Cook's a splendid writer, better than I think he gives himself credit for. The better-known Black Company books, though sometimes 10% too purple, are..Show More » solid military fantasy with a real edge and interesting characters. These books; though lacking the flair of Cook's earlier works, are deeper, wider, and quite a bit more even.
It may take awhile to get into these. The scope is vast, encompassing essentially all of an alternate Europe from Spain to Turkey, Norway to Libya and occasionally beyond. The names are challenging (and everything's renamed!), and Cook takes no prisoners with Arabic-inspired and other foreign names (giving the books a very realistic color), so it can be a challenge to keep up with the characters. But the characters are utterly rewarding. The centerpiece of the book, Piper Hecht (who starts out Else Tage); is more than just one of Cook's competent, humane (for the period) commanders; along the way he acquires a family, changes employers several times, and struggles with conflicting loyalties and a man's concerns about the course of his life. Other notables include splendidly venal priests and prelates, rulers of varying degrees of madness and / or competency, richly realized; two marvelously bloodthirsty women; soldiers (of course) from Just Plain Joe the animal-handler to Hecht's loyal (and occasionally disloyal) staff; my favorite, the struggling holy man Brother Candle; and a great-grandfather who's simultaneously a powerful, ancient wizard and a splendily comic foil who reminds me oddly of Serge Storms (from Tim Dorsey).
While Cook's always been a plot-driven writer, he slows down a bit in these books to smell the thematic roses, and it's richly rewarding. The books are filled with rewarding dialogues and expositions on Big Issues; family and career, militarism and pacifism, the role of religion in society; the impact of new technologies; adaptation to change in the world. Never preachy; usually illuminating; occasionally brilliant, Cook in these books steps up from telling a good story to telling a good story and also making the reader / listener re-think basic questions.
As an example, there's a chapter in the third book where Brother Candle and one of the killer women are traveling in war-torn let's call it France for now. They've had a long and rewarding relationship; he's a holy man of pacifist leanings, she grew up in his faith but has learned to fight in difficult times. They meet people on the road who're from a religious order who'd been persecuting theirs, and without a trace of hesitation or remorse she kills three of the four and pursues the survivor 'till he gets away. Then comes back to berate Candle and her other traveling companions for their inaction, pointing out that she saved not only their lives, but most likely more in the future. Candle can't really answer that -- but later in the journey they run into more 'bandits'; only these are former bandits who Candle, by patience and grace, turned away from banditry and found useful work for elsewhere. As elegant an exposition of one element of the dialogue about war as I've seen in fiction.
I don't quite 'get' the criticisms here of the reading; the books can be heavy weather with all the names (an evil wizard here is some Arabic-like name I can't remember even now; compare with Soulcatcher in the Black Company books), and the scope means it starts out slowly, though Cook introduces new elements elegantly. But the reader differentiates the characters well -- a challenge in a work of this scope -- moves things along, and particularly handles the comic elements well. I found myself appreciating the reading more as the books moved along.