, easy to dislike, and very strong willed. Only that last character trait could be considered attractive.  

Where Cook’s story and character worked to greater effect was the manner in which he did not beat the reader about the head with less desirable character traits of his protagonist. The unique milieu also sets Cook’s work apart, not just from Miller’s later novel, but from much of what was being published at the time and even some of what is on the shelves now (harsh female protagonist’s life story against a science fiction/fantasy hybrid backdrop).  Elements of the novel(s), particularly the less technologically advanced society’s quick adoption of large advances like space travel, reminded me a bit of Poul Anderson’s classic novel The High Crusade. It has been quite a while since I’ve read Anderson’s novel, but the resonance between the two felt very strong for me.

In the end, I would recommend Darkwar for many reasons.  It shows a writer at the early stage of his novel writing career, the book is a nice mash-up of genre flavors, and most importantly, it was an entertaining read.

© 2010 Rob H. Bedford

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