An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat - Glen Cook Glen Cook's Dread Empire series has always been in my eyes the poor cousin to the Black Company. Many of the tropes found in the latter make an appearance here:

1. A vast empire ruled by ancient evils (Shinsan, the "Dread Empire" of the series / The Lady's Empire)
2. A proto-Lady figure: Mist, the deposed princess of Shinsan and a formidable wizard
3. A focus on soldiers/warriors
4. A cynical weltanschauung that sees the ultimate motive for even the best rulers is getting and keeping power
5. Even the darkest dark lord had a mother at some point

What's always kept the Dread Empire from enjoying as high a status on my shelf is that I never identified all that much with the characters Cook chose to focus on: Bragi Ragnarson, Mocker and Haroun bin Yousif. My favorite character in the series is Ssu-ma Shih K'ai, from Reap the East Wind and An Ill Fate Marshalling. He's a training general for Shinsan's legions who winds up becoming part of the empire's high command, and his personality and character always appealed to me.

In An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat, Cook has collected his short stories that take place in the world of Shinsan (though only two actually deal with people from the empire). One of the interesting things about Cook's writing is that you can see a palpable improvement over time, from the really quite bad The Heirs of Babylon to his best (IMO), The Black Company series.* That makes this collection a bit uneven; there's some clunky writing in the earlier stories. None of them, however, are bad.

"Soldier of an Empire Unacquainted with Defeat" - One of the better stories. It follows Tain, an erstwhile soldier of the Dread Empire, as he tries to escape his past and the clutches of Shinsan.

"The Nights of Dreadful Silence" - A Bragi Ragnarson tale about his conspiring with a sorceror against the king of Itaskia. It's meant to be humorous more than anything else but it falls flat for me.

"Finding Svale's Daughter" - Decent but not great. It's a story about a father's attempt to find his daughter, kidnapped by the huldre.

"Ghost Stalk" - This is the first story in a sub-plot of the series about the voyages of the Vengeful Dragon, a damned pirate ship, and its crew, who are searching for redemption. The story is decent, lots of action, and Cook displays a knowledge of seamanship** that lends authenticity.

"Filed Teeth" - This is another of the better tales, and it too concerns a refugee from Shinsan. As usual with Cook, however, the focus is on the common soldier - Willem Potter, a world-weary mercenary whose primary goal in this venture is making sure his kid brother makes it through alive.

"Castle of Tears" - Another Bragi Ragnarson tale.

"Call for the Dead" - The second of the Vengeful Dragon stories. The crew is "rescued" by a sorceror for his own ends but they have different plans.

"Severed Heads" - Among the top three of the collection, this story recounts a mother's quest to rescue her son from the maleficent clutches of the sorcerors of Jebal al Alf Dhuquarneni. Like Cook's best efforts, there are subtler layers of meaning than a cursory reading might suggest, particularly at the end when Narriman (the mother) finally kills her tormentor:

"She could have closed her eyes to his screams, but his dying face would have haunted her forever. It might anyway.

"When all else was stripped away, he had been a man. And once a mother had wept for him while a dark rider had carried him toward the rising sun."

"Silverheels" - This story is a reworking of a tale originally conceived as a Scandanavian fairy tale. A ne'er-do-well named Olav, his pony, Faith, and his cat, Silverheels, are dragooned by the huldre king to save his kingdom from two dragons. Not bad but nothing special.

"Hell's Forge" - The third Vengeful Dragon tale finds the crew once again hijacked by a power (a god, in this case) for its own ends. Once again, the crew has other plans and comes a step closer to redemption.

If you're a fan of Cook, then I would recommend this collection with little reservation. If you're not a Cook fan, I'd recommend The Black Company or one of his standalones like The Dragon Never Sleeps (SF) or The Tower of Fear. If you like his style, you can move on to this.

* The original three books of The Black Company, primarily. The so-called "Books of the South" are not quite as good - they lack a certain passion and sometimes feel as if Cook were going through the motions. Though, for my money, the ending of the ultimate volume - Soldiers Live - was perfect.

** At least it seemed authentic to this reader, who - having seen the movie "Jaws" at the age of ten - gets nervous stepping into a bathtub much less an actual ocean.