Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 17, 2010

Chronicles of an Age of Darkness

Between 1986 and 1992, New Zealand-based author Hugh Cook wrote a ten-volume series of inventive, grim, exuberant, disconcerting, nonplussing, and downright bloody weird fantasy novels. They weren’t nearly as popular as they should have been – I suspect he was mostly just ahead of his time, given the popularity of work in a similar style now. China Miéville has described them as “intensely clever, humane, witty, meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde”.

I first read them in my early teens, and I adored them – I think that was one of the things that originally set my standards for fantasy, and I’ve been seeking out More Like This ever since. Luckily, there’s a lot of it around now.

The setting for the world of Olo Malan – whose name, I think, we don’t find out till Book 6 or so – is extremely post-apocalyptic, twenty thousand years after its connection to the intercosmic civilization of the Nexus crashed and broke. There are barbarous tribes, strange races, empires, priesthoods, magic, technological survivals that look like magic, and technological survivals that aren’t magic at all; the malign torturing monster lurking Downstairs below the island of Untunchilamon is an AI employed by the Golden Gulag as a therapist, and The Combat College in Dalar ken Halvar still trains Startroopers for the Nexus, teaching them to pilot spacefighters in the virtual reality tanks, despite not of course having had any actual spacefighters for millennia.

At the beginning of the series, however – with The Wizards and the Warriors – it looks as though the apocalypse was a standard magical one, with plentiful leftover magical weapons and mysterious devices. The books stand alone, but often cover the same events from the viewpoint of a minor character in previous ones – Togura Poulaan, the hero of Book 2, The Wordsmiths and the Warguild, gets caught up in Elkor Alish’s army, which we saw in detail in Book 1; two minor supporting characters, the pirates Drake and Bluewater Draven, appear in Book 4, The Walrus and the Warwolf (Drake, in fact, is the protagonist); and Yen Olass Ampadara, whom Draven describes as “the reason men should always be in charge of women”, is the centre of Book 3, The Women and the Warlords.

I never really rated Book 3 when I was a teenager, but re-reading them recently it’s now one of my favourites. Yen Olass is a female slave in a deeply sexist society, an Oracle whose function is to mediate quarrels between men. The book shows her in an uncomfortable position – in a strange legalistic limbo with influence but no power, and power but no influence (it makes sense in context, honest – as much as anything in these books does), with the Collosnon army but not part of it, caught up in politics and quarrelling, trying to make her own way in the world and never getting to do it for long. At one stage, she does establish a small self-sufficient lesbian utopia in the woods; but the politics of men intrude, and one of the heroes of the first book casually takes away her lover and then kidnaps her and her child for politics yet again.

The Walrus and the Warwolf is more or less the opposite of The Wordsmiths and the Warguild: a long hard journey, indeed, and a quest of sorts, but with an utterly selfish, irresponsible, fantasist as a hero – Dreldragon Drakedon Douay, known as the Demon-son, pirate, rightful king of Stokos, priest of the Flame, slayer of a Neversh and a watermelon stand. It’s wonderful, and self-consciously storied – all of these books do interesting things with narrative and legend, but this one is where Cook starts actively playing silly buggers.

Book 5, The Wicked and the Witless, expands on some of the political developments over the last book, as Sean Kelebes Sarazin, one of Drake’s antagonists (though, to be fair, practically everyone he meets is his antagonist, and for very good reasons) schemes and plots to take over the Harvest Plains. It’s good, but I can’t find much to say about it in comparison to the others.

Book 6, on the other hand – The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers – is definitely my favourite of the lot. It’s much more restricted in scope than the others, set entirely in the city of Injiltaprajura on the island of Untunchilamon, and it marks the point both where Cook starts going for really outlandish imagery (a millennia-old Hermit Crab with gourmet tastes and the powers of sorcery; irresponsible children’s toys from the Golden Gulag, reconditioned from military-grade autonomous robots; fountains of thixotropic industrial lubricant pouring into the sea; the Cult of the Holy Cockroach) and when the narrative tricks really get going. We have not only the unreliable narrator’s manuscript, complete with derisive references to the Redactors of Odrum, but a half-dozen layers of editorial interjections, elisions, amendments, and reproofs to less senior Redactors. The Originator, at that, is explicitly insane – an inmate in the Dromdanjerie, the asylum of Injiltaprajura – but the Foreword, in which yet another (nameless) writer debunks the Redactors, makes no mention of that.

As it endured redaction in the dungeons of Odrum, the Text which follows became encumbered by a full two million words of explication and interpolation. In the interests of convenience, readability and sanity, most of this overgrowth has been cut away.

A previous draft of the manuscript of The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers actually exists as a major plot point in the next book, The Wazir and the Witch – which is narrated by the same historian as the first, but has clearly not fallen into the hands of the Redactors of Odrum. These two books, together, show off one of the other good features of the series – diversity of races, from the grey-skinned Janjuladoola and the redskins of the Ebrell Islands with their flaming hair to the purple-skinned Frangoni warriors of Dalar ken Halvar. This shows up very strongly in the contrast between these two and Book 9, The Worshippers and the Way – Asodo Hatch, of the Frangoni, and a Startrooper of the Nexus, strongly resents the popular depictions of the Wild Tribes in Nexus popular culture as purple-skinned barbarians, given that the proud warrior culture are already looked down upon by the dominant Ebrell Islanders. On Untunchilamon, on the other hand, “Ebbies” are the lowest of the low – considered feckless, irresponsible lowlives. There are some explicitly white-skinned peoples, but generally when others refer to them it’s with some reference to “the disgusting pallor of the natives of Wen Endex” or some such.

Book 8, The Werewolf and the Wormlord, is set in Wen Endex, where the Yudonic Knights only come out at night; it gives us a picture of a complex society built on violence, financial manoeuverings, scheming, and the strategic use of monsters. It’s my least favourite of the books, and I think the weakest. Book 10, on the other hand – The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster – is rather strong, and we finally get to see the story of Guest Gulkan, Emperor-in-Exile, who has been wandering through others’ stories throughout the series in a rather Moorcockian way. Instead of the brooding questing hero we see from Togura’s perspective in Book 2, or the Conanesque thief-hero in Books 6 & 7, we see a spoilt princeling who grows to become a selfish prince, a foolish (and brief) Emperor, a brave and loving son, a cunning guerilla general who uses the magic of wizards to his advantage, and a hater of the irregular verbs with a passion beyond all telling – and the process happens insensibly, as the narrator never tires of telling us after the fact.

Sadly, they’re almost all out of print; The Walrus and the Warwolf is being reprinted by Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories, with an introduction by China Miéville, at the end of March 2010, and the Book Depository claim it’s still available in hardcover from Colin Smythe Ltd. Cook made books 2, 9, and 10 available on his website, where they’re free to download in HTML format (and very sensibly formatted for reading on my phone – I’ve been using those for travel books for the last few weeks, since I don’t have physical copies of 9 or 10), and the Book depository claims they’re also available via Lulu, but Lulu doesn’t. Basically – if you can find a set, you should, but good luck!

10 Comments »

  1. Thanks for posting your entry on Hugh Cook’s Age of Darkness novels. I came here by the Tor.com comment where you linked to it. I’ve since read five of them and am looking out for the rest. Although you recommended starting with The Walrus and the Warwolf, that was actually the fourth I read, but I probably enjoyed it the most. It does its own thing so brazenly and unselfconsciously that it swept me along, and I have a weakness for strangely-shaped plots. I can see why they apparently sold so poorly when they were first published – I can’t imagine most people enjoying them.

    Actually, they’re pretty fantastic compared to most fantasy, in the sense of being strange and self-absorbed. Strange plots and random occurrences, wide ranges of locations, characters, and events, the way events are portrayed in different books, the political anarchy – not just lack of an single ruler, but the way characters go from being nobodies to major figures, the lack of respect for any kind of authority and discrimination – I think they were at least partly written against most fantasy novels. In fact, you could almost call them realistic, if it wasn’t for the demons, death-stones, giant magical hermit crabs, baby suns, weird monsters, and walking mountains.

    The ones I’ve read so far are (in order) numbers 2, 6, 7, 4 and 1. One of the big pleasures is trying to work out what’s going to happen in the current book based on the already-read books – wondering when the Swarms would invade in book 1, or realising that 6 and 7 were set years before the others, or Draven and Togura’s different showings in 2 and 4. I can’t wait to find out what happens in the other books, especially with regards to the Swarms’ invasion, though I have a sneaking feeling that nothing might…

    Thanks for the recommendation!

    Comment by Ann — October 6, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

  2. You’re entirely welcome, and I’m glad to hear about your reactions – I was trying to put myself in a first-time reader’s shoes, but of course it’s hard.

    I wish someone would reissue them all – I think they’d do much better now than they did originally.

    Comment by Sam — October 11, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

  3. Is there anywhere I can buy this series in epub or pdf form? I just got myself an ebook reader and would love to read this series again. I owned some of the first books, years ago, but cannot seem to find any electronic versions. Any advice would be appreciated.

    Comment by Jan — December 7, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

  4. I don’t think there is, to be honest – I have no idea who currently owns the rights to most of them. It might be worth shooting Paizo an email to ask, and/or using the contact address on the official site, but I don’t even know how active that is.

    If you do find some, please let me know!

    Comment by Sam — December 7, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

  5. There are 3 of the books published in their entirety as well as a lot of his other writings on Hugh Cook’s Website.

    http://www.zenvirus.com

    I found an ebook of the Witchlord and the Weaponmaster on an obscure torrent site but it has been altered. For example, when Thodric Jarl defeats Guest during their first fight, instead of urinating on Guest, he spits on him. Similarly, there is a scene where Onosh Gulkin throws Glambrax some left over food. In the original text, Glambrax celebrates by pretending to rape his trophy. In the ebook he juggles it.

    It no longer has the impact of the original text.

    If (as I suspect) the text was altered to make the books less crude/offensive for the American market, it goes a long way towards explaining the poor sales performance. It’s s real pity as Cook was an exceptionally creative and talented author who deserved much more recognition.

    Comment by Gareth — January 6, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

  6. I’m back, and I’ve just finished the series.

    They are very messy. This is usually a good thing, although I felt The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster was too long and rambling, which is odd as The Walrus and the Warwolf is my favourite.

    I really liked The Werewolf and the Wormlord – it had an interesting political plot, and fantasy motifs being skewered, and a humane ending. I really enjoyed The Women and the Warlords, for much the same reasons as you, I think, but The Wicked and the Witless and The Worshippers and the Way were overall merely okay. (Although the scene with Hatch arguing with Penelope in the bath was probably the funniest scene in the whole series, after the cockroach stew.)

    It’s surprising how many of them are essentially novels of politics rather than adventure – I’d say a 6/4 split, very unusual in sword and sorcery – and there are lots of cliffhanger endings, although they’re the sort that resolve the plot as well.

    Incidentally, I found a whole set, mostly via eBay, so they’re difficult rather than impossible to find. Again – thanks for the recommendation – I enjoyed them a lot!

    Comment by Ann — April 10, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

  7. Thank you for your comments – I’m really pleased to have introduced another intelligent reader to these books, and I’m glad you found the whole set.

    Comment by Sam — April 13, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  8. I read a few of these when I was a teen, and had fond memories of them. I’ve recently started reading them again, in order – although in truth I’ve just finished #2, and currently only own #1 – #4. I wish the online versions were PDF, rather than a collection of HTML pages, but I may try to resolve that myself.

    What fascinates me most with Cook’s writing is his knack of totally disregarding a major plot line. Just as you think he is going to send you down one road he turns 450° and sends you somewhere completely different. One example that springs to mind is the trek to retrieve a death stone in the Wizards and the Warriors, which takes an age to get them to their destination, but a moment for them to find it already recovered in a dead soldiers pack. I was expecting a few chapters on its recovery! His use of (made-up) language also appeals to me.

    Comment by Neil — April 28, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

  9. I read the first 5 or 6 of these as a young man when they first came out and loved them, I then read a few more over the years, perhaps reading the 9th book 15 years ago! I thought i had read them all but recently finished Steven Eriksons 10 book Malazan epic which got me thinking of Mr Cook. I was delighted to see that I have not read Witchlord and Weapon master and am currently enjoying it a great deal. I have forgotten a great deal of the detail but am really enjoying the book. I am tempted to read all 10 again but not sure if I have the time.

    I was genuinley sad to read that Cook had passed away. These books have always been the benchmark for other fantasy reading for me, funny, inelligent, satirical and sometimes just plain daft, I loved them. Great imagination, definately deserved a larger readeship and a greater online legacy. Only recently found out that he had a 60 book plan! Great man.

    Comment by Brad — June 2, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

  10. No one has posted a reply for a year….but, here’s my contribution.

    The WW Series, while having a few dudds, is the finest contribution to SciFantasy…..that’s it. And I’ve read an awful lot.

    IMHO if 1, 4, 5 & 10 had been written as a trilogy (of 4), then this would be up there with Tolkien et al. Some of the other books are really hard going though. But 4 (Walrus) is epic. And the inside look into the world of Wizardry in 1 (Wizards) is unparalleled.

    Genuinely unhappy when I heard that Cook had died and spent a while downloading the few short stories that appear in the WW universe. Will never be enough.

    Comment by Michael — July 1, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

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