Glen Cook’s Port of Shadows is another installment in the saga of the Black Company, once again narrated by Croaker. Cook has given us two story lines in this one: The first takes place in the distant past, in the waning days of the Domination. The second takes place in the “present day”, sometime between the battle at Charm and the confrontation with the Dominator at Juniper; the Company is on garrison duty in the town of Aloe, which seems almost like a vacation. Of course, you know things are going to go to hell.
We are first introduced to a wizard, the Necromancer, whose life work, if you’ll pardon the expression, is to conquer death. He is waiting by a moat outside the Dominator’s palace Grendrift in the city of Dusk. In due course, the body of a young woman, barely more than a girl, comes down the waste chute into the moat; the Necromancer retrieves it and goes on his way. (This moat is not a barrier to attack – who would dare? – but for waste disposal.) We are given to understand that this is not the first time this has happened – disposal of the bodies of young women who have been abused are a regular feature. His goal is to return her to life. This one looks as though it may be more successful than past attempts, and he names her Laissa, after a woman he once loved.
In the present time, the Limper arrives with orders to find Tides Elba, a new Rebel captain who has enjoyed some success in the East. Tides Elba, as it turns out, was born in Aloe and the powers that be in distant Charm think there may be family connections or records of her birth. In due course, Tides Elba is discovered, captured, and shipped off to Charm in the keeping of the Limper. And then she comes back – or does she? What appears is a new Taken, Mischievous Rain, who claims to be Tides Elba and who sets herself and two children up in residence with Croaker. Croaker’s not sure he entirely favors the family arrangement – the children are, to say the least, unusual, and Mischievous Rain bears a striking resemblance to the Lady – or at least, how Croaker remembers the Lady.
And the arrival of Mischievous Rain starts a new quest for the Company: they are to find all the girls who look like Tides Elba, because any one of them may be the “Port of Shadows” – a means for the Dominator to free himself from his captivity in the Barrow. Their success creates its own dangers.
Those who have read my comments on Cook’s previous books may remember that I am generally enthusiastic about his work. He is a master storyteller and a consummate writer. In this instance, the best I can come up with is ambivalence. It’s not the story itself, which is absorbing and takes on a surreal quality that has never been present before.
My ambivalence springs, rather, from the overall shape of the book. In this case, the portions taking place during the Domination are fairly straightforward: what we see is what we get. (And note that Croaker didn’t write these portions.) For the “present time” story, we are used to Croaker not telling us everything, although it seems that in this instance he can’t: he’s really in mushroom mode, kept in the dark and fed horseshit. (In fact, more than once he suspects that the Captain himself doesn’t really know what’s going on.) Thinking back over various elements of the story, my problem is that they don’t fit together. The Necromancer’s story moves into the present day, but when they two story lines converge, it just turns into one big conundrum. Nothing matches up, loose ends stay loose, and we’re at much at sea at the end as we were in the beginning.
For example, one important element here is going to give readers familiar with the Black Company series pause: Credence Senjak, who is going by the name Bathdek, comes looking for her sister Dorotea – that’s whose body the Necromancer retrieved. Those who have read at least the first three books of the series know who Dorotea Senjak is, and that she’s very much alive.
And Mischievous Rain is completely out of character for one of the Taken, who don’t generally engage with mere mortals the way she does with Croaker – which leads one to suspect that she really is the Lady in disguise.
And Croaker keeps forgetting things.
I can’t help but think, although I find it incredible, that Cook wrote himself into a corner, which I find way out of character.
At any rate, it’s worth reading. The writing itself is fluent, the characters are engaging, and the milieu richly realized. Maybe you’ll be able to figure out what’s going on.
(Tor Books, 2018)