Port of Shadows: A disappointing return to a fan-favorite series

Port of Shadows by Glen Cook fantasy book reviewsPort of Shadows by Glen Cook fantasy book reviewsPort of Shadows by Glen Cook

After nearly two decades, Glen Cook has finally returned to his beloved BLACK COMPANY series with an eleventh novel — Port of Shadows (2018) — set between books one and two (The Black Company and Shadows Linger, respectively). I loved this series when I read it ages ago and therefore approached news of a new addition with both excitement and trepidation, as I’ve had some bad experience with authors revisiting beloved series after a long absence. I wish I could say my excitement was rewarded, but unfortunately my trepidation turns out to have been the more accurate response. I’m going to assume readers of this review have some familiarity with the series’ setting, background, and characters, especially given that I wouldn’t recommend this as the starting place for the series.

Port of Shadows presents two plot strands separated in time and place (at least for much of the book). In one, the Black Company is in garrison mode and getting a bit restless as peace isn’t something they’re exactly used to. Unfortunately for them, the monotony of safety doesn’t last all that long as they find themselves beset by a variety of problems: visits from the dangerous “Taken” (ten powerful sorcerers who work for the Black Company’s boss, The Lady), several of whom don’t much care for the Company thanks to events from book one; strange and dangerous creatures showing up out of nowhere; increased activity from the rebels opposed to The Lady, including a plot to resurrect the Big Bad from book one (think evil Dark Lord) via a hidden breeding program; the appearance of numerous women who look a lot like the The Lady, and more.

Meanwhile, the second plot is set much earlier in the time of the aforementioned Dark Lord (“The Dominator”), and follows a powerful necromancer trying to stay under the radar of The Dominator as he tries to perfect his attempts to defeat death. Those experiments, however, eventually threaten to reveal him and so he must go on the run, along with a young woman whose corpse he sort-of resurrected and the young woman’s sister, who had gone looking for her missing body. As one might expect, the two plotlines do come together, though I won’t detail how.

As noted in the intro, Port of Shadows was a disappointment, and that pretty much began from the start. The Black Company strand felt entirely too episodic, so much so that I actually wondered for a while if this was supposed to be a collection of linked short stories rather than a novel. Worse, it didn’t feel like a tightly or smoothly linked collection, if that was what it meant to be. There were a lot of abrupt shifts, plots felt like there wasn’t much pay-off when/if they were resolved, and it all read as extremely choppy. Eventually things smoothed out a bit and the plotline narrowed into a more cohesive, tighter narrative, but not soon enough. The other plot strand was much more cohesive and tightly structured, but felt somewhat stretched and also choppy in places.

The plots themselves were problematic beyond the structural/pacing issues. The breeding/resurrection plot never really came alive for me, never felt truly high stakes (it didn’t help that the “rebels” were nearly always off-stage and easily dealt with, kind of like if Star Wars only gave us the Jedi and we never saw anyone from the Empire at all), and made the odd choice to heavily concern itself with young girls’ periods (yes, that’s correct). Focusing on Croaker’s (the book’s narrator — Company historian and a great character from the series) domestic/marital issues was another odd choice as they weren’t all that interesting, again, never felt real, and if one is familiar with the series, were clearly not going to be all that important in the big picture, robbing that plot point of any real potential tension or drama. The earlier plot strand was slightly better, but was tainted by some, well, “icky” is the best word I can think of, scenes of the necromancer lusting after his adopted daughter (the resurrected corpse).

That goes along with another major issue I had with Port of Shadows, which was the prurient (often childishly so) nature of some of the text and the casual misogyny in places. Now, the Black Company has always been a grey group of characters; in fact, one of the pleasures of the original series was in trying to figure out if these were the good guys or the big guys even as they themselves try to deduce the same. And perhaps this sort of thing appeared in that original BLACK COMPANY series, and I simply don’t recall it. But if it did, I’m nowhere near as tolerant of it now as I might have been (maybe?) twenty years ago, and so the casual mention of rape, gang rape, “copping a feel,” etc., was just severely off-putting each time it happened. A few times I just wrote “why” next to a particular line.

Characterization was thin at best, which is a shame because in memory, at least, that was one of the major strengths of the original series (perhaps nostalgia is at work here; I can’t say for sure). Characters to me seemed either shallow, simple, or just a cypher, with no sense of growth or depth; I can’t say I cared about any of them either in terms of what happened to them or just a sense of curiosity about them, with the slight exception of two children, who I think are Cook’s best creation in the novel.

Even more disappointing than the problems of structure, plot, and character, though, were what seemed to be too many issues of basic craft. Pet phrases showed up to a noticeable degree, enough so I’d mark in the margins “second time used, third time used, etc.” Sometimes the language seemed lazily modern, such as a character saying “this is so cool,” the kind of language that yanked me immediately out of the reading experience. At one point a character tells Croaker the soldiers have been complaining about dizziness, and Croaker replies, “Not to me. All I see is purple fungus … ” Then, three pages later, Croaker notes that with regard to the men he sees with the purple fungus “most reported dizzy spells.” Now, it’s possible he meant just the three who came in that day, but phrasing makes that seem unlikely and at best it shouldn’t be so unclear. There were a few such moments in the book.

All in all, Port of Shadows was a frustrating, disappointing read that had its moments but those were too few and too far between. I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone to start with it, and would strongly recommend to anyone coming to the BLACK COMPANY series fresh to just skip it and read the books in publication order. As for fans of the series, I can’t recommend it to them, either, as I’d call it a real drop in quality, though I’m sure most will give it a shot, and I can’t blame them. The worst part about reading it, though, wasn’t the few hours I spent doing so, but the hesitation it gives me in thinking about rereading the original series, something I’ve always planned to do at some point. When I do so, I’ll go in with fingers crossed and eyes half-shut, hoping it’s as I remembered it.

Publication date: September 11, 2018. Glen Cook, the father of Grimdark, returns to the Chronicles of the Black Company with a military fantasy adventure in Port of Shadows. The soldiers of the Black Company don’t ask questions, they get paid. But being “The Lady’s favored” is attracting the wrong kind of attention and has put a target on their backs–and the Company’s historian, Croaker, has the biggest target of all. The one person who was taken into The Lady’s Tower and returned unchanged has earned the special interest of the court of sorcerers known as The Ten Who Were Taken. Now, he and the company are being asked to seek the aid of their newest member, Mischievous Rain, to break a rebel army. However, Croaker doesn’t trust any of the Taken, especially not ones that look so much like The Lady and her sister…

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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12 comments

  1. Veeraraghavan Sundar /

    I think your point about some of the gratuitous misogyny is spot on‌, especially the part about twenty years later. As context, I offer that this book tires together 3 short stories set in the black company universe, now set in a larger work and background. As to the unsatisfying conclusion, I agree. Thank you for the review

  2. Mark Jarvis /

    Your review pretty much summed up my opinion too. The whole thing seemed a wasted opportunity, a shaggy dog story that went nowhere.

    • Yes, this book was a mess. The language was out-of-character, and off-putting, it disagrees with the Canon, since in the White Rose Tracker says that at least one Senak sister died before the start of the Domination, yet in this story they are all alive. Then again Tracker named Ardath one of the dead but that’s what Dominator calls the Lady at the Battle of Juniper, so clearly he thought Ardath was alive. Goblin and One Eye are practically absent from the book, robbing it of much potential humor. A waste of paper. The original series is well worth re-reads, almost-every-year I re-read the first five, this one is bad.

      • Lilith /

        Something I should’ve mentioned earlier but didn’t, I wonder if he even wrote this book, or if someone else wrote it based on some notes he made. That’s how out-of-character it is.

      • Adam B /

        At the start of the story it says that the events are pieced together from documents released from Charm. Which means The Lady was able to swap names around. No way was she going to tell on herself like that.

  3. After seeing the term “misogyny” so casually tossed about, I would suggest the following: (1)post some #blacklivesmatter criticisms about the way Mogaba and the Nar are spoken of (maybe throw in something about poor old Baldo and Wheezer, too); (2) call PETA to complain about the treatment of crows and bats; (3)Tweet your disgust with the way that poor, disabled wizard is so crudely referred to as “Limper”; (4)maybe do some fan fiction featuring all-new Sorcerers: The Ten Who Were #Woke. CalmBringer, Friendmaker, Shiftgender, The Feckless Man, Safespacer, Friendzoner (sister of Friendmaker), The Shamed Man, PrizeWinner, Groveler, and Dreamer.

    While all of the endless remarks about the hotness of Mischievous Rain and her dopplegangers is rather cringe-worthy and lame, while the “period subplot” is utterly bizarre– not to mention the entire head-scratching Necromancer storyline– Cook’s fantasy world, in general, is tonally the same as it’s ever been. Hard-edged, ruthless, and dark. But misogynistic? Please.

    A powerful woman rules the Empire, the majority of her powerful surviving sorcerers are females, the soon-to-be vanquisher of that empire is a female, Nwynn was a take-no-shit character, Soulcatcher is an amazingly powerful character, Stormbringer was a powerful sorcerer, Sleepy, Sarah, and the Radisha Drah are all powerful female characters, and yet here in the comments we have #misogyny.

    The Dominator was a pervert and sadist and that was made clear, though the descriptions of this were still pretty clean. The Necromancer was a pervert, too (and I thought a disappointing and boring character). He was also a twisted sorcerer who raised people from the dead. Not a nice guy. There are no graphic depictions of rape or sex in general in the Black Company novels, Croaker is attracted to Mischievous Rain but doesn’t try anything, and the company guys are warned off from bothering all of the Tides Elba clones. If you were in a medieval army with few women about, you would expect any decent commander to issue the same orders under those circumstances. Of COURSE sex would be on the men’s minds. It’s not misogynistic to talk about it, it’s natural. It would be unrealistic and very P.C. of Cook to have all of these attractive women around and never mention that as an issue. That’s what I hate most about political “correctness”–it deliberately tries to disavow reality and it’s wholly insincere in its platitudes. The storyline itself is ridiculous and I wish that Cook had written something else in its place, but within the context of that plot, these are the issues that would have been dealt with.

    If you’ve missed the point after eleven of these novels that the company guys aren’t rainbows and lollipops, then you’re not trying very hard. In the Black Company world, war is constantly being waged. Hunger, general suffering, torture, executions, rape, camp followers being used as cannon fodder, people being trapped in sorcerous stasis for years, people dying that you don’t want to die–that’s always been part of the gritty world that Cook created. It’s within the boundaries of Cook’s hard-scrabble world for the characters to speak and act the way they do. While some of you foolishly call some of Cook’s choices “misogynist”, Cook himself has created some of my favorite, and some of the strongest, female characters in fiction.

    • Lisa /

      Your list of “woke” wizards made my decade

    • Justin Cartekas /

      If this is the same James Bailey from a Facebook group I’m in, I’ll eat my shorts.
      If it’s you, you’ll know as you’re quite the infamous one.

    • “Safespacer” lmfao. This guy summed up this horrible review. Not the best book. Still worth checking out. Cook is the one of the most pro strong female character writers I’ve ever read.

  4. James Bailey above me had said it better than I possibly could, but I’ll reiterate the point nevertheless: This is not a great book, granted. But it does not suffer from “misogyny”. Here’s a news flash: Rape exists. Gang rape exists. Some people coping a feel when they really shouldn’t also exist. It is a sad fact of life that whenever and wherever a military company is in close contact with civilian society, these things will take place. Consider Okinawa–if it happens there, it no doubt happens much more frequently in other places. To deny this is to bury one’s head in the sand, which ironically is what many people today consider being “woke”.

  5. Without the book explaining why, I spent half the time reading it wondering, when are we? When is this? Why is this person still alive? How does the company knows he’s Wizards already but they’re not dead yet? He Rogue One’d us!

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