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.
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):