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Literature / Dread Empire

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The war that even wizards dread begins...

The Dread Empire is a dark epic fantasy series by Glen Cook. Though its earliest volumes predate Cook's more famous Black Company series by several years, the two share a number of similarities in themes and tone, offering a soldier's-eye view of a gritty, morally grey world in the throes of conflict driven by larger-than-life sorcerers and immortals. However, Dread Empire is told in third-person rather than Black Company's first person, offering a wider scope with a broader range of perspectives, and though still distinctly gritty it represents a somewhat more traditional take on the genre.

The series begins with the Storm Kings of Ravenkrak, a group of brothers and minor sorcerers who dream of raising an empire for themselves. But as it turns out, they're only bit players in a much larger web. The immortal sorcerer Varthlokkur, who destroyed the once-great empire of Ilkazar centuries ago, believes that the Storm Kings' sister Nepanthe is his prophesied bride and hires a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits to retrieve her for him - only for one of them, the con-man Mocker, to fall for her himself. The leader of said mercenaries, Bragi Ragnarson, is an old companion of Haroun bin-Yousif, the King Without a Throne, whose rivalry with the conquering prophet El Murid is the stuff of legends. And in the east lies Shinsan, the titular Dread Empire, a magocracy where Varthlokkur learned his art centuries ago and whose leaders have far-reaching plans of their own.


Oh, and as events unfold it becomes increasingly evident that someone, perhaps the legendary Star Rider himself, is playing everyone against everyone for some unfathomable goal...

The series is broadly divided into three arcs, each collected as an omnibus, plus one short story collection.

  • Original Trilogy, collected as A Cruel Wind:
    • A Shadow of All Night Falling
    • October's Baby
    • All Darkness Met

  • Prequel Duology, collected as A Fortress in Shadow:
    • The Fire in His Hands
    • With Mercy Towards None

  • An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat (short story collection)

  • Sequel Trilogy, collected as Wrath of Kings:
    • Reap the East Wind
    • An Ill Fate Marshalling
    • A Path to Coldness of Heartnote 

Has nothing to do with Dread Empire's Fall, a science fiction series by Walter Jon Williams.

This series provides examples of:

  • All-Powerful Bystander: The Star Rider is probably the most powerful single being in the whole setting, but he mostly sticks to himself and only directly intervenes rarely when it suits his own incomprehensible goals. In-universe, nobody's entirely sure if he's the world's Big Good or Big Bad. The latter.
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  • Always Male: Downplayed; the Tervola are mostly a boys' club, but not exclusively (though as of the time of the novels Mist knows of only two living Tervola women, and that's counting herself as one).
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Pracchia, a decentralized organization spanning the continent, most of its cells unaware of each other except for their immediate superiors. They think they're working for their own ambitions. Only the top levels know they actually work for the Star Rider.
  • Anti-Hero: Most of Cook's heroes to be of the pragmatic sort, but Haroun takes the cake among the main cast for having morality of a very dark shade of grey.
  • Anti-Magic: Used by Varthlokkur to defeat and trap the Princes Thaumaturge.
  • The Archmage: There are a number of powerful sorcerers running around these books. Varthlokkur, the Princes Thaumaturge, and Magden Norath are all in the running for the most powerful of the lot.
  • Arc Number: Nine shows up a fair bit... because Pracchia cells are organized as "Nines".
  • Ban on Magic: One of the central tenets of El Murid's religion. Initially he called for a complete ban; later he relaxed it very slightly to allow a small group of shaghun warriors who answered directly to him.
  • Barbarian Hero: Bragi Ragnarson is a Fantasy Viking; goes with the territory.
  • Battle Cry: Notably averted by the Dread Empire, whose soldiers are trained to fight and die without making a sound. The effect is noted to be incredibly unnerving.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Our heroes include a Proud Warrior Race Guy mercenary, a roguish conman, and a self-centered ancient wizard, none of whom are exactly paragons of morality - but our villains, being a brutally repressive, expansionist empire, the Ancient Conspiracy manipulating them, and the mysterious immortal using them to cause chaos and war, are quite clearly worse.
  • Blow You Away: The Storm Kings are so named because they (and their sister Nepanthe) have a hereditary ability to manipulate air with what they call the "werewind". Unfortunately for them, they don't have much other magic.
  • Blue Blood: Most Tervola have this; commoners can become Tervola if their magical skills are up to the standards, but candidates from aristocratic families tend to get fast-tracked and have the connections to get more prestigious postings. Ssu-ma's peasant background is one of the big things holding him back from further advancement through the Tervola ranks (the other being that he favors a measured, practical approach to running things in an empire where intricate schemes and vaulting ambitions are the norm).
  • Big Bad: The Star Rider is The Man Behind the Man to almost everyone and directly or indirectly responsible for all the major conflict across the entire saga.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: The Storm Kings really want to start a new empire. They also really fail at managing it.
  • The Casanova: Bragi picks up a truly staggering number of wives, lovers and one-night stands over the course of the series.
  • The Chessmaster: The Star Rider has plans for everything. Everything. Subverted by the later books; even the best chessmaster can only do so much when most of his pieces have been captured.
  • Dark Messiah: El Murid is a borderline case; though he was a tool of the Star Rider, most of the worst excesses of his crusade came from underlings acting in his name rather than the Disciple himself. Ethrian, on the other hand, plays this dead straight in Reap the East Wind. Also as the Star Rider intended.
  • Deal with the Devil: Fairly typical in Shinsan, where Tervola are known to have made pacts with various infernal entities to allow their mortal armies to be supplemented with summoned demons. Varthlokkur also considers his time studying in Shinsan to have been an example of this, albeit involving mortal devils rather than literal ones.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Twice over. The first book initially looks like it will focus on the Storm Kings, then on Mocker. The central figure of the whole saga, confirmed by Word of God, is actually Bragi, who is a relatively minor player in the first book but rises to prominence in the second and stays there.
  • Demoted to Extra: Mocker and Nepanthe, arguably the main characters of the first book, are much smaller players in the next two. Mocker especially, as he doesn't make it through the trilogy, while Nepanthe does.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: After accomplishing his life's goal of bringing down Ilkazar, Varthlokkur spent centuries doing this. He eventually finds it - first in seeking love, and then in fighting Shinsan and the Pracchia.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: Both Princes Thaumaturge schemed to drive the events of the first book - and both of them perished at the end of it. The impact of their deaths, however, would resound throughout the series.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: A Shadow of All Night Falling has a very different feel from the rest of the series. There's a lot less focus on military matters, characters like Mocker, Nepanthe, and the Storm Kings get a lot of focus when they'll be much less prominent in later books, while characters like Bragi and Haroun who will be important later get much less focus; Varthlokkur is much more threatening and even sinister when later books have him a pretty solid ally of the protagonists; the titular Dread Empire is barely involved until the Princes Thaumaturge show up for the climax.
  • Elective Monarchy:
    • With the old royal family having died out, Kavelin elects Bragi Ragnarson as king at the end of All Darkness Met.
    • In theory, Shinsan itself is this, with the ranking Tervola having the duty of electing a new Emperor or Empress should the old one perish. In theory. In practice, power tends to fall to whoever is strong enough to seize it and force the Tervola to fall in line.
  • The Emperor: Defied; the Princes Thaumaturge are princes even though they rule Shinsan because neither of them was strong enough to defeat the other after they killed their father, forcing them to share power - and after they die, none of their would-be successors mange to hold on long enough to claim the title. By the end of the series, this changes - Mist is openly styling herself Empress after disposing of her last rivals.
  • The Empire: Three guesses. Shinsan is an oppressive but highly efficient, expansionist, magocratic regime known beyond its borders as "Dread Empire" for very good reason.
  • Evil Mentor: Yo Hsi and Nu Li Hsi both helped train Varthlokkur in his youth, in the hope that he'd destroy the rival empire of Ilkazar for them if they gave him the tools to do so. That plan bore fruit. Their later attempt to manipulate him, not so much.
  • Evil Old Folks: The Star Rider typically appears as a bent old man.
  • Evil Overlord: The Princes Thaumaturge have this reputation, apparently well-earned. The succession of Shinsaner leaders who follow them vary on the evilness-scale, though the last few, Lord Kuo and Mist, tend more towards the "ruthless but pragmatic" end.
  • Evil Sorcerer: While most of the magic-users in these books tend to be fairly amoral, the Princes Thaumaturge, Lord Chin, and Magden Norath stands out as particularly repugnant. Notably even Varthlokkur considers the Princes to be pure evil - and he doesn't even believe in evil most of the time.
  • Evilutionary Biologist: Magden Norath is a magical version, using his arts to create a vast array of terrible creatures in service to the Pracchia's cause.
  • The Exile:
    • Bragi and his foster brother were exiled from their homeland after their family backed the wrong side of a succession crisis.
    • The Tervola Ko Feng, aka "Lord Hammer", was stripped of his immortality and exiled from Shinsan after his favored tactics proved too costly for the empire to sustain. His attempts to escape this situation are covered in one of the short stories in An Empire Unacquainted With Defeat.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Broadly speaking, the western kingdoms are European, Hammad al Nakir is Arabian, Trolledyngja is Scandinavia, the mentioned but never seen directly Matayanga is Indian, and Shinsan is a twisted, magocratic version of China.
  • Fetus Terrible: Queen Fiana of Kavelin died giving birth to a creature that was meant to be a magical Super Soldier implanted in her by the Demon Prince's magic. Though the creature was stillborn, Varthlokkur managed to turn it into a powerful undead servant for himself, Radaechar the Unborn. And yes, it still looked like a giant, flying fetus.
  • Fighter, Mage, Thief: Back in their adventuring days, Bragi was the Fighter, Mocker was the Thief, and Haroun was the Mage (albeit, on account of being a trained shaghun, also fully capable of filling the Fighter and even Thief niches).
  • The Fog of Ages: Several immortal characters, particularly the Old Man but also Varthlokkur, demonstrate a gradual loss of memory, though curiously it applies mostly to later memories - older ones are still largely intact.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The Star Rider indicates that he's somehow indebted to beings even more powerful than he is, who he simply calls "Them", and that all his scheming is on their behalf - possibly just to provide them with entertainment. They're only mentioned briefly in passing, and nothing is ever revealed about them.
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: The conflict between Haroun bin Yousif and El Murid, most elaborated on in the prequels. Both men believe they're doing the right thing and have followers who believe in them, but both also do some very questionable things along the way. Fittingly, they're both being manipulated by the Star Rider.
  • A God Am I: Apparently there are places where the Princes Thaumaturge are worshipped as gods, and they have the egos to match, which proves their undoing.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: "The Dread Empire of Shinsan" probably isn't going to be topping anyone's list of holiday destinations any time soon.
  • I Have Many Names: The Star Rider is most commonly known by that term, but he's also the Director to his servants, Old Meddler to his enemies, and the Angel to El Murid's faithful.
  • Luke, You Are My Father: Mocker is Varthlokkur's son from his previous marriage. Varthlokkur himself was unknowingly the bastard son of the last Emperor of Ilkazar, whom he killed.
  • Magic Knight: Two major flavors. The shaghun are famed for mixing sorcery and martial skill, but most of them aren't that powerful as mages and tend to rely more on trickery and guile than anything. The Tervola, sorcerer-generals of the Dread Empire, are typically a much stronger split of fighter, leader, and mage, and have a well-earned reputation.
  • The Magocracy: Shinsan is ruled by a Sorcerous Overlord, has full-fledged Tervola serving as generals and military governors, and Tervola Aspirants filling out the officers and lesser nobility. Their ability to integrate magic with bureaucratic and military organization is a significant reason why Shinsan is so feared.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Or mad wizard's, in the case of Mist. Of course, she may be less evil than her father, but she's still an ambitious, manipulative, vicious megalomaniac by the standards of anyone who isn't Dread Empire nobility, and her relationship with Valther does little to change that.
  • Malevolent Masked Men: Tervola are rarely seen in public without their fearsome masks; each mask is unique to that particular Tervola, allowing them to still be instantly recognizable.
  • The Man Behind the Man: There are a number of chains of Men Behind the Men out there; trace most of them back far enough and you'll eventually hit the Star Rider.
  • Military Mage: The Tervola again. To rise to any level of military command in Shinsan you have to demonstrate excellence as both a sorcerer and a soldier, whether as full Tervola or an Aspirant.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: The Old Man of the Mountains was the Star Rider's closest ally and confidant for centuries, but after he was used and cast aside in All Darkness Met, he's quite willing to work against his former comrade once he turns up again and is back in a somewhat functional state of mind.
  • Mysterious Past: Nobody really knows who the Star Rider is or where he came from. His own reflections on the subject offer few clear answers but indicate he's actually from another planet (or possibly Another Dimension) altogether.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Tends to crop up in various characters' Red Baron titles. From the names alone, it's easy to tell that people like "The Empire Destroyer", "The Demon Prince", "The Scourge of God" and "Lord Hammer" probably aren't the sort you want to cross.
  • Night of the Living Mooks: Discussed and defied. Apparently Yo Hsi considered this, but found that undead in large enough numbers to serve as an effective military force were also to cumbersome to be easily controlled, so he scrapped the idea. Ethrian, empowered by an ancient godling, is able to pull it off with much more success.
  • Offing the Offspring: Yo Hsi apparently made a habit of killing any children he sired shortly after birth, just to be on the safe side (after all, he and his brother killed their father). Mist only survived because her mother convinced him that she wasn't a threat.
  • Offscreen Villain Dark Matter: Justified. The Star Rider's horn lets him summon virtually any object or creature he wants out of thin air, and is used to produce all sorts of tools and props for his various schemes. When destroyed, it spews so much random junk across the countryside that Ssu-ma despairs that his men will ever find all of it.
  • The Older Immortal: The Star Rider is both vastly older than any of the other immortal beings in the setting and looks it, seeming to be a bent, withered old man.
  • Playing Both Sides: El Murid became a prophet after an encounter with an angel; his enemy Haroun became convinced of his own royal birthright by a meeting with a mysterious old man. The "angel" and the "old man" were both actually the Star Rider, creating both rivals and putting them in a position to fight it out for his own mysterious purposes.
  • Princesses Rule: Or Princes, in this case; after Yo Hsi and Nu Li Hsi killed their father they fought each other to a stalemate over who got to be emperor, and since neither was powerful enough to claim dominion over the other they (grudgingly) split rule of the Dread Empire between them and both styled themselves as "Prince". After they die, Yo Hsi's daughter and would-be successor Mist keeps the title "Princess" until relatively late in the series, by which point most of her rivals are dead or have submitted to her and she's secure enough in her position to start styling herself "Empress".
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Lord Ssu-ma Shih-kai is unusual among Tervola in that he doesn't care about his personal ambition and really does just want to serve the Empire. This quality, coupled with the fact that he's also a highly skilled general, brings him to the attention of Lord Kuo and Mist during their tenures as ruler of Shinsan.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Because Wizards Live Longer is in effect, several characters have this going on. Mist is probably the most blatant - she doesn't look a day over eighteen, but is at least as old as Varthlokkur, who has more than four centuries on him.
  • Red Baron: Not uncommon for powerful sorcerers to pick up titles like this. Varthlokkur us known as "Empire Destroyer", and the twin brothers who rule Shinsan are collectively the "Princes Thaumaturge" - individual, Yo Hsi is the "Demon Prince" and Nu Li Hsi is the "Dragon Prince". Yo Hsi's daughter Mist ends up inheriting his sobriquet, becoming the "Demon Princess".
  • Sanity Slippage: The Old Man of the Mountains' sanity starts to go later in the series, especially once he gets hauled off by the Pracchia; by the end of the first arc, he's basically catatonic. He recovers, with help from Varthlokkur, in the last arc and is not happy with the Star Rider for leaving him like that.
  • The Scottish Trope: Invoked in the later books; Varthlokkur and his allies stop using the Star Rider's name and his most common titles when discussing him, figuring he probably has ways to eavesdrop if they do and its better safe than sorry.
  • Self-Made Orphan:
    • The Princes Thaumaturge took the throne of Shinsan by killing their father, Tain Hoa. They take great pains to make sure their own children don't do the same to them.
    • This was apparently also a curse of the royal line of Ilkazar, specifically that sons were doomed to kill their fathers. Varthlokkur, who killed the last of Ilkazar's emperors, was also unwittingly the emperor's bastard son. He later narrowly averted being killed by his own son, Mocker, thereby avoiding the curse.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: Varthlokkur is pretty much only hot for Nepanthe; he even viewed his previous marriage as, essentially, training for how to woo a woman so he'd be able to woo Nepanthe when she came along.
  • Sorcerous Overlord: The Princes Thaumaturge of the Dread Empire, who have to grudgingly share power with each other on account of being so perfectly matched in strength and cunning that neither can gain ascendancy. Once they bite it, Shinsan ends up seeing a remarkably rapid turnover of these as everyone with the power to do so vies for the job. Mist ends up winning.
  • Stop Worshipping Me: El Murid has this attitude towards his followers when they start considering him a living god (his title just means "Disciple" and he's adamant that's all he is). Doesn't really stop them.
  • Sword and Sorcery: Some of the early stories in An Empire Unacquainted With Defeat have this vibe, particularly those focusing on Bragi, Haroun and Mocker. Word of God indicates Cook conceived them as "Lieberesque" heroes, though the saga of the Dread Empire, as a certain other fantasy writer once observed in a similar situation, "grew in the telling" and became a much heavier epic.
  • Time Abyss: Even among immortals, the Star Rider stands out. Nobody can say for sure how old he is - maybe not even him - and he has memories of events that survive only as vague snatches of legends.
  • Weak, but Skilled: The Old Man of the Mountain isn't a very powerful mage, especially compared to some of the others running around out there, but he is very old and the closest thing the Star Rider has or had, anyway to a confidant, so he has a lot of obscure knowledge and techniques rattling around in his head.
  • We Have Reserves: The favored strategy of the Tervola Ko Feng, known as "Lord Hammer" for this very reason. His specialty is crushing the enemy with overwhelming martial and magical force, trusting in his own forces being able to absorb any losses they might take along the way. Serves him well in the short term. Less effective in the long run.
  • Wizard Classic: Varthlokkur sports this look in the first book; he later ages himself back to his prime in order to be more attractive for Nepanthe and retains that look for the rest of the series.
  • Wizards Live Longer: Most wizards of significant power can achieve greatly extended lives. Varthlokkur's pushing five centuries; Mist and several of the senior Tervola are around the same age; the Princes Thaumaturge may be as much as two thousand. The Tervola, at least, have to use specific spells to prolong their lives, and a Tervola who screws up badly enough can potentially have their immortality stripped by their fellows as punishment, as happened to Ko Feng.