Hugh Cook


The Wordsmiths and the Warguild

Chronicles in an Age of Darkness, Volume 1


Just going through my bookshelves working out which books to keep and which to put on bookmooch. I read this originally in the 90s – before I started writing reviews – but I’ve left the impression summery description I gave it. As it was a bit disparaging, it goes some way to explain why I was more positive on a second reading than I expected to be: I had low expectations.


Cook has some ability, and he’s not just bad like some in the fantasy genre, but I wouldn’t recommend him as a stand alone writer for wit, perception or engagement. He does stand out, however, as a foil – and would particularly have done so in the Belgariad/Wheel of Time world of the 80s when this was published. He appears to me to have bridled at all these characters drenched in destiny and nobility, so instead he hurls his characters about far more randomly, and allows them far greater flaws. Maybe there’s also something of the D & D Dungeon Master deal of keeping players interested by frequent dramatic changes of scene (the opposite to the patient, textured build of, say, an Ursula K. LeGuin).


This could be OK – works fine for Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers books – but I don’t think his individual episodes are strong enough (Adams doesn’t need coherence because of his Wodehouse levels of wit and expression, and frequent clever social satire). But, sure, there’s something refreshing about pettiness and unpredictability. And he does have some cool ideas – although he doesn’t seem to even respect some of them himself. The set-up, for example, is a classic ‘one ring’ type doomsday device – in this case the ‘death-stone’ – but this descends into absurdity when the Mordor type ‘pit’ it came from turns out to be just riddled with death-stones that seem to take little more effort to pick up than grabbing a burger from 7-11. This might have worked as another wry undermining of the tradition, but it doesn’t make sense within his own parameters: the entire conclave of powerful wizards – in their millennia long stronghold – are utterly destroyed by one minor wizard just popping over for a death stone. There is never any attempt to address the issues: why hasn’t any other minor wizard ever popped over in thousands of years, yet there are three within a year? Why didn’t any of the more powerful wizards do anything? More hypocritically, why is it taken as read that only our couple of heroes – with relatively minor powers and resources – will be able to deal with the crisis (hang on, I thought we’d dispensed with this destiny nonsense).


On balance, particularly in the last few chapters, while he occasionally entertained and surprised me, I think he more bugged me. You can present a more chaotic world than this usual, sure, but you can’t then get away with the context: aeons of stability, co-operation and order. Not unless you show some reason for some new chaotic element to have suddenly emerged that was understandably suppressed previously. Cook doesn’t, but much of the book hinges on this.


PS: I read the next book in the series, and realised that Cook had run with the very cool and original (in terms of scope) idea of writing about the same events from a different perspective. Glancing at some amazon reviews, apparently he’s done this for ten whole books. Sure occasionally I’ve read books which move between perspectives (e.g. David Lodge), but I do doff my cap to someone who realises this notion on this scale. I’m tempted to try to dig up book three, even though I’m not keeping 1 & 2: even though I’m sure I’ll find several things that annoy me, I am still curious about where he’ll go with this idea.


PPS: I was amused at a theme of the mostly very positive reviews of this book on amazon: if you don’t like this book you mustn’t be as smart as us – as one reviewer put it, they must be ‘over your head’. Very amusing arrogance/insecurity: if you disagree with me you must be stupid. But it does fit with the antagonistic nature of the series – aren’t those other fantasy books so stupid. Sure, some of them are, but I’m not sure it’s enough to build a series on reacting to other conventions. Nor are your characters automatically more nuanced and realistic because they’re frequently petty: while a couple are more developed, most of Cook’s characters are paper thin (Garash, for example, is complete after a paragraph, never departing a jot from his stereotype).


November 2011