Book Reviews: Night Vale, It Devours and Black Company, Port of Shadows

I’ve got a pair of book reviews for you today. First up…

Welcome to Night Vale: It Devours

Cover art for the Welcome to Night Vale novel It Devours!I won’t lie: As much as I love Night Vale, I found this book pretty disappointing.

It Devours follows one of Carlos’ scientists, Nilanjana Sikdar, as she investigates strange occurrences that may be connected to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God. This investigation is complicated by a budding attraction between Nilanjana and Darryl Ramirez, one of of the Congregation’s most devout members.

Seems like it could be an interesting story, but… well, it really isn’t. The writers are clearly trying to make a point about the dangers of blind faith, which is admirable, but it’s extremely ham-fisted and unsubtle. It’s not so much a story with a message as it is a message with a story half-heartedly built around it.

It doesn’t help that the main characters are fairly weak. I don’t find Nilanjana or Darryl to be especially likable or interesting characters individually, and worse still their budding romance feels completely forced. The two characters have nothing in common and no chemistry whatsoever, and I was never really clear on why they even liked each other.

The book isn’t a complete waste. It is written with that trademark Night Vale wit and charm, and many of the background characters are memorable. I particularly enjoyed Nilanjana’s coworker who devoted her entire career to disapproving of potatoes.

Carlos also gets a fairly meaty supporting role, and we learn a lot about what makes him tick. I read in the YouTube comments recently there’s a section of the fanbase that has the head canon Carlos is on the autism spectrum, and having read It Devours, I can definitely see why.

Still, despite highlights like that, this is a book I’d have trouble recommending, even to serious fans of the podcast.

Overall rating: 5.9/10

The Black Company, Port of Shadows:

Cover art for The Black Company, book 1.5: Port of Shadows by Glen Cook.Man, who the hell expected a new Black Company book after all this time?

What makes it even weirder is that this isn’t a continuation of the story. It’s an interquel, dubbed “book 1.5”.

That kind of has “unnecessary money grab” written all over it, so I didn’t exactly expect much from Port of Shadows. But it ended up impressing me as much as It Devours disappointed.

Following the battle at Charm, the Black Company has been given a cushy garrison assignment at the city of Aloe. An investigation into a young woman with a mysterious connection to the Lady threatens to disrupt their peace, and the arrival of a new Taken throws Croaker’s life into disarray.

Of course, it is a bit of an awkward fit into existing continuity, though attempts are made to explain the inconsistency. It’s not perfect, but at the end of the day I believe continuity should serve the story rather than the other way around, so I can let it slide.

Reading this, I reflected on how strange it is that I enjoy the Black Company books as much as I do. In theory they’re everything I profess to hate in the fantasy genre. They’re ugly, bleak, cynical books in a low magic setting with no heroes worth rooting for.

I can only say what I’ve always said: I love the way they’re written. The prose is steeped in dry wit and gallows humour, and it makes what would otherwise be an appallingly unpleasant story into a delightful page-turner.

Though I must admit I do worry what it says about me that I just used the word “delightful” to describe a book that features the phrase “consensual necrophilia” as a major plot point.

Anyway, as with the series as a whole, I struggle to explain precisely what it is I enjoyed so much about Port of Shadows, beyond the clever prose. I suppose there is a good mystery here; wanting to uncover what’s really happening is definitely part of what makes it such a page-turner.

I’ll also say that it feels a bit like the later Black Company books in that it presents a softer side of the Company (I use the term loosely) and shows them as being… well, if not the good guys, then at least the lesser of two evils relative to the forces they’re opposing. It does make the whole thing a bit more palatable compared to those times when the Company is just the bad guys.

Going in, I was afraid Port of Shadows was an unnecessary addition to a completed series, and arguably it is, but I wound up enjoying it thoroughly despite that.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Retro Review: Black Company

Retro Review: Black Company:

The Black Company is series of twisted fantasy novels by author Glen Cook, and it’s one of the most unique reads I’ve ever had–which is both a positive and a negative.

The Black Company books follow, not surprisingly, the Black Company, Last of the Free Companies of Khatovar,* the baddest, roughest, toughest, meanest mercenary company around.

*(A fact they are very proud of, despite the fact that they’ve been around so long they no longer have any idea what Khatovar is or what happened to the other Free Companies.)

On paper (no pun intended), the Black Company books are very ordinary. Blah blah ancient evil returns, blah blah last stand against the darkness. The universe is extremely traditional, right down to wizards jealously guarding their true names lest they lose their powers.

What’s unique is the execution. When the evil Ten Who Were Taken escape from their eternal prison, the Black Company is hired by them. When the last stand against the darkness comes, the Black Company is there to help crush the last hope of freedom.

Needless to say, it takes some getting used to. These are very, very dark books, and it can be difficult to identify with the protagonists when the best among them are just not participating in the rape and torture going on all around them–they’re not trying to stop it.

What saves these books is the writing. They’re all written in first person perspective; whose perspective that is varies a bit from book to book (to the author’s credit, each character has a unique voice, and it’s fairly easy to distinguish between them), but most of the time, it’s Croaker, the Black Company’s physician/chronicler. Supposedly, the books are his chronicles of the Company–the Black Company’s devotion to its history borders on the religious.

These books are worth reading just for Croaker’s dry wit and profound cynicism. The most horrible atrocities are just oddly amusing when told through his wry voice. I really have to give Glen Cook credit for the quality of the writing here. It does not feel like you’re reading something written by Glen Cook; it feels like you’re reading a book by Croaker. And Croaker’s about as close to a good person as you will ever see in the Company, so that helps.

It’s also worth noting that the Company is not on the side of the bad guys for the entire series–it’s really just the first few books. Whether or not they ever really qualify as the good guys is arguable, but at the very least, they wind up as the lesser of two evils.

One other thing I need to mention about these books is the Black Company’s two wizards, Goblin and One-Eye. Simply put, they are made of awesome.

Each is described as “older and uglier than sin,” which is an interesting coincidence, since sin is their favourite pastime. One-Eye is a tiny, wiry witch doctor from some primeval jungle in the ass end of nowhere, and is known for his hideous appearance, his eye patch, his association with every black market in every settlement everywhere, and for being the owner of the oldest, ugliest, filthiest hat in existence. Oh, and did I mention he’s the Company dentist?

Goblin is fat and squeaky, and just as steeped in criminality as his cohort. Both spend the vast majority of their time trying to make the other’s life miserable with an endless spree of magical pranks and jokes–such as making each other vomit hundreds of spiders. The only thing more hilarious than their endless brawling is how incredibly blase about it the rest of the Company is.

For the sake of expedience, I’ve been reviewing this series as one homogenous block, but it’s really not at all. This is a very long series that covers several different story arcs. It varies in tone, content, and quality by quite a bit. All I can say is that if you average it out, it’s pretty good. It’s also worth noting that the overall trend in Black Company’s quality is upward–it gets better the farther into it you get. You need to have a somewhat strong stomach, but if you’re in the market for something a little different, I highly recommend this series.

Overall rating: 8/10

These days, the books are usually sold in four omnibuses (the books are both small and numerous, so it makes sense), and my Amazon Affiliate is no exception. For the record, the proper reading order is “Chronicles of the Black Company,” “The Books of the South,” “The Return of the Black Company,” and “The Many Deaths of the Black Company.”