Working God’s Mischief is Glen Cook’s fourth installment in his THE INSTRUMENTALITIES OF THE NIGHT series. I had a mostly positive response to the opening novel, though it had its issues, but my pleasure waned somewhat through books two and three, leaving me to say at the end of my review of Surrender to the Will of Night that “the ratio between frustration and reward” was nearing the danger zone. Unfortunately, Working God’s Mischief did little to reverse that trend and in fact, for the first time in the series, I seriously considered giving it up. I persevered, but I’m not all that sure I’m happy I did so.
My irritation with the novel began off the bat. Perhaps it’s my readerly dotage, but I’m growing less and less patient with long-running series whose new installment don’t come with at least a little bit of a recap. For god’s sake, weekly TV series like Mad Men or Game of Thrones open with a 30 second, “Previously on . . . “, and it’s been all of seven days since the last one. Is it really asking all that much that when it’s been over a year (sometimes several) that the publisher toss in a 3-4 page, “What Came Before”? This feeling of being utterly at sea at the start is exacerbated in a series like this one, which has multiple characters (many with multiple names/titles), multiple story lines, and spans several lands/worlds. And beyond the main characters, Cook is not at all shy about throwing a slew of other names around even as the poor befuddled reader tries to figure out if he/she is supposed to remember any of these people. Here, for example, is a paragraph two pages in:
Serenity appointed him, but only two days before they ran him off. Serenity didn’t know him. He was put up by one of Anne of Menand’s tame Principalities, Gorman Sleight. Sleight doesn’t know LaVelle, either. He nominated LaVelle on behalf of Valmur Joss, one of the Society chiefs in exile in Salpeno. Joss is Connecten. But even he doesn’t actually know LaVelle, who name originally got dropped into the process by a cousin, Laci Lindop, another Connecten Society exile.
Oh, OK. Another early gripe is also evident in that paragraph — note the place names: Menand, Salpeno, Connecten. Within the next two-three paragraphs, we’re also treated to references to Little Pinoche, the Pinoche Islands, the Firaldian coast, Khaurene, Navaya, and Arnhand. And that is merely a tiny number of places noted or visited in the course of this book. So yes, a map would have been nice. And while I have very rarely ever felt the need for one in other works/series, I would have loved a glossary as well. Not merely to refresh my memory with regards to names and places, but to make it easier to match people’s names to titles.
Interestingly enough, the need I felt for this sort of blunt guidance via maps, prologues, and glossaries is somewhat akin to the desire I felt for a more clear shaping of this tale; I wanted a stronger sense of structure and solidity, a better sense of direction and a more clearly limned outline. The big picture is clear enough. One large plot deals with the continued preparations (and actual action toward the end) for the new Western Crusade against the Praman to liberate the Holy Lands in the east. And the other large plot concerns the role the “Instrumentalities,” the supernatural beings will play both in the Crusade but in the larger world, as it becomes evident that though they are allies to our main character Piper Hecht, Commander of the Crusading forces, the Instrumentalities also seem to be playing a larger game.
But within the overarching concepts, little of the action seemed in clear service to those larger storylines. The Old Gods that Piper and his family and friends brought into the world from where they’d been imprisoned by the dwarves (the events of the prior novel in the series), flit here and there, sometimes helping Piper and other humans, sometimes dropping off strange gifts to other mortals, sometimes dropping portentous lines that hint at something but never make that something clear, and it all feels very random. Piper finally gets the Crusade going, and takes a city here, a city there; a Praman leader facers off against a Western one and wins some/loses some; an evil sorcerer is running about eating children and trying to raise an old-time Big Bad; but again, it all feels random; there’s no true feel for what any of it means — in the context of the Crusade, in the context of their lives, in the context of what it all means in the overarching plot we’re supposed to care about. And because of this random and somewhat diffuse nature, it’s hard to care much about what happens; there’s just too little sense of importance or urgency to all of it. Events get mixed up like a slurry and we’re never sure whether a victory or a loss is much of a blow or not, whether it turns some sort of tide or not. Dinner parties get as much page time as major clashes of armies and we’re left to wonder, are they of equal importance somehow? Or is this just a strangely out of balance storyline?
And just as the plot flits about, and the characters (sometimes literally, as some can fly or transport themselves magically) do as well, the narrative style does the same, with little regard to transitions between scenes, making for some jarring shifts on a regular basis. There’s also very little (at least this is how it felt to me) descriptive detail, so that sense of flitting about an abstract world is made worse for the lack of concrete imagery to allow us to settle and visualize a place for any amount of time, whether it be a room, a building, a terrain. The same sense of fuzziness adheres to several of the characters, such as the Instrumentalities, who play a major role but feel all too abstract.
What saved the previous books was the early complexity of Piper’s character (originally a Praman double agent), the likability of several characters, and the Norse-based mythology. Here, though, the Norse aspect is pretty much vanished, Piper is no longer that complex, torn character, and his likability has lessened somewhat due to a few factors, such as the mysterious way he moves as if in a cloud, and the fact that much of what happens is told in almost a flat, reportorial method. He’s lost, in other words, some of that charm that pulled the reader along in books one and two, making up for some of their flaws. I can’t say there was a character I truly felt drawn to in this one (thus the near giving up).
At this point, I’ll keep reading out of some curiosity and the sense, based on a few hints, that the Norse mythology will rise up again. While I’m hoping I’ll soak up book five and read it avidly, I have the sinking sense I may turn to skimming it to simply find out what happens, or worse, just decide I no longer care. In my review of the first book, I told the reader to “give it time.” Now, I think I’d instead say, “Hold on before you start reading; you may want to wait to see if it will be worth the time.”