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.