Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Iron Harvest

Iron Harvest by Guy Haley. An Imperial Guard short story featuring characters from the novel Baneblade. Originally published by The Black Library, July 2013. Approx. 42 pages.

HachiSnax Note: This review will open with some recapping of the events which transpired at the end of Baneblade, so if you haven't read that book yet, just take it from me that this is an excellent short story featuring intense Imperial Guard vs. Dark Eldar action. If you want a Baneblade spoiler-free tanker story from Haley, might I also suggest his excellent Stormlord. For all others, read on to see what Bannick & Co. have been up to. Cheers, Hach.

The events of Baneblade culminated with an all-out battle on the brutal desert world of Kalidar with the mighty ork infestation that saturated it. This battle saw the demise of the venerated Baneblade Mars Triumphant and most of her crew. Our protagonist, Lieutenant Bannick, being groomed for a leadership role, was one of the few survivors of the skirmish. A promising epilogue informs us that he has been promoted to the rank of Honored Lieutenant, in command of his own Baneblade, the newly-christened Cortein's Honour (named for the late Honoured Lt. of Mars Triumphant).

So on paper, things are definitely looking up for Bannick, however, his first dispatch finds him decidedly outside of his comfort zone. First of all is his new crew; he is joined by remaining Mars Triumphant survivors Lt. Epperaliant and Meggen. The rest of his new crew, though, is not comprised solely of fellow Paragonians. Now he is working with Atrxians (a group he bonded with on Kalidar), plus a driver from a prison world and a loader from a feral world. Therefore, one of his highest hurdles on this new tank is bringing this diverse mish-mash into a cohesive team. 

Secondly, this mission will not be as part of the Paragonian super-heavy group. Instead, Bannick and crew find themselves attached to an Inquisition mission on the mining world of Agritha. Attacks by the dreaded Dark Eldar have completely decimated the working population of that world, and Sashella (the Inquisitor) has requisitioned infantry components to complement her retinue of stormtroopers and an Astartes Deathwatch team. 

Worst of all, Sashella has laid it out in no uncertain terms that the guard is there as bait, pure and simple.

What we have in Iron Harvest is a little bit of bonding time for the new unit followed up by a true night of living hell.So how does the short fare overall? Simply put, it is kind of astounding, and without a doubt one of my new favorite 40K shorts. How did Haley do it?

I've already reviewed a few of Haley's works before, so forgive me if I repeat a few things. First of all, he always employs a rich, intelligent vocabulary. Second, there is his world-building expertise. While many authors would be satisfied to term the designated battlefield by a few simple terms (basic climate/importance to Imperium), Haley goes the extra yard in adding legitimacy to those choices. We end up with a real feel for Agritha and its rotational crews of slaughtered miners. Third, there is the overall optimization of an economic word count. We get a real feel for this new crew; in fact, I felt more acquainted with them in 40 pages than I did with the Mars Triumphant crew of Baneblade.

Finally, the real treat in Iron Harvest is Haley's depiction of the Dark Eldar. His descriptions of their arcane technologies make them palpable, and you can sense the sinister malice of these cruel sadists. Scenes of Dark Eldar handiwork are presenting in vivid, horrifying detail, making it literally painful to read at times. Haley also makes sure to include a cornucopia of Dark Eldar units, and gives proper attention to their raiding patterns. 

Other than that, I will say it is good to see Bannick's continued growth as well. I never had any problem with his character in Baneblade; I had just thought that some of his personal particulars weren't completely established. But now, with all that backstory behind him, he makes for a good lead. Again, I really like the angle of Paragonians that makes them revere the Omnissiah as well as the God-Emperor and the Omnissiah. There is a scene where it shows how Bannick is awestruck by Titans, and yet unnerved by the Adeptus Astartes. It's little touches like that the distinguish these characters. It seems like with this crew that Haley is building a team to revisit in future works. I really hope that that is the case.

Here's what it is:
Bannick and the Baneblade Crew return for 40 pages of hard-fought Imperial Guard vs. Dark Eldar action. It seems somewhat incongruous, super-heavy tank vs. lithe eldritch sadists, but Haley has crafted a real winner here.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

It's a silhouette of a Baneblade with an orange flare-type backdrop effect. What can I say?

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Happy Birthday Robert E. Howard!

Today we would like to take a minute to celebrate the birthday of Robert E. Howard, the man who had perhaps the most profound influence on the fantasy genre as it exists today. Yes, I will be so bold as to assert that his overall contributions exceed even those of Tolkein. Creator of Conan, Kull the Conqueror, Bran Mak Morn, and my personal favorite, the bad-ass Puritan himself, Solomon Kane. Not to mention all of his bold tales of historical fiction, boxing tales, western yarns, horror stories (including Lovecraftian works), and poetry. All of this done within only 30 years upon this Earth.

I think it is only right for everyone to treat themselves to a REH tale today, and luckily, many of Howard's great works reside within the public domain. Today, I chose to sit down and revisit one of my favorite Kane shorts, 1929's "Skulls in the Stars", which is one of the first tales in this volume:

Just to let you know, however, the entirety of the text can be found here.

In this short horror treat, Kane finds himself at the two roads to Torkertown. The shorter, straighter road is cursed by a creature of evil that has been waylaying travelers for over a year. The winding road goes through the swampland of bogs and mires, and therein resides the hermit miser Ezra. Being a man of faith, Kane opts to investigate the horror on the short road. There he does battle with a spectral horror, one that cannot be beaten by pistol or blade. It will take Kane's mettle and sense of justice to win the day, and right the wrongs committed.

And here I thought Kane's pistols could solve any problem......

This story has Howard at his best; his words tear and rend. The skulls in the stars leer over blood red fields, and Kane cuts an immovable statue of justice. This ten page tale easily scores a 10 out of 10, and remains one of my favorite REH shorts. Happy Birthday to the master!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Shadows Linger (Black Company Book 2)

Shadows Linger by Glen Cook. Originally published October 1984. Approx. 225 pages (Tor omnibus edition). 

HachiSnax Note: The Great Black Company Read of 2014 continues! Just a heads-up before getting into the review: if you have not read Book 1 of the Black Company, you may want to skip this post. I tried to keep spoilers to a minimum for the first book review, but events from that book will be brought up here. Also, this review might contain more spoilers than usual, as it is the only way to properly recount the events of this book. Just a warning. Enjoy! Cheers, Hach.

It has been six long years since the climactic battle in Charm. That battle that crushed the Rebel, and left both sides decimated. Six years since, and eight in total service to the mysterious Lady. As a result, morale within the Company is at an all-time low.

Croaker and company find themselves ferreting out pockets of Rebels in the small town of Tally. A general feeling of malaise permeates the Company, a residual discomfort of working under the banners of the Lady. And then, a summons to a job. A job that entails them returning to the Barrowland, to participate in fending off an attempt to resurrect the Dominator, the Lady's still-entombed husband. Crossing to the Barrowland means a journey over more than four thousand miles for the weary Company, across the Plain of Fear where whales fly and other horrors occur. While the bulk of the Company undergoes the arduous trudge, Croaker and a select circle are whisked to the area by some of the Taken to do some more digging around, trying to sort what is what. This brings them to the city of Juniper, where an odd death cult holds sway, and a mysterious black castle looms on the horizon, seemingly......growing.

Meanwhile, in the Buskin section (skid row, essentially) of Juniper, Marron Shed, owner of a local dive known as the Iron Lilly, is having trouble with loansharks. Promise of help shows itself in the form of his mysterious boarder, a quietly dangerous man named Raven, who watches over his beautiful charge Darling. Yes, this is the same Raven who fought alongside with the Company, and who had to desert when he realized exactly who Darling is (the fabled White Rose) and how much danger she was in so near to the Lady). Raven brings Shed into the fold on a money-making scheme that he has been exploiting, although neither seems to realize the actual ramifications of their actions....

And this causes a huge problem for Croaker & Co.. As they do their detective work, they realize that Raven is involved, and might still be around. Which means if the Taken catch wind of it, it will be all over for him and Darling. And even if they are gone, the Taken will be able to extract the truth from Croaker and the others that knew Raven and Darling's secret. Which of course would mean death for all of them. So what transpires is more conniving, and misinformation, as the black castle grows, beckoning the Dominator.

All this culminates in another huge, balls to the wall battle, although not of the same grandeur as the war that ended the first book. The honeymoon is over for the Lady; even though the Rebel is crushed, the creatures that populate the black castle are formidable in martial combat and sorcery, plus, the Lady's resources are severely depleted. The Company is the best unit she can bring to bear, and they are just coming off of their brutal half-year trek. She is low on cash for paying her other armies, and she only has four Taken remaining, of which only one, the Limper, is of the original Ten (and isn't the most trustworthy fellow either).

That is about as much as I can divulge without giving away too much. The final act is extremely well done, and finds everyone, and I mean everyone, forced into truly tough decisions. So how does Shadows Linger fare against such a formidable first entry?

There is something that needs to be kept in mind when reading and grading Shadows Linger: it is a very good book, actually a somewhat great book, but it is a very different book from the first one. Firstly is the narrative; we know that Croaker acts as our first person narrator; but we also need information on what is going on with Raven and Shed in Juniper. To satisfy this, Cook splits the narrative, so we have Croaker's first-person POV for one chapter, and then a traditional third person narrative for Raven/Shed, and so on. I embraced the split format, as Cook handled it so well, and yet I can see it being off-putting for some, as you are essentially reading two separate books. This quick back and forth style also adds quite a few chapters; you'll remember that the first book was only seven chapters (part of the reason being the first few being shopped as short stories), and Shadows Linger has well over forty short ones.

The other glaring difference is the supporting cast. In the first book, the dramatis personae was much more robust; you had the original Taken and all their personalities and underhanded subterfuge. You had a much more involved role for the Lady, who is little more than a cameo here. You even had the interesting generals in the Circle of Eighteen. Here, it all hinges on Shed. Now, don't get me wrong, Shed is a well-crafted, realistic character. Maybe Cook made him too real; since it gets kind of hard to like him at times. If you can't stand him, a lot of this book will be lost for you. Trust me though, he adds more than he takes away.

Another thing that stands out about Shadows Linger is the lack of closure; it is reminiscent of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. In book one, the feeling was that the Lady won, and it was a job well done for the Company, be it for ultimate good or bad. They earned their pay, but Croaker also made sure that the one that could ultimately defeat the Lady got away safely. But, like in Star Wars, the enemy is struck down in grand fashion, and there was much rejoicing. Except in this case the Empire won, but why quibble? Now in Shadows, like in Empire, it all ends with everyone in a tough spot, scattered, and licking their wounds, with a final conflict still inevitable. So let's just hope the next installment is just as solid.

Cook's prose is as fine as ever in Shadows Linger. Croaker's narration is more weary than sarcastic this time around, which is understandable. The third person chapters are excellently done as well, as mentioned.

Here's what it is:
The sophomore entry in the Black Company series takes a departure in format, but remains a strong, if slightly less stellar, entry.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Same as the first go-round. I am still reading from the omnibus.
I'll have to admit, on the Berdak one, I am not too crazy about this cover. I actually like the Soulcatcher cover of book one, but this representation of the Lady misses the mark for me. Swanland all the way.
Ah, the heck with it. Just enjoy some more Didier Graffet......

Cover Final Score (Swanland):


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sleep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Originally published by Doubleday, 1968. Approx. 242 pages.

What is real? This seems to be the core question that permeates through the work of Philip K. Dick. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, possibly his most widely recognized work (due in large part to it being the "inspiration" for Blade Runner), Dick gleefully uses this theme to tie the reader's brain in all types of knots. For every question, two more arise, and in the end, it is nearly impossible to discern what is real, or what is better than real, or not quite real. 

In the aftermath of World War Terminus, the Earth is, quite literally, a radioactive dustball. Most of the "normal" humans have emigrated to a Mars colony, and, somewhere along the way, androids were perfected as tools to help assist them. Technology in building androids became extremely advanced, yielding "andys" that are nearly indistinguishable from humans. There are differences of course; for example, due to their inability at cell reproduction, andys can expect to live around four years, and they of course cannot bear children. Copulation with an android is forbidden, and andys are prohibited on Earth. Androids recognized on Earth are subjected to being "retired", which is a nice way of saying killed by a bounty hunter. Our protagonist, Richard Deckard, is one such bounty hunter.

Now, how is it that Deckard (and other bounty hunters) can single out the androids that they are hunting? The main technique is via administration of a test called the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test. See, it turns out that as near-human androids may be, empathy is the one human emotion that they do not possess (yet). Then again, in another classic PKD twist, how much empathic capability does the average Earthbound human possess? There is a communal pseudo-religion known as Mercerism, wherein participants "plug-in" to participate in an empathy pool with other devotees. Also, the qualities of empathy are also demonstrated through the caring for and maintenance of animals (since most animals were rendered extinct in Terminus). And yet, the caring for animals becomes social competition, each person strives to have the rarest and most desirable animal, with market price fluctuations updated in the "Sydney's" guide. So, is Dick stating that our outward displays of empathy are actually hollow, conceited attempts at self-validation? Could be.

Of course, for those that cannot afford a real animal, and are too embarrassed to be known not to have one, there are companies which create electric critters. Like the andys, these are virtually indistinguishable from their live counterparts. It's actually pretty funny that this practice is allowed on Earth, since androids are outlawed there. Deckard himself has an electric sheep, a replacement for a live one that died due to his carelessness. It's actually a pretty solid metaphor for the whole story (reinforced when a woman realizes it is easier to get an electric facsimile for a cat that had gotten sick and died), that humankind destroys life in its charge, attempts to recreate the life squandered, and subsequently rejects the creation itself. Lord, what fools these mortals be.

On the surface, Androids is a philosophical, post-apocalyptic detective yarn. Deckard is charged with hunting down six renegade androids that killed some people on Mars and stole a ship back to Earth. Actually, there were more, but Deckard's superior retired some before he himself was injured by one. Making matters worse is that these androids are part of a new series type, the Nexus-6. Nexus-6 androids have not been tested against the Voigt-Kampff test yet, and with their enhanced "brain" functions and response times, might be able to put forward enough of a empathic response to beat current testing. Or is it that they are possessing of empathic capabilities? And, if the empathy tests cannot be trusted anymore, is there a risk of a human being accidentally blasted instead of an android?

Other intriguing characters round out the story as well. Part of the narrative focuses on John Isidore, who is what is termed a "special", or, in a pejorative sense, a "chickenhead". These are humans that are displaying effects of the fallout on Earth, and are therefore deemed unsuitable for emigration. Like the andys, Isidore is an outcast among humans. Is it any surprise then, that he finds his sole semblance of communal belonging in their company. Isidore's tragic role shows again how hypocritical the advanced, empathic humans are by nature.

Finally, there is the tale of the beautiful android Rachael Rosen. There is palpable sexual tension between her and Deckard from the very beginning (even though he is married and human/andy relations are verboten), and she is stuck in a moral quandry; between disgust for those who would seek to kill her simply for who she was and for a desire to continue her own brief life, even though she knows deep down that her soul is simply a poor imitation of life (to quote the name of one of my favorite movies). Over the course of the novel, she at turns reaches out to and screws over Deckard. But can you really blame her?

But like I said, those are all just the story specifics. The pertinent question is, what is real? What is real life? Take life on Earth for example. The Earth is failing as a life-sustaining entity. One one hand, you have the "normal" people. Yet normal people are dependent on their empathic pools, and mood organs with which they dial in desired emotions. They receive information from one approved government channel, and get entertainment from a comedian that somehow manages to work forty six hours a day. Then you have the specials, second-class citizens with mental inadequacies. And finally you have the androids. In all honesty, why shouldn't the andys seek out a new life on Earth? They are, for the most part, highly skilled and intelligent, often even more so than humans. On top of that, the Mars-born humans have no tangible bond to Mother Earth. So why shouldn't the andys become the new lords? Then again, their very continued survival depends on humans to "make more" of them.

It's hard to wrap your head around the inner turmoil that must rock the android mind. That's why I think it was an admirable move on Dick's part to insert the works of Edvard Munch into Androids. First, there is the well-recognized "The Scream", which fellow bounty hunter Resch guesses might well represent the internal turmoil of the andys:

 Second, we have "Puberty", which features a girl who looks both strong and fragile, representing the oxymoron that is that growth period. Also, the girl is a dead-ringer for the description of Rachael Rosen:

Powerful stuff there.

Perhaps the android experience is best encapsulated in the character that I personally felt was the most tragic in the book, despite only a page or two of time featured. That would be Groucho, the electric sheep. There is a scene where Groucho continually follows electronically-engineered impulses to go to Deckard for oats. And yet, even if Deckard have any to give, the sheep has no way to process them. How cruel is that, to have some form of instinctive impulse to seek something, and yet have no means to actually enjoy it?

Despite the overall excellent writing, and the strength of the themes tackled, there are a few things that I take issue with in Androids. First, there is the age old debate behind Androids, as well as its film adaptation(s) Blade Runner: is Deckard actually an android? Well, here's the thing; in Androids, there's no way to tell for sure. If you think there is a puzzle here that finding the right piece will solve, there isn't. It's just PKD trolling you. He intentionally has Deckard exhibiting the behaviors of both androids and humans, to keep you guessing. He intentionally keeps the time frame close, never digging deeply into Deckard's past, nor revealing his future aspirations (besides owning the best real animal possible), so that you can never quite tell what he actually is. If he is an android, he is then a kin-slayer. If he is human, he is the creature in the night a la Robert Neville in I am Legend. Either way, he is socially awkward, burdened with a difficult task, and thoroughly unhappy. But yes, there is nothing wrong with being ambiguous regarding Deckard's true nature, it is just that the ambiguity is blatantly telegraphed that I didn't like.

Second, I was not crazy about the final act of the book. This is where the structured narrative goes topsy-turvy, as Roger Zelazny warns us the Dick is fond of doing in the introduction. The whole post-fusion ambling thing, and the abrupt ending both kind of threw me. I get that maybe PKD is trying to let the audience feel the confusion and inner turmoil that Deckard is going through, but that's kind of like a movie theater jacking up the heat to let the audience know how a character feels crossing a desert. The overall effect becomes akin to watching a child take his toy soldiers out of a box, set them up carefully, start a battle, then drop a housecat on all of them, and then sweep them all back in the box. 

Those things aside, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep still fully deserves consideration as a sci-fi classic. There's a lot of thought to be evoked here, and a lot of emotion as well. If you haven't read it yet, your local library probably has a copy in their system. Even as one of the world's slowest readers, I read it in just over a day, so most could probably finish it in an extended sitting.

One final note, now that I've read the book, I can truly appreciate the visionary direction that Ridley Scott went in in making Blade Runner. He made the movie his own, while keeping a good amount of the core emotion intact. Reading the book, I believe it to be entirely filmable as is, so it would be nice to see a movie version in the future that was more true to the source.

Yes, even including the ostrich.

Here's what it is:
Philip K. Dick's sci-fi masterpiece asks hard questions about the nature, and value, of life. Both real and manufactured.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I'm not a big fan of this cover. The thermal-image sheep inset is kind of cool, the rest is vague and creepy. This cover would never sell the book, so it assumes previous reader recognition with the title/author. I recommend the original Doubleday cover if you can get it:

Cover Final Score: 


Monday, January 13, 2014

The Black Company (Black Company Book 1)

 The Black Company by Glen Cook. Originally published May, 1984. Approx. 205 pages (Tor omnibus edition).

HachiSnax note: I can't believe it is almost the middle of the month already and this is only the first post. I can assure you all that I actually finished reading this book last week, but I have been sidelined (actually I am still kind of ) by a nasty infection in my leg. The fever and chills the first few days kept me from writing, but I got some good reading done. So yeah, 2014 is off to a crappy start as expected. Anyway, here's the review. I promise the next one won't be so long and meandering). Cheers, Hach.

Let's get started with the HachiSnax Reviews Great Black Company Read of 2014! Originally published thirty years ago, this series has been a consistent best-seller and is Glen Cook's defining series (which is saying a lot, for he has written a slew of different series). Now, one thing that I've noticed about most reviews of the Black Company series is that they focus more on the writing style, and the series' overall impact on the genre than on going over the story itself. We all know it focuses on an exceptional, seasoned, and storied mercenary group and its commission with the mysterious "Lady" (well, at least these first few books, as far as I know). Having finally read this initial entry, I can understand more why that is the case. Beyond providing a cursory overview of the narrative, I cannot go into too much depth without falling into spoiler territory. And, in all honesty, it is not so much the plot points that have solidified the legacy of the series as is the rendition of realistic and intriguing characters. So, without further adieu, let us meet the Black Company....

The Black Company is, as mentioned, a mercenary group of a strong reputation that stretches back hundreds of years. Although they do not field the same numbers as in those days of yore, they are still considered amongst the best sellswords that money can buy. At any given time in the Company's history, there is a designated Annalist to record their history. At the time of the events in the book, that Annalist is Croaker, also the Company surgeon. Croaker narrates in a curt, matter of fact style, heavily marinated in sarcasm (it bears mentioning that some other volumes have different Annalists, meaning the prospect of Cook switching up his entire authorial style for those entries. A ballsy move I'm sure he pulled off well).

We meet the Company itself as it is under the employ of the Syndic of Beryl. It is a pretty miserable commission; temperature is sweltering, the Syndic's star is fading, and the natives are getting restless. As things are getting to be really hairy, and the winds show a political shift to be inevitable, a mysterious legate arrives with a force and an opportunity to take a new commission, but with a price. Always with a price.

The Black Company accepts, and soon finds itself on its way to the Northern Empire, to take the banner of The Lady in a brutal conflict that is brewing. A brief history of the Lady; she is an all-powerful wizard who, along with a circle of wizards known as The Taken (the Ten Who Were Taken), and her even more powerful wizard husband, The Dominator, had reigned over an evil empire until they were defeated by the fabled White Rose (a legendary embodiment of all things good). Defeated, but not killed, and entombed. Recently, actions by a wizard allowed for her reawakening, and although she raised up her Taken, she left the Dominator in the ground, opting to take the power for herself. Standing in her way is a rebel force, aligned to the supposedly-soon-reincarnated White Rose, until the direction of the powerful Circle of Eighteen (a group of wizard-generals).

That is the very simplified overview of the political goings-on. The book opens with the chapter in Beryl, then we have a chapter meets and takes on the mysterious, deadly Raven (after he settles some debts). After that, many of the chapters focus not on hack and slash battles, but actions to take out the rebel hierarchy, as well as root out traitorous inclinations within the Lady's forces. Another major plot focuses on Croaker's growing bond with the Lady, one that begins with his romantic fantasies of her and evolves into their direct contact with each other as he evidences himself as a reliable pawn. These chapters all lead up to a climax of truly epic proportions, and then the book closes with a solid, open (open but not a cliffhanger) ending.

So, now that we have the plot summary down, we can focus on the writing style and what makes this book work so well. First of all, there is the narration. Like stated before, the first book is told from the first person POV of Croaker. Now, even though he is the Annalist, and he keeps saying "the records", the book does not read as a journal of sorts. No, the book reads as if you are in a tavern having a conversation with him. You can just hear his rough voice croaking in your head, and he speaks to you as if you were a fellow company-member (the best way to enjoy this novel is to allow total immersion, and take on the role of a bystander). This narration works very well; one of the things most loved about this series is its authentic feel, which many credit to Cook's time in the military, and Croaker's jargon therefore benefits. Speaking of jargon, this brings me to some of the things that people who don't like the series list as common complaints; the modern language and colloquialisms, the short sentences, and the character names. We'll go through each one and weigh in on the pros and cons.

Modern Day Language: People shouldn't gripe about this; for this shows that Glen is not treating you like an imbecile. When you read a fantasy, you of course don't assume that they are speaking modern English, so why do some authors feel the need to try and "Olde English" the prose? Even if they aren't writing about something taking place in England? You know who is guilty of this? Everyone's favorite hack and torturer of fans, George Double-R Martin. Take a good look at some of his work, you will have the same characters say "Fuck off" or "kiss my ass" one moment, but later say "bugger off"  or "bloody hell" or "kiss my arse". Let me tell you, I've been to Bayonne, NJ, and no one there says "Get your bloody arse buggered". Rant over. Cook doesn't do it. Not an unnecessary "thou" or "doth" in sight. Nobody "breaks their fast". It's written in a manner which best conveys the specific emotion to the audience, via a medium they understand.

The Short Sentences: Yes. Glen Cook writes in short sentences. Not all the time; and it's not only for the Croaker narration he does it in other works as well. It's his way. He doesn't waste words. His sentences are like buttons; buttons that trigger feelings he knows are universal to us all. Therefore, there is not too much gore, or graphic sex, or any of those other things people might expect from a "gritty, dark series, with bad-ass characters". Let me give you an example: at one point after a battle, the younger members are looting and raping, while the senior officers occupy themselves otherwise (which perfectly illustrates how officers know the way that different types of soldiers will act). One soldier shows a woman he's been having his way with, and asks how she looks. He remarks that "she might have been attractive, if she wasn't so thoroughly abused". And that really tells you all you need to know. You don't need a stroke by stroke play by play of her rapings, you don't need blow by blow recounts of the beatings she probably took. Because there is a part, deep inside of you, that can imagine it so well. It's the thing that you fear most about occupying military forces kicking down your doors; what they will do to your spouse, your daughters, your mother and your sisters. How many crippling violations can be unleashed upon them as you are impotent to help. Cook knows this, and all it took was one brief sentence to access it. So yes, short sentences. But they are all that is needed to get the job done.

The Names: Oh, come on people, these names aren't bad or silly. First of all, almost all the members of the Black Company left behind their old lives when they joined, so it is safe to say that they left their names with their pasts. Second, the wizards take extreme care not to reveal their true names (which can be used against them and to control them), so they take on nicknames as well. In the end, most have names that reflect a character trait; and it serves to distinguish them in my opinion. Think of them like the old G.I. Joe code names. I've heard that Steven Erikson lists Cook as a major influence, and I just finished a short today by him where he uses the same method of assigning names (hopefully I'll get up a review on that one in the future).

So there you have it. Remember that sorcery plays a large part in the book, and there are some spectacular displays of magical warfare. As is stated in the book, for the Company, "fighting is usually the last option". That's the basic philosophy of the mercenary group; they aren't hired to die, but rather they are hired to show the opposing side that the enemy has a lethal tool that they can bring to bear to kill you quite efficiently. In fact, as mentioned before, the Company has evolved to rely more on guile, and subterfuge, especially due to its reduced numbers. But they always make the best of it. That's what makes them what they are.

One last observation; many say that another original aspect of this series is that it is written from the point of view of the bad guys. This I don't agree with, and I think this is a major point that Cook drives across. There is no moral "good" or "evil", there are simply polite concessions we make to offset personal suffering. To paraphrase the Lady, "the concept of evil is subjective; it is simply what you can point your finger at after you have secured your position" (very loosely paraphrased). But that's always the point isn't it? That the other side is the bad guy?

All in all, I love this book. I love the characters, the philosophies, the politicking, and the in-fighting. I love the scope of the battle scenes, large and small, and I love the way magic is realized. I have no idea how the rest of the series will pan out, but I strongly recommend that every fantasy fan take the time to read at least this initial entry. So highly recommended.

Here's what it is: 
Glen Cook kicks off his legendary series with a high stakes tale of wizardry and warfare, acted out by a troupe of possibly the most genuine soldiers in the fantasy genre.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Look at those two images up there. Talk about a tale of two covers, right? On the left, you have the omnibus cover (which is the one I will be grading, as that is where I am reading from), done by Raymond Swanland, one of the best cover artists in the business. On the right, you have the iconic cover, done by Keith Berdak, which Cook has said in an interview that he prefers, because a) a friend of his did them, b) that cover helped sell the book to a bookstore chain, and c) at least the image on the cover has something to do with what is in the book (pretty good representation of Soulcatcher). Swanland's cover is technically excellent, but, that isn't them. So, chuckle all you want at the technical shortcomings of Berdak's cover, but after gracing the books for three decades, they have been ingrained into the lore of the Black Company. So it deserves respect for that. My opinion? Best thing to do is re-release them all in standard format with the Didier Graffet covers...

But that's just me. And what do I know?

Cover Final Score (Swanland):