When I got to the end of the book, only years of emotional repression stopped me crying. I wanted to rip out the last chapter so I could pretend it had never happened.
It’s been plaguing me since I finished it. Everywhere I turn, I’m facing it. To be honest, I’m writing this so that maybe I can escape. It’s only a book, after all… Isn’t it?
In my search for answers–well, not answers… Something else. In that search, I found quite a few reviews which do a neat job of summarising the plot and giving you a taste for the book–you know, like a review should. So I’m not going to do that. I’m going to talk about my experience with the book. It may make a bit more sense if you read one of those proper reviews first.
Although, I should warn you, I derived a lot of pleasure from the first book, Doomstalker, in the slow reveal of the wider world. And those reviews will rob you of the surprise.
Mind you, so will mine. Spoilers ahoy!
I think I managed to articulate my feelings to Allegra when I said that I loved Marika far, far more than Glen Cook ever did. Most of those proper reviews call Marika ‘unlikeable’, ‘unsympathetic’, things like that. It confuses me. Would you call a river or the wind unlikeable or unsympathetic? No. You either love it, or you stay out its way. And I loved Marika, like I love nature from the first fragile snowdrops in February to the winds that rip cities apart.
Let me back-track a bit in case you can’t be arsed to read the reviews.
Marika is the main character, a member of an anthropomorphic canine-like species, the meth. She’s born into a Packfast in the Upper Ponath, a boarder-line iron-age community where the strongest females rule and the old and very young–particularly the almost useless males–are left for the ravages of the harsh winters when times get too tough. Pushed south from the even colder and crueller north, nomad packs destroy her home and leave her almost the last of her pack–just the ten-year-old pup, and two huntress, Grauel and Barlog.
Marika is taken in by the silth, the feared ruling group who have the ability to manipulate supernatural forces. It transpires, of course, that Marika is the most powerful silth of her generation, maybe of any generation. But the silth sorceresses sense her aura of death and destruction, and nickname her Doomstalker–some even predicting that she will be the end of the silth themselves.
The world is far from the primitive hinterlands where Marika grew up. There are great cities, telecommunications, airships and darkships–nimble aircraft the silth use their powers to levitate and manoeuvre. The silth control the supernatural technologies, and the tradermale Brethren control the mundane ones.
And the winters are only going to get harsher. The meth homeworld is entering a cosmic dust cloud that will, eventually, block out almost all solar radiation and leave the planet uninhabitable.
That should make a bit more sense of what I’m going to say.
My problem with the book is two-fold.
First, Cook never seems to emotionally engage with his own characters. This is a huge problem. Relationships are sketched at best, interactions and motivations are buried, things which should be left unsaid are unmentioned. In some cases, it works. The relationship between Marika and Grauel and Barlog is nicely underwritten. They are the last of their pack, Marika is the strongest and, as pack tradition dictates, Grauel and Barlog follow her. No matter what she does, Marika never has to worry for the loyalty of her huntresses. Even when Marika slaughters by the thousand, Grauel and Barlog never waiver. And Marika’s relationship with Bagnel, a tradermale, is beautiful. She’s silth, he’s a tradermale, even touching is strictly forbidden. They love each other and never say it. It’s wonderful.
However, I think anything that works is pure accident. Cook’s emotional coldness creates two fatal flaws: Marika’s relationship with her brother, Kublin; and Marika’s own character development.
Kublin shares some of his littermate’s powers and Marika can’t find his body when their Packfast is destroyed. Soon, there are rumours that the tradermale rogues are being led by a powerful wherlan (male silth). Where we not meant to know it was Kublin? Was that meant to be a surprise? ‘Cause, honestly, there’s nothing in this book that’s not vital to the plot, so the moment we don’t see Kublin’s corpse we know he’s coming back. Then we start to hear rumours about this wherlan and–what a surprise! But I digress.
Marika’s war with the tradermale rogues becomes slowly more bitter and brutal throughout the books. The shadow of the tradermale wherlan becomes longer and longer, their attacks against the silth more and more effective and devastating. Marika captures Kublin twice and, not knowing he’s the infamous wherlan, twice her love for her littermate leads her to show him mercy and let him live. Each time, Kublin uses her mercy to come back stronger, harder, more brutal.
When Marika’s mercy finally snaps, Kublin is deeply buried in an underground bunker. Marika sits on the bridge of an airship, and telepathically tells him to return Grauel and Bagnel. While she waits, she slaughters tradermale rogues by the thousand. When Kublin refuses, she orders the airship to fire a nuclear missile on top of Kublin’s bunker. After the eight missile falls, Kublin gives himself up.
So, suitably epic. I’m happy with that. And I’m looking forwards to the confrontation between the siblings. Both walking the same path, both been fighting for their side tooth and claw since their Packfast was destroyed. Kublin, the only person left in the world who can stand beside Marika as an equal.
And what do we get? Kublin tells Marika that she’s done more to destroy the silth than he ever has, and calls her Doomstalker. Marika empties a clip from a rifle into him. It takes… a page, maybe. If that. You know the end of Return of the Jedi, the whole Luke verses Vader thing? Imagine if that was handled in a short, almost throw-away scene. There’s no emotional resolution at all. There’s just, ‘okay, so this is the point I was making with this character, now moving on to the next plot point…’
Marika’s own story suffers even more.
From the moment she, Grauel and Barlog are lead by the silth from their decimated Packstead, they have the obligation to Mourn their pack. It’s a duty that recurs again and again throughout the books. Grauel dies, and then Barlog. Both make Marika promise she’ll scatter their ashes over the ground that used to be theirs and Mourn them along with the pack. It’s a duty that means Marika can never be at peace with herself, never close the door on her puphood. There’s open war on meth homeworld when she finally discharges that duty, and she’s convinced that it’ll be her death, too. Certainly the last time she’ll ever see her homeland. Cook gives it three sentences. One of the most emotionally poignant moments of Marika’s life? Fuck it. Nothing to do with the plot. Not important.
And now, that ending. The ending that made me want to mutilate the book, to physically remove any evidence it ever existed.
Despite Marika’s lifelong attempts to preserve the silth, by the end of her life there are seven silth left, herself included. Those who called her Doomstalker were right: she was the end of the silth. Marika has spent her entire life fighting, but the time of the silth is over.
Lord of the Rings. By destroying the one ring, the time of magic in Middle Earth passes. There’s no place for wizards and elfs. So they retire gracefully, tearfully sailing to the West, gone but not forgotten, living out the rest of their lives in a subdued retirement. It’s emotionally satisfying because, although the time of magic has passed, the characters who you have fallen in love with are allowed peace and love after all their fighting.
Imagine how you would have felt if Gandalf and Elrond had looked at each other, shrugged, said, ‘time of magic is gone, then, I guess… lets commit ritual suicide’. Because that’s what Marika and her remaining silth do. With pretty much that attitude. Why? Well, because the book Cook’s been writing was about how Marika brings about the end of the silth, and it’s the end of the book, so… so they’ve got to die. You know, ‘cause.
I understand that Marika is a figure of legend, a supernatural force like Mosses or Muhammad. But we’ve followed her life since she was three, four years old. It’s a third person, single POV story. It’s Marika’s story. Her hopes, her feelings are important.
She’s dedicated her life to preserving the silth, and more importantly to freeing the common meth from their feudal bondage. Yet at the end of her life, meth are being systemically wiped out by hostile aliens. The meth homeworld is under siege, the meth race facing extinction or enslavement at best. Does she sacrifice herself, and the few remaining silth, to free her people? Does the last act of the silth go some way to counter-balancing all the pain and destruction they’ve inflicted over the centuries? Does Marika, who’s fought her entire life, find the energy for one final battle? No. They just give up. She’s brought destruction onto her people, and then kills herself. Seriously Cook, what the fuck did you think you were doing?
Emotionally, the book fails harder than Leeroy Jenkins at a team building workshop. Ten, fifteen years ago that wouldn’t have bothered me. Now it does. Deeply. I almost wholly blame thank Allegra and Athena. They made me believe that spec-fic can and should have emotional depth.
About half-way through the book, I realised it was failing emotionally. I didn’t expect it to fail so hard at the end, but at least I’d worked out why it was beginning to feel unfulfilling. (It was about the time I realised I’d read half the book and still didn’t know what colour Marika’s fur was. Or even what meth actually look like beyond bipedal and vaguely canine. Fuck, we were two-thirds of the way through before I found out meth had tails.)
All those years of being emotionally unable or unwilling to engage with the story has left me with many fine tools for savouring the intellectual. I reached for them, found they were still sharp, and I got to work.
And that’s when, again, I was disappointed.
All of the following readings assume that Marika, as an individual, is unimportant. Her actions matter. Nothing else about her does. That’s just the way we pure intellectual readers roll.
Marika is sent to ensure the meth survive their planet’s passage through the dust cloud.
In order to save the homeworld from becoming a frozen wasteland, Marika organises the construction of huge orbital mirrors which reflect back nearly all the sunlight that escapes from the world. It means huge changes in meth society, from a feudal-like system to an intensely industrialised world. Ancient and arrogant, the silth are unable to adapt to the new world order no matter how many times Marika tries to force them to. The silth/tradermale rogue conflict is that of old verses new, the out-dated verses the next generation.
Two problems with that reading:
1) Marika is fully capable of establishing a new silth order. There being only seven remaining silth of the old order, all devoted followers of her, might even make it easy. Despite all initiated silth being sterilised before they ever give birth, silth are born naturally enough among the non-silth population to make re-establishment realistic.
2) The meth homeworld is under siege from aliens who simply won’t stop with slaughtering the last of the silth. Marika brought the aliens and hasn’t saved her world, but damned it.
Magic and mysticism can not coexist with industrialisation.
It’s a familiar theme in Western books. Technology and magic are incapable of living side-by-side, and technology will eventually wipe out all magic.
However, there are still silth on the homeworld. They’re in hiding, being mercilessly hunted, but they’re still there. And even if they are all killed, pups with the silth gift will still be born. By her death, Marika is a legend. The silth will not be forgotten and a few of those with the gift will, eventually, achieve their full potential. Marika herself has even demonstrated a way that silth magic and tradermale technology can work together.
Marika is sent to destroy the old silth order.
Every decision Marika makes is another nail in the silth’s coffin. Her mirror project makes the old silth order out-dated and lost. The mirrors themselves mean night never falls on the homeworld, and the night is the time of the silth. Her war with the tradermale rogues means public sympathy falls harder and harder with the tradermales. The aliens she makes contact with lay siege to the homeworld, carrying out the tradermale rogue’s long-standing wish to destroy the silth.
If the old silth order persists, the meth will be destroyed by the dust cloud. But, see above. Magic and technology can’t co-exist, and magic has to make way for technology, but see above.
Silth powers are based on the manipulation of psychic manifestations/ghosts who exist on the astral plane. Maybe they want to be left alone, so they somehow engineered Marika? But there’s no suggestion they’re capable of that. In fact, it’s pretty much stated as fact they’re not even sentient enough to have wants, let alone act on them.
Ugh. Okay, so I feel a little better for all the talking. Not as much as I’d hoped.
All valuable lessons for my own writing.
There’s just something about Marika that won’t let go of me. Does she want me to fix the mess Cook made of the ending? Is she desperate and alone and wants me to give her somewhere warm and safe to rest?
Increasingly, it seems the only way to find out is to try. I’ve never written fan fiction before. Does it count as fan fiction if the main character from someone else’s book is forcing you to write it? I guess you can’t stand in the river without being washed away by it. Maybe that’s the truth I’ve been struggling to get at.
Okay, Marika, where do you want to take me?
UPDATE: You can now read my little piece of fan-fic here. I get the feeling I haven’t heard the last of Maryll…