The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Glen Cook


1.5 Port of Shadows by Glen Cook

It is with great sadness that I admit that I really didn’t like this book. I love the series, especially the original three books and The Silver Spike. This novel should have been a great addition, coming at a time in the storyline that saw the Black Company at the top of their game, but the sad truth is that it never really held my attention. The tale is broken up into three narratives two of which revolve tightly around the Lady and her sisters growing up in the world of the Dominator. Unsurprisingly the Dominator’s world is a bleak one filled with violence, rape, and other nastiness that is casually sprinkled throughout the stories as the reader tries to glean some context for the evolution of the Lady and Soulcatcher into two fearsomely powerful despots. The stories are confusing and probably don’t hold together under strict scrutiny. (I’m not positive they don’t because I didn’t enjoy the book enough to give it that strict scrutiny.)

The final storyline follows the Black Company in the modern day and it is disjointed and confusing and frankly not a lot of fun. I’m rereading the series now, and I remember that I wasn’t thrilled with all of the original books, but I don’t remember being this disappointed in any of the others.

1 The Black Company by Glen Cook

Glen Cook’s The Black Company is one of the classic fantasy warfare series of all time. I started reading the novels when it became a Science Fiction Book Club pick when I was an undergraduate. I read it and so did all of my friends and I continued reading the whole series as they were published. I reread the opening trilogy again about ten years ago and have decided to read the entire series again since a new novel, Port of Shadows, was recently published.

So, it’s with some surprise that I only noticed in this reading that Cook carefully makes most of the major battles in the opening novel happen off screen. Let me say that again, it’s only in the final substantial chapter (the actual last chapter is more like an epilogue) that we see firsthand a major battle—which is strange for a book about a military company who is fighting throughout the novel. Most of the rest of the book focuses on the narrator, Croaker, and a few of his fellow members of the company acting more like a special operations force to frustrate the enemy.

The novel is broken into seven chapters, the first six of which read like short stories braided together with the last being the aforementioned epilogue. These stories tell of the last of the Free Companies of Khatovar—a four-hundred-year-old mercenary band which has kept its high standards of discipline and competence even as it falls into hard times. At the start of the story, they are under contract to a ruler who has managed to turn all of his people and his own army against him. Desperate not to go down with him, the Company betrays its principles, allowing the ruler to be assassinated, and signs a new contract with a dark wizard called Soulcatcher who is in service to the Lady, despot of a northern empire.

The Lady is fighting off a civil war. On her side are ten dark wizards called the Taken—they were the baddest of the bad until the Lady’s husband, the Dominator, possessed them and forced them to his side. The Lady, the Taken, and the Dominator were defeated two centuries earlier by a mythical figure called The White Rose who, unable to kill them, trapped them. The prison held for centuries until a fool accidentally released the Lady and the Taken reigniting her dark reign.

Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that many of the Taken are acting against the Lady’s interests in the war in their own efforts to release the Dominator and restore him to power. Despite remarkable feats by the Black Company, the Lady’s forces continued to be pushed back toward a final stand. The challenge for the Company is the recognition that all sides (rebel, Lady, and Dominator) represent evil and despotism with no “good” actors for the Company to support. So they stick to their contract even though it’s not clear they should.

This is a solid novel with remarkable over-the-top magics adding color to the story, but not detracting from the very human interactions as the soldiers of the Black Company try to find their way.

The Black Company

The Garrett Files

It seems unfair that Glen Cook should be the master of both the fantasy warfare genre (The Black Company) and the fantasy detective novel (The Garrett Files) but he undeniably is. Of the two genres, I suspect that the fantasy detective series is the most difficult. Not only does he have to have memorable characters whom the readers can love to cheer for (and against), exciting action scenes, magic that enhances the story without overwhelming it, and a believable fantasy back drop, he has to come up with a credible, multi-layered mystery. Cook does this in The Garrett Files by adopting the Nero Wolfe template with his character the Dead Man (four centuries in the grave but not ready to move on yet) playing Wolfe and his hero, Garrett filling the shoes of Archie Goodwin (drinking beer instead of milk, but otherwise pretty much the same). Add in a growing cast of memorable friends and you have the recipe for outstanding mysteries in a remarkably fresh setting.

Sweet Silver Blues

This is one of my favorite Glen Cook books. I’ve read it five or six times in the last three decades. It inspired my best friend to run an awesome D&D game that lasted eight years, and it leads to 13(?) mostly good sequels and countless copy cats. At its heart, this series becomes a fantasy take on the Nero Wolfe mysteries, but this first one is almost all about Garrett, an ex-Marine turned private investigator in the fantasy city of TunFaire. There’s a lot of action, but there’s also a very good mystery and a surprisingly strong chord played on the heartstrings by the end of the book. The characters are memorable and the world is ever more fascinating.

This first novel revolves around Garrett being hired to find the woman his old army buddy has left a fortune too. She’s in a realm called the Cantard which has been the focus of generational war between the wizards of his kingdom and their enemies. From the very beginning multiple groups of mysterious bad guys are showing too much (often violent) interest in Garrett’s mission and Cook plays these competing plotlines brilliantly to keep the adventure both fast-paced and always interesting. But the reason I keep coming back to this novel is the last five sentences of the second to last chapter—the true end of a brilliant novel. With five short sentences Cook transforms a triumphant ending into one which makes you want to weep.

In doing so he gives Garrett a depth worthy of a hundred sequels.

Bitter Gold Hearts

Bitter Gold Hearts sees Garrett reluctantly involved in the personal problems of the ruling class. Someone has dared to kidnap the only son of Stormwarden Raver Styx and Garrett is hired to make it look like he is helping to get the missing young man back again. He’s pulled in just deep enough to see that the Stormwarden’s family is a mess and to discover he likes her ward, a sweet half-faerie woman who is one of many scions of the family locked in misery and wanting to get out before mama Stormwarden returns from the war in the Cantard. When the young woman dies Garrett throws common sense to the wind and decides to bring a measure of justice to her killers no matter who in the Stormwarden’s family wants to get in his way.

This is a good one.

Cold Copper Tears

Religion comes to TunFaire in this third volume of the Garrett P.I. series. Garrett is a hardboiled detective in a fantasy city. His dream in life is to have nothing to do but drink beer and maybe enjoy the attention of a beautiful woman. After his exploits in the previous novel he has plenty of money and really doesn’t need to do any work, so he’s quite surprised when a street gang tries to kill him and even more shocked to learn shortly thereafter that someone has put a substantial price on his head. Despite his best efforts to the contrary, Garrett has to go to work to find out who’s trying to kill him.

That’s when religion enters the picture. A high-ranking religious figure tries to hire Garrett to find some missing relics. An ancient cult with some bizarre self-mutilation habits seems interested in doing the detective ill. A woman from his distant past is somehow involved in the mess and Garrett’s nobler instincts are pushing him to help her—if he could figure out what she really wants him to do. It’s a complicated situation which shows us a totally different side of the city of TunFaire then we saw in the first two books. The mystery is engaging and the eventual exposure of the villain is exciting and worthy of the buildup. It’s always a good sign when you still remember the bad guy thirty years after first reading the book.

Overall, I would describe this as a classic Garrett novel. The supporting cast is still small enough that they don’t slow the pace of the story as everyone has to make an appearance. The prose is tight and the pages flip quickly from first chapter to last. It’s not the best book to start the series on because the Dead Man plays a smaller role than usual, but if you’ve enjoyed any of the other Garrett books the odds are high you’ll enjoy this one too.

Old Tin Sorrows

Garrett’s old sergeant calls in a favor to make everyone’s favorite fantasy detective find out who’s trying to murder an already dying General Stanton. Stanton’s a lot like General Sternwood in The Big Sleep. He’s tough but likable in his final days of life, sitting next to a roaring fire because he doesn’t generate enough heat to keep his body warm on its own. He looks like he’s mere days from croaking on his own but is his poor health the result of a rare tropical disease caught in the service or an exotic poison? It doesn’t help that the General doesn’t like doctors and won’t cooperate in trying to save his life.

As to motive? There’s a will that gives half of the General’s estate to his daughter and splits the remaining half between several long term retainers most of whom served under the General in the war. Suspicions that someone is trying to knock the General off are strengthened by the growing number of his retainers that have met an unexpected end—shrinking the pool of inheritors and growing everyone’s share of the estate. There’s also a woman (isn’t there always a woman in a Garrett novel) who is sneaking around the General’s home and nobody but Garrett admits to being able to see her. The only thing really going for Garrett as he tries to investigate this tight-mouthed group of suspects is that the pool of potential killers is diminishing so rapidly.

Old Tin Sorrows shows us a different aspect of Garrett. He’s ten miles outside of the city for almost the entire book so he has to depend on his own wits and a little bit of help from his friend, Morley Dotes, to solve the crime. The Dead Man is simply not available to make connections or suggest courses of action. As the story progresses and the tension grows tauter it begins to look like Garrett isn’t up to the task.

It’s always hard to evaluate the mystery of a novel you’ve read a couple of times before but I think Cook does a pretty good job with this one. At times Garrett seems to be a little slow, but if we recall he’s getting no sleep and is under a lot of strain, I’m not sure it’s fair to hold that against him. There are a couple of nice surprises toward the end and the portrait of Eleanor becomes a fixture in later novels, so this is not a book that is forgotten as the series progresses.

Dread Brass Shadows (Garrett Files #5) by Glen Cook

Garrett is a little slow in the fifth volume of the Garrett Files. Admittedly, there is a lot of confusing and even traumatic things happening around him, but he misses a crucial fact early in the novel that would have potentially shortened the book by about two hundred pages. Not that that’s a bad thing—those two hundred pages are fun, packed with mayhem and mischief.

The novel opens with Garrett’s on-again off-again girlfriend, Tinnie Tate, getting stabbed as she walks up the road to see him. There’s no reason that anyone can figure for the attack until a woman comes to Garrett seeking his help to find a missing book. It turns out that just about everyone wants to get their hands on this book, a magical volume whose pages are made of brass. Most of the people searching for the book believe that Garrett has it and they spend a lot of time trying to coerce answers out of him, sneak into his house, or just straight up kill him. Then mob boss Codo Contague gets involved and the stakes are substantially raised with all sides still trying to recruit Garrett or wipe him out of the fight.

Most of the usual support cast is absent for most of the novel. The reason is a little weak, but it gives Cook an excuse for his big blow out ending—the conclusion of which sets the stage for more problems in future novels.

The best thing about this book is the fate of the book—which contains one of those images Cook paints so well that has hung in my mind for the thirty or so years since I first read it.

Red Iron Nights (Garrett Files #6) by Glen Cook

This Garrett Files novel has the most memorable villain in the series. He’s an extreme sexual deviant who happens to vomit green venomous butterflies when he gets worked up. Oh, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you kill him and burn the body, he still manages to stalk the night and kill another woman. The novel is a little slow to get started, but once it catches its stride its nonstop excitement until Garrett and the Dead Man bring their villain to justice.

But it wouldn’t be a Cook series if that was all that was happening. The war in the Cantard is coming to an end and the city watch is starting to imagine it could be a lot more than an ineffective group of guys who make most of their living taking bribes from criminals. Things are starting to happen in Garrett’s hometown and it’s by no means clear it will be good for him.

I’ve enjoyed this series for well over twenty years and it’s a delight to reread it.

Deadly Quicksilver Lies (Garrett Files #7) by Glen Cook

Even though I am rereading the Garrett Files series, I was not anxious to pick up this volume. Memory told me that it was of significantly lower quality than the first six books and it’s just hard to get excited about rereading a book like that. Unfortunately, my memory was correct. I started and stopped the novel roughly ten times before biting the bullet and reading it through to the end. The problem is one of pacing. This book with “quicksilver” in the title reads like frozen molasses trying to find enough heat to drip off a table. It’s not that any particular part of the plot, or any particular onion layer of the mystery isn’t good, it’s that it happens so incredibly slowly.

It's a shame, because there are actually a lot of really good elements to this story. Garrett gets slammed into an insane asylum. The Deadman is asleep for the whole novel leaving Garrett to figure things out totally on his own. The primary villain is a fascinating figure with big surprises. There’s actually some very good action scenes as well. But these elements are stretched so far out that it just doesn’t save the story. Maybe if Cook had cut one hundred pages it would have been all right, but this one, I sadly report, just didn’t work for me.

Petty Pewter Gods (Garrett Files #8) by Glen Cook

Cook misses the mark again with the eighth book in his Garrett Files series. The plot revolves around a contest among some weak gods with almost no remaining worshippers to see who gets to keep a temple on the Street of Dreams and who gets to fade into oblivion. Garrett wants nothing to do with it, but both sets of deities are determined to have Garrett find the mystical key for them that will let them into the last temple and give them victory. This leads to roughly two hundred pages of Garrett running from one set of gods or the other, getting caught and roughed up by the males in the pantheon and seduced shamelessly by the females before he escapes to start the cycle all over again. It’s really not until the last seventy or eighty pages that things become more interesting. Garrett starts to figure out the origins of the “gods” and learns a bit about the danger they came to his world to escape. He also figures out that there is a lot more going on than he thought and a lot more gods than the two pantheons he thought he was dealing with are interesting themselves in the contest. In fact, it looks like the fate of the entire world might just depend on everyone’s favorite private investigator.

The normal cast of characters gets a couple of mentions but comes nowhere close to playing an important role. Even the Dead Man who figures out what is going on didn’t seem that important. But then, how could he be important when most of the plot is about Garrett getting cased, beaten, seduced, and escaping again. I like this series, but this book does not show it in its best light.

Faded Steel Heat (Garrett Files #9) by Glen Cook

Be warned, this is a good story, but only if you can get past the first fifty pages. During those pages, I set the book down four different times and wasn’t certain I wanted to pick it up again. After those fifty pages, Cook spends less time on annoying banter and starts to develop a mystery that is centered at least in part on the Weider family who often appear on the borders of Garrett’s other adventures. The Weiders are a very wealthy family of brewers who strongly support hiring veterans. The problem? Some people think they should only be hiring human veterans. Trying to help them drags Garrett into politics as a new human rights group (remember this is a fantasy world with elves, dwarves, ogres, etc.) is stirring up trouble with just about everyone.

It's a solid adventure with quite possibly the most interesting villains Garrett has faced off against yet. But there are drawbacks—the aforementioned banter is often just annoying and the parrot continues to take up way too many pages and is just flatly irritating. The novel slows down again for the last thirty or so pages, but overall this book is a sign that the Garrett Files are finding their proper feet again.

Angry Lead Skies (Garrett Files #10) by Glen Cook

UFOs and alien visitors come to TunFaire and Garrett is right in the middle of their shenanigans. In fact, a confusingly large number of alien groups have visited Garrett’s city and their little scientific gadgets (which Garrett and his friends see as a new kind of magic) give them extraordinary advantages over the regular fantasy cast of the Garrett Files. Cook deserves credit for finding a new type of threat not normally seen in fantasy literature, but in practical terms, he didn’t succeed in using them to make for an interesting and exciting adventure. The aliens (even the sex crazed ones) just don’t ever become good antagonists leaving the reader wondering why this novel got written. In fact, this is the book that almost killed the series for me the first time I read it, and now that I’m rereading the novels, I am very much afraid that my recollection might be wrong and we have another torturously slow novel coming after this one. (Memory tells me it was three or four bad books in the middle before Cook finds his groove again. I guess the next novel will let me know for sure.)

Whispering Nickel Idols (Garrett Files #11) by Glen Cook

This is the best motivation for Garrett to get involved in a problem since Sweet Silver Blues. In that one, he was asked to locate his first great love. In this one, he is asked to pay his debt to very scary mob boss Chodo Contague by helping to find out if he’s really in a poison-induced coma (with the poisoner being Chodo’s equally scary daughter who is a sometime Garrett-love-interest. What makes this so good is that Garrett always fought not to become Chodo’s man, and yet the genius crime lord succeeded in using Garrett’s own code to reel him in.

So Garrett is investigating something he wants no part of and then things get really crazy. Someone is making people spontaneously combust. There is another flock of weird cultists in town and they are not happy with Garrett. There are some magic cats (which I think people should have realized earlier really were magic, but what the heck). And there’s the requisite mysterious woman in the background tied in unclear ways to everything that is happening.

Cook is on his game again in the eleventh book of the series, making me anxious to get to book twelve.

Cruel Zinc Melodies (Garrett Files #12) by Glen Cook

Cook has found another great problem for everyone’s favorite fantasy detective to tackle in this twelfth volume of the Garrett Files. Beer magnate Max Weider is trying to build a theater to keep his daughter and her friends happy and it is being plagued by vandalism, giant bugs, and ghosts. Enter Garrett to save the day. The only problem? Whatever is really happening in the theater has attracted the attention of some of the biggest powerhouses on the Hill, meaning that the movers and shakers of his kingdom are going to make solving this one a lot harder than it has to be.

The underlying problems (there are more than one) are good ones and it’s always fun to watch Garrett pull the layers off the mysteries to get to the bad stuff at the core. There’s also a side plot of interest to long term readers of the series. Garrett and his on-again off-again girlfriend are trying to decide if it’s time for them to stop playing game with each other and get serious. At the same time, the ghost angle permits Garrett to get some unexpectedly sweet closure with Eleanor, the ghost in his painting.

Overall, this is a good addition to the series—not the absolute best but a very credible read.

Gilded Latten Bones (Garrett Files #13) by Glen Cook

This is by far the best novel in the Garrett Files series since the opening trilogy. It caught my attention from moment one and kept me flipping pages right through to the end. Part of what makes it so interesting is that it opens unlike any of the other books. Garrett has given up the PI business in an effort to make his relationship with Tinnie Tate work. She’s been an on-again off-again love interest since book one and they’ve decided to get married even if they never quite get around to setting a date. Perhaps the reason they haven’t set the date is that they are making each other miserable, but that’s an issue for later in the novel. What happens right from the beginning is that Garrett and Tinnie are attacked in their home and immediately thereafter they learn that Garrett’s best friend, Morley Dotes, has been stabbed and is dying and needs Garrett’s help. If there weren’t already signs that Garrett’s relationship with Tinnie was in trouble, the proof comes right then. Tinnie doesn’t want Garrett to help Morley and Garrett understands that that is because Tinnie wants everything in Garrett’s life to revolve solely around her. It’s sad and it’s clear that if the series is going to continue, Garrett and Tinnie’s relationship can’t survive the book.

But that’s still a problem for later in the novel. First Garrett has to keep Morley alive and that involves protecting him from the people who tried to kill him. Unfortunately, Morley’s been out of the PI business for a couple of years. His city has changed. There are new players and he is out of practice and making dumb mistakes. It takes time for him to start get his groove back and he’s hampered by the need to never leave Morley’s side, but slowly, a huge problem in the city begins to get uncovered. Someone is creating zombie monsters by stitching pieces of people and things together like Dr. Frankenstein. It’s creepy. It’s dangerous. And it’s still not the whole picture because someone on the Hill is trying to cover the whole thing up and the effort to do so involves not just the king but law-and-order’s former champion, Prince Rupert. The Prince is so determined to cover up the mess that he is willing to dismantle the City Guard that he has spent a great many books constructing to accomplish his end.

Somewhere near the heart of the problem, but not actually directly involved, is Garrett’s new potential love interest, a very powerful sorceress called Furious Tide of Light. Her family keeps showing up in connection to the zombies and she is both determined to find out why and terrified of the answers. She’s also decided that Garrett is going to be her man and despite feeling guilty about Tinnie, Garrett is interested.

This one has all the things that makes the Garrett Files great. It’s a fantastic mystery. There is very serious threat to Garrett and friends. And there are a couple of emotionally powerful subplots. My only complaint, is that Garrett moves on too quickly from Tinnie, but frankly, this is in keeping with his character even if it was a little disappointing.

Wicked Bronze Ambition (Garrett Files #14) by Glen Cook

This is the second time I have read this book. My memories of the first, read right when it came out, were pretty much relief at the ending and nothing else. Rereading it shows me why none of the rest of the book stuck in my memory. Put simply, it wasn’t a Garrett show, and while far from the worst of the novels, it really didn’t live up to the promise of those first few books.

The plot here feels like The Hunger Games. A Tournament of Swords is being organized in which young scions of sorcerous houses on the Hill are unwillingly pulled into a fight for their lives. Garrett’s fiancé is an early victim—made more shocking by the fact that it was her daughter that everyone was worried about. This is where the book starts to lose its way. The love of Garrett’s life is gone and while everyone treats him with kids’ gloves, he never seems to grieve or even “be Garrett” in going after her killer. He just muddles along and lets everyone solve his case for him.

Perhaps the biggest lost opportunity, however, is that we are finally on the Hill and have a chance to get deep into the aristocracy that has been on the outskirts of so many of these novels and I just didn’t feel like Cook took advantage of that situation.

Maybe he will if he writes another one.

Concluding Thoughts on The Garrett Files

Looking back on the series after rereading it I find I have mixed feelings and think less fondly of the series as a whole than I did when I started rereading it. The first six books stand very strong, but the rest of the series loses the magic that Cook generated in those early novels. There are still some good ones, but reading them fairly rapidly as opposed to one every year or two highlighted the weaknesses for me. If you’re thinking of reading this series you definitely should. Cook transformed the fantasy genre with his fictional detective. But you might pick and choose after the first six novels.