Glen Cook is known for his series — Dread Empire, Black Company, Garrett, P.I., Starfishers, and the like. What we tend to forget is that he has also written short fiction, which is fully up to the standard set in his novels. His newest collection, Winter’s Dreams, offers a good look at his range as a storyteller. Unlike An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat, which was set in the universe of the Dread Empire series, Winter’s Dreams takes us everywhere from the universes of the series to a more than dystopian future America to worlds that are as whimsical as their inhabitants.
The opening story, “Song from a Forgotten Hill,” is one of the darkest I’ve read by Cook, set in an America that has survived nuclear holocaust and two succeeding conflicts (those home-grown), and presents a mordant, almost brutal picture of the racism that never seems to have quite left us.
“And Dragons in the Sky” takes us to the universe of the Starfishers series, and reads as though it was originally written as an outline for the second book in the trilogy, Starfishers. In some ways it’s more satisfying than the novel — leaner and more focused — although the novel, of course, is richer and more detailed. “In the Wind” takes place in the future of that universe, an almost intimate story about the attempt to occupy a world that isn’t all that keen on the idea. “Quiet Sea” is another from that universe, but only tangentially, a tale of a sea-borne people and a lost Earthman who, as it turns out, knows something that may save his adopted people.
“Enemy Territory,” is set in a future in which soldiers created for fighting come home after the war is over. Except that “home” is more like a reservation — only some of their ancestors were human. I couldn’t get away from the feeling of the Vietnam era — betrayal is the core of this story, and it’s not a pretty picture.
I was going to discuss a few highlights from this collection, but there’s a problem with that — almost all the stories here are highlights. Whether they are set in milieus that relate to Cook’s other works, or they stand alone, they are polished and very effective. The title story is a sterling example of that — light, at least in relation to some of the other offerings, displaying to the full Cook’s sense of irony, it’s a small “detective” story in the vein of Jack Vance, with one strong lesson — don’t try to con a wizard. In, fact, there are several stories in the Vance idiom, which, perhaps, should be no surprise: Cook did a stand-out contribution to Songs of the Dying Earth.
What always strikes me about Cook’s writing is the sheer humanity of his characters. Even in something as comparatively brief as a short story, he manages to portray fully realized people, with all their quirks and all their flaws — these are not one-dimensional heroes.
And, as always, Cook’s prose is more than engaging. He pulls you into these stories, whether you want to go there or not (and frankly, some of them aren’t very pleasant).
The one flaw in this collection, or at least in my advance copy, is the lack of any information about the stories — no publication data, no introductions, no context. (It seems that the final published version suffers the same lack.) Sorry — as much as I applaud Subterranean Press for not only this volume, but its reissues of early Cook works, this is a grave disservice and an appalling fumble. One has no confirmed sense of how and where these stories fit into Cook’s career.
But it’s Glen Cook, so I guess I can forgive the lapse — this time.
(Subterranean Press, 2012)