On Glen Cook, or: How Nog is Inescapable
Glen Cook is an author best known for his military series The Black Company (1984). He has published a multitude of works in science fiction and fantasy, and at the age of 72 still publishing today. His work is some of the first fiction to break away from Tolkien-esque fantasy, and the knock-off pulp epics, becoming a pioneer in what today has emerged as a favorite subgenre of fantasy known as grimdark.
Cook is not as well known for another series he labels as Garrett, P.I., Novels. While not as famous as The Black Company the Garrett, P.I. works have a slew of dedicated fans that keep coming back for more. He is still publishing the series which now has 14 novels and has been running since the first book Sweet Silver Blues hit bookstores in 1987.
As you may have guessed this series focuses on a Private Investigator named Garrett, a 30’s something ex-marine who lives in the decaying city of TunFaire. The city is part of the Kingdom of Karentine that is always at war with a rival empire called the Venageta. The Cantard Wars take place, well… in the Cantard; a swampy, island filled and ore rich part of the world where each power grabs young men and aspiring wizards only to hurl them into battle against each other. Garrett is a veteran of this war, where he would be considered an "old man." Men who go to the Cantard don’t come back, and those who do usually die soon after on the mean streets of TunFaire.
Garrett tries to avoid work as much as possible, preferring booze and women over any other activity. He is good friends with a dark elf named Morely Dotes, who is basically Garrett with a better work-ethic, yet morally ambiguous. Garrett’s friends come and go throughout the novels, helping him “bust heads,” save women in distress and find hordes of cash on the mean, magic filled streets.
The novels fit in a bizarre branch of literature that is not quite your common fantasy, but also not a straightforward hardboiled detective story. Cook clearly takes plenty from authors like Chandler and Tolkien, combining it into his own thing. Today many other authors take their own spin on these types of novels, but they have plenty of vampires and werewolves fighting in back alley NYC-type streets. It’s a brand called urban fantasy. There are authors such as Ben Aaronovitch who do this very well, yet I find most of them repetitive and boring. Cook is one of the first (I cannot find an author published before him, but I’m sure there are some) to explore this type of novel, but keeps it firmly in his own realm of creation.
Glen Cook does not glorify war in this series, though it is a major backdrop. He tries to write men who do not hide their more ambiguous sides, and while they never treat women with the respect our current day culture knows they deserve, to give him a bit of slack the women in his novels are usually just as hard hitting, crude and tough as the men. The books are action filled, funny, quick reads that slap you in the face.
My only issue with Glen Cook novels is he can be a bit obscure on details about the plot, not too mention his dialogue is very slang and idiom based. This is pulled directly from those mid-20th century detective pulps, but when it occurs in the fantasy setting, you can get lost quickly. His mysteries are never undemanding, making the reader take huge leaps of faith to follow the path from Garrett getting a new job through completion. Most of his novels function in this way, but it is an incredibly unique and fascinating way to write detective fiction; it was certainly a unique way to write fantasy in the 80’s and 90’s when most authors were writing sword and sorcery epics.
Not every novel in the series is golden. A few of them I have put down feeling like, as the reader, I was spinning my figurative wheels at the pacing, obscure dialogue, drinking and chasing women. This is a bit of a dichotomy for me because in the better novels this is what holds my interest. The mystery is never something that pushes the story forward; it is more about the characters, fights and how Garrett is reacting to having to work without guzzling a huge pint.
I’m almost done with reading the entire series, I have just a few books left. I must say that is a very rare thing for me. Only a few authors exist where I read large amounts of their books; even then I generally stick to stand-alone's or trilogies. I don’t like committing to a run of books that are more than three or four long because I’m almost always disappointed with the later books, or there is a huge slump somewhere in the middle. There are just too many books in the world that I want to read. Getting caught up in a whirlwind of an enormous, sprawling series makes my head hurt, but Garrett, P.I. is an exception. Even the lesser novels are fast reads with a few great scenes and some amazing one-liners.
I’ll leave all of you with this; one of the more recent novels I had read was one called Petty Pewter Gods. In TunFaire gods tend to stick to one long street called the Dream Quarter, where every cult, temple, and fanatic is placed. Garrett gets sucked into a case, against his will, when two temples which have lost many of their followers are about to be pushed off the street to make way for new upcoming religions. It turns out the gods are real, and they implore Garrett to help them find a key that will open up the temple they are to inhabit. The winning team stays on the street and is allowed for their followers to prosper. The losing team is banished from the city where their supporters will slowly vanish. What happens to a God who is not believed in? Well, they die out and go back to “the other side.”
How’s that for an interesting concept?
It wasn’t my favorite, but it certainly stands out as one with a very cool idea. The scenes are great, and Cook has some fun creating weird and interesting gods that chase Garrett as he tries to dodge them, not wanting anything to do with the case. But how do you flee immortal, all knowing beings? Especially one simple-minded God that lurks after prey, psychically sending its message, Nog is inescapable.
Go check out some Glen Cook novels. If military fantasy is your thing The Black Company is a fantasy staple for a reason; it’s great and fun and pretty gory at times.
If the detective world is more your vibe than Garrett, P.I. is something that you can’t lose on. The first book, as previously stated, is called Sweet Silver Blue, but I’d recommend skipping that one and going straight to book 2 in the series called Bitter Gold Hearts. If you don’t mind reading out of order, jumping ahead to my favorite book (one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time, as well) Old Tin Sorrows is a great one. It’s a traditional whodunit, in the style of Agatha Christie, where Garrett is brought to an old house with a dying man and a growing pile of corpses. Garrett must solve the case before the old man dies, and he bites the dust himself.
My last recommendation for anyone who might be fans of odd, Steven Erikson-esque epics and check out an earlier series called The Dread Empire (1979). The first book in that series is entitled A Shadow of All Night Falling, a title that I think is poetic and fitting to the novel itself.
There you go, my fantasy recommendations of the authorial stylings of Glen Cook. TGIF and Good Reads, ya’ll.