Tuesday, January 12, 2016

An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat (Stories, 1973-1984)

An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat collects 10 Glen Cook's short stories from the 1970's and early 80's. These stories all take place in the world of the Dread Empire. For anyone who is familiar with this Black Company series, these stories should look familiar, for the ideas and tones of these tales would coalesce into his Black Company novels.

The stories vary in tone and engagement. Some are harder toned than others, some more mythic, and some more engaging. Almost all fall clearly under the sword and sorcery milieu, with their gritty feel, petty quarrels, ambiguous protagonists, and rampant, unbridled, and unapologetic sexism.

The collection opens with "Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted with Defeat" (1980).  In this dreadfully dull and unengaging tale, a soldier from the Dread Empire hangs about with farmers while seeking a new life. I found this the single least engaging story in the book, and also the longest. Once past it, I found the remaining stories far more engaging and gripping.

"The Nights of Dreadful Silence" (1973) is a Bragi Ragnarson story. A wizard has been promised a payment by the king of his own daughter, but the king refuses to honor his word. Bragi stumbles into the argument on the wizard's side, and trickery ensues.

"Finding Svale's Daughter" (first appearance) is a fairytailish story. To be honest, I had to skim this story to remember anything about it. It's competent, like oatmeal. Its very palatablility renders it unmemorable.

"Ghost Stalk" (1978) is the first of the Vengeful Dragons stories. The Vengeful Dragon is a terrible ship, full of horrible crew, who do horrible things (trigger warning, especially terrible things to women), and meet their doom due to terrible magics. This, and the following Vengeful Dragon stories, make an excellent set. This story is also noteworthy for having the genetics of the Black Company running through it.

"Filed Teeth" (1981) is as close to a Black Company story you can get without actually putting a label onto it saying, "the Black Company." Although set in the world of the Dread Empire, it could easily be ported to the North. All the elements that would come to set the tenor and tone of the Black Company are laid out right here. Of all these stories, this is the only one which I had read in my youth, having received "Dragons of Darkness" for Christmas.

"Castle of Tears" (1979) is a Ragni Ragnarson story. This time, he goes looking for a legendary object to save a princess.

"Call for the Dead" (1980) is the second Vengeful Dragon story. Continuing where the first story let off, the damned crew are "rescued" by a wizard from a black throne. Motifs here will reappear in the Black Company's southern adventures.

"Severed Heads" (1984) is a story of vengeance where not a single word is wasted. It's a damned tight story, from beginning to end, and shames every other tale in this collection. This story also requires a trigger warning. If you can keep going, then do.

"Silverheels" (1981) is another fairytale like story. A man, a talking pony, and a talking kitten have quite an adventure in very few pages.

"Hell's Forge" (first appearance) is the final Vengeful Dragon tale. The crew is summoned by yet another evil wizard for more evilness, only to learn that any deal with the Vengeful D. crew is a bad, bad, bad deal.

All in all, I found the collection both satisfying and enlightening. I really do need to read more sword and sorcery.