Surrender to the Will of the Night is the third book in Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities of the Night series, and despite its great potential, shares some of the same flaws as its two predecessors.
There are several major plot strands braided together. One involves Piper Hecht’s growing entanglement with the Grail Empire, headed by Empress Katrin, who wishes to hire Piper away from the Patriarch’s army and make him commander of her new Righteous Army, which she plans to send on crusade to rid the Holy Lands of the Praman’s. Luckily for her, upheaval in the Patriarchal hierarchy may make Piper free to consider her request (Piper’s attraction to Katrin’s sister Helspeth doesn’t hurt). Speaking of the Holy Lands and the Praman, a secondary plot involves an attempt by Indala al-Sul Halaladin to unify the Praman into a single kaifate, ending their internecine warfare/raiding and freeing them to focus on liberating the Holy Lands in a counter-crusade. Meanwhile, parallel to all this is a magical battle by Cloven Februaren (the “Ninth Unknown”) and Piper’s sister Heris against Kharoulke the Windwalker, one of the most powerful and worst Instrumentalities. And, as usual in this series, there are a host of other “meanwhiles” one could add.
The most captivating plot involves the book-length campaign against Kharoulke, in which Februaren and Heris have to enter another world, enlist the aid of long-vanished dwarves, find a way across the rainbow bridge into the castle of the gods, etc. The plot-line is interesting and enlivened by the entry of Norse mythology fully into the storyline. This entry is made more complex and rich by the clash of that mythology and traditional magic with the increasingly sophisticated technology beginning to be deployed in this world. This plot strand is also less bogged down by details of geography, political influence, genealogy, and other overwhelming or dry details that hinder the other storylines somewhat. But the largest reason I found this plot most enjoyable, though, was due to those involved. Februaren, Heris, the Ascendant, and one of the leading dwarves all have very distinctive, vibrant narrative voices, and so the story seems to come alive whenever we switch back to this group.
The plot involving Piper’s growing estrangement from the Patriarchy and entanglement with the Grail Empire I found less compelling. One reason is those dry and sometimes overwhelming details of politics, geography, and genealogy. Another is that I never had a sense it wasn’t going to go where it did, so I felt I was reading all these machinations and details simply to get to where I knew I was going anyway. And truth be told, though he’s the main character, I find Piper’s character curiously flat, considering his history. His interactions with his comrades are trademark Cook, wry and gritty, and when we spend some quality time with him he’s an engaging character. Too often, though, he (and thus we) are getting thrown so much information, or being whirled so quickly from place to place or plot to plot, that it loses some emotional depth.
The Praman sub-plot is similarly a bit flat, feeling at times more like reportage to keep us up to date as to what’s happening in that part of the world. It does have its moments, especially when Nassim Alizarin, one of the major players, deals with one of his more unpleasant commands. Brother Candle, from the earlier books, returns here but in somewhat perfunctory fashion, mostly being a conduit for some legal papers. His is probably the least interesting and narratively satisfying storyline, but it isn’t granted too many pages.
Surrender to the Will of the Night, beyond the ups and downs of plot and character, shares a few of the same reading frustrations I had with the first two books. One is the lack of a map. Much more than most books, this is a series where geography plays a major role. Characters are flying (not literally for the most part) all over the place, and when they’re not going to a setting they’re referring to it (often by more than one name). A map here is less a luxury, I’d say, than an essential reading tool to get the fullness of the story. The same holds true for a glossary/reading cast. Not only are there a slew of characters, but many of them are referenced via multiple names: nicknames, real names, titles, land names, assumed names. It can get difficult keeping track of which count/duke/etc is which.
Stylistically, Surrender to the Will of the Night could do with better transitioning between scenes. The book seemed far too stripped of these, making for distractingly abrupt shifts from scene to scene, place to place, character to character, and an overall disjointed reading experience. And there’s a bit too much of the reportage I mentioned, where the reader is told what is happening (or what happened off stage) rather than being shown it.
In the end, Surrender to the Will of the Night continues, for both good and bad, what the earlier two books began. The Instrumentalities of the Night is a truly ambitious series that perhaps mirrors a little too much the complexity of the real world with its infinite events and choices and constant clamoring for attention to a million items, and then throws in an entire other world to boot. It’s frustrating reading at times, dealing with so much underbrush as well as some rough transitioning. While it has so far been rewarding enough, it’s only just so, and the ratio between frustration and reward is not quite what I would like it to be.