1979’s A Shadow of All Night Falling is the first book in Glen Cook’s A Cruel Wind fantasy trilogy, set in his Dread Empire secondary-universe.
The great city of Ilkazar actually heeded the grim prophecy that the city and its grand empire would fall because of a witch. Every witch, real or supposed, who fell into Ilkazar’s hands was prudently burned alive. Problem solved … or so the city’s rulers thought.
Varthlokkur’s mother was one such witch. The authorities took mercy on the boy, handing him over to doting foster parents. The bright young boy grew into a taciturn, grim, focused adult.
Varthlokkur travels to the eastern Dread Empire of Shinsan to study magic. He returns with holes in his memory and a mastery of magic few in the west can match. The prophecy is fulfilled; Ilkazar is reduced to rubble and Varthlokkur’s mother is finally avenged.
With Ilkazar in ruins, Varthlokkur is left without a purpose in life. Worse yet, his lifespan has been magically extended. Dreary years stretch ahead. He turns to divination to answer the question “what will make life worth living?” The answer: love, in the person of a woman not yet born. Varthlokkur settles down to wait for his true love, Nepenthe.
Several centuries pass. In ancient Ravenkrak, deep within the Kratchnodian Mountains, seven siblings are born. The six boys style themselves the Storm Kings; they are utterly determined to take back the power that their family once wielded. The seventh sibling is their sister Nepenthe. She suspects that her brothers’ grandiose plans are both foolish and doomed, but who’s going to listen to a dumb girl?
The Storm Kings manage to carve out a pocket empire, but their reign doesn’t last long. They are attacked by mercenaries paid by … Varthlokkur. One brother dies, the others are under siege. Nepenthe, no longer well-defended, is abducted and immured in Varthlokkur’s isolated castle. He’s sure she will eventually fall in love with him and make him a happy man.
She doesn’t; she’s already fallen in love with a genial adventurer named Mocker (who just happens to be one of the assassins hired by the wizard; he works under an assumed name). This is one good reason to overthrow the wizard and rescue Nepenthe. There’s another good reason: Varthlokkur decided to cut the assassins’ promised pay in half. He had no further need of them.
Operation Wizard Overthrow ensues.
You may have read this synopsis and decided that Varthlokkur is an idiot. Well, he’s a very smart guy in his field, but it’s a narrow field that apparently doesn’t include much in the way of people skills. He does at least have a housemate on whom to practice social behavior. Unfortunately, his companion is a bachelor wizard even older than Varthlokkur .
If you were to read the book, you might well come away thinking that Nepenthe is not so much a character as a plot token. She doesn’t have much agency. Well, this book was published in 1979, back when SFF was much less woke. Also, it’s a thin book, as books were in those days; none of the characters have much depth. Finally, much of the plot is driven by prophecies and dire portents, which don’t leave a lot of room for agency.
Modern readers may also feel that the Dread Empire of Shinsan is pure quill Yellow Peril orientalism. Nowadays authors are more likely to go for “it’s a foreign land whose ways are strange to us.” Cook was writing in an earlier tradition of casual, pejorative exoticism.
“What’s it like there? I’ve never been there, at least since Tuan Hua established the Dread Empire. And the mirror can’t see in.”
“There’s a barrier against far-seeing. Otherwise, it’s a country like most. It has the regular natural furniture: hills, rivers, forests. Leaves are green there. The sky is blue. No matter what you hear, your senses won’t see any difference from the rest of the world. Only with your soul can you sense the all-pervading evil.… Really, the less you know, the happier you’ll be.”
We get to meet denizens of Shinsan up close and they are exactly the preening, proudly malicious villains one would expect from the above.
This book was published very early in Cook’s authorial career. It probably isn’t the best introduction to Cook’s oeuvre. The seeds of later, better works are here but they aren’t yet fully developed.
Although the individual volume does not appear to be available from Book Depository, the omnibus edition is.
1: There are also servants, many of whom are quite rightly bladder-emptying terrified of the two wizards. Sure, today the pair might be friendly, but tomorrow they may huck an unwary servant off the battlement walls for perceived slights.