My love of science fiction and fantasy video games grew out of my very early love of speculative fiction storytelling. From watching “Conan the Barbarian” as a child to discovering the wonder of my fellow Texan Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories as a young adult, my development and love of gaming has been entirely linked to my love of speculative storytelling.
I admit, of my own free will, that when stories interface with the game lore that I enjoy, I enjoy those stories, even if the actual craft of those stories is rather poor. It is this seeming immunity to all the pitfalls of bad fantasy writing that allows me to enjoy Wizards of the Coast-branded novels at the same as I enjoy truly intelligent and literary spec fic.
However, sometimes the sensibilities that I love in video games, the method of telling a very complex story through a band of characters, with constantly shifting perspectives and evolving themes, are the same sensibilities that I love in novels. A master storyteller is able to weave the intense narrative of her story together with the sort of generative experience inside the reader that is externalized during the playing of a game. Literally, it is like watching (and playing) a game to read such a story, if only not as interactive. It is the “on rails” version of readership.
Very few authors have this power to totally immerse me, but Glen Cook is one. Now that all of his excellent Black Company series of books are available in omnibus editions, there is really no reason not to read them. This review, however, focuses on one of his older, and in many ways, more stylized and memorable series: that of the Dread Empire, collected in an omnibus edition titled A Cruel Wind.
The first story in the book is “A Shadow of All Night Falling.” (Aside: with such an awesome title, how can anything go wrong?) This is very early Cook, before he adopted what Steve Erikson would call the “Vietnam war fiction on peyote” style of narrative voice. In that sense, it lacks much of the modern “punkish” grit, and replaces it with the classic, pulpy sense of weirdness that permeates all strange worlds.
Cook weaves, sometimes roughly, the threads of a royal family in crisis with that of nations at war, with heroes being chosen by circumstance and villains’ villainy debatable and contextual. The characters and setting are minimally developed in the text, but what text there is contains hints and brief vignettes of insight that allow the reader to develop the story along with the author.
Many modern fantasies spoon-feed their readers; this is why we cannot have nice things. We have series that border on the ridiculously long, novels that approach tome-like length because authors spend paragraphs on lacquering every detail with enough purple prose to choke a donkey. This is where video games have the potential to surpass novels as storytellers; less time needs to be lavished on textual clues for setting when it can be shown to the reader. Like movies or television, this can be exploited to cheapen the experience, to remove the richness of imagination and interject the shallowness of superficiality… but also like movies and television, it can create a wondrous new experience that transcends the limitations of communication with only the written word.
There are rough spots that show the author’s youth and inexperience. The minimalist aesthetic oftentimes leads Cook to eschew providing more than bare-bones descriptions of characters or their mental state when the reader is viewing the action through their point of view. It is disorienting, to say the least, to never be able to immerse oneself fully in the action.
Nevertheless, Cook’s writing is something I feel any fantasy or science fiction video game fan would enjoy. It contains a proper mix of gritty realism, heroes one wants to cheer for, villains one enjoys to jeer for, and some rousing action sequences to get the blood pumping. I cannot recommend it enough.