With a title like The Wizards and the Warriors, I would normally have steered clear of this book for the foreseeable future. I don’t think I’m overly snobbish, but it just brings to mind so many B-movies of the fantasy genre from the late 70’s and early 80’s starring has-beens or never-will-bes that I wouldn’t have expected much of it, and would certainly not have desired to plow through 500+ pages of what I would have at most expected to be mildly entertaining, and perhaps moderately wince-inducing, fluff. Other reviewers I trust, however, conspired against me and assured me that there was much more to The Wizards and the Warriors than that. Turns out they were right.
I vaguely recall seeing some of HUGH COOK’s books in the CHRONICLES OF AN AGE OF DARKNESS series on the shelves back in the day, with their less than inspiring North American version covers. I was never tempted to pick them up, more’s the pity. The first one at least has turned out to be a great read. We start off in very familiar territory (for a fantasy reader anyway): the three wizards Phyphor, Garash, and Miphon are seen in mid-journey, hard on the tracks of one of their wizardly confreres. It appears that this malcontent, Heenmor by name, has appropriated the Deathstone, an artifact of unknown abilities and great power, from the forbidden Dry Pit and must now be brought to heel and divested of this danger to the world’s very existence. On their journey these wizards will come across two members of the fabled Rovac warriors, Elkor Alish and Morgan Hearst, who will join them in their journey despite the longstanding and bitter enmity between the two groups. So far so predictable, right? Luckily Cook manages to take the story in directions that are not exactly to be expected. Aside from the tension between the warriors and the wizards we see that even amongst the small group of spellcasters mutual dislike and mistrust is the rule. The party is seemingly set to tear itself apart before it even gets started and the thought that these miscast compatriots could work together long enough to stop a threat of the magnitude of Heenmor and his Deathstone is unlikely at best. The conflicting aspects of the overarching world-threatening peril with the bickering & gritty characters have allowed Cook to create an interesting amalgam of epic high fantasy with significant elements of the “low fantasy” sword & sorcery genre in an almost seamless mixture.
Regardless of the novel twists and turns of the plot itself (we will cover most of the major continent of this world as we follow the questing group in the ups and downs of their journey, which morphs from one goal to another as chance and fate step in to keep events anything but predictable), I really found myself drawn to the characters. As has been noted in other reviews, they start out as relatively stock character types with whom readers of the genre will be more than familiar, but as we follow them, and most importantly share with them the small day to day experiences that make up the bulk of their “heroic quest,” we begin to see who they really are as people. Some, like the fairly traditional driven swordsman and leader of men Elkor Alish, or the puerile and depraved Prince Comedo, remain mostly true to type (though with distinct streaks of darkness and glimmers of complexity). Others, like the conflicted “hero” Morgan Hearst, the prosaic and thoughtful huntsman Blackwood, or the humane and philosophical wizard Miphon show us sides that reflect a truly well-rounded humanity. Add to this the sheer invention of Cook’s imagination and his ability to take tropes and ideas that are part of the stock-in-trade of the fantasy genre and do something new and interesting with them (oh, those magic bottles!) and you have a real winner on your hands.
It’s unfortunate that the CHRONICLES OF AN AGE OF DARKNESS series didn’t garner greater attention while Cook was still alive, but perhaps things will change now. They certainly deserve a wider reading audience and given that there are ten books in the series there is (if the first book is any indication) lots of good reading awaiting the prospective reader. In addition it seems that Cook took advantage of his projected long series to write many of the subsequent volumes covering the same events, but from the point of view of another character and even in a completely different mode. Thus we will be able to see things with a much more holistic view than is normally the case in some fantasy works: the hero of one tale may prove to be a villain in another and events seen through the lens of an epic fantasy quest may look very different when we see them as part of a picaresque farce. I for one am looking forward to continuing on in Cook’s imaginative world, and I hear from other reviewers that I’ve got a lot of fun to look forward to.