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!

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