Soldiers Live by Glen Cook. The final book in the Black Company saga, originally published by Tor Fantasy July, 2000. Approx. 419 pages (Tor omnibus edition).
Where we left off:
Water Sleeps was a book comprised of two very separate parts: the sneaky, guerrilla war waged by the Company within Taglios, and their journey south and onto the Plain of Glittering Stone.
The Taglios campaign culminated with key Taglian figures being captured and/or taken out of the picture (including the Radisha herself), along with that perennial Company foil Narayan Singh (along with the Daughter of the Night). When a deal was brokered with Singh to retrieve the Nyueng Bao Shadowgate Key (remember the Lance of Passion still lays with Murgen in stasis), Sleepy knows that they can finally make their move.
As the story shifted its focus southward, it was time for some long-overdue exposition. The Captured were finally freed, as there resting place was revealed to be in the cavernous expanses under the throne room of the protector-golem-god Shivetya. Those labyrinthine chambers also yielded vast treasures, as well as the original three Books of the Dead (which Sleepy and Swan later burned). Far below, however, a true terror awaited. Tobo, heeding some inner call, ventured nearly a mile down into the bowels of the Plain, and discovered the sleeping Kina, who made an attempt at awakening. This was only halted by a brave charge by veteran mage Goblin, who sacrificed his life by burying the Lance of Passion into the awakening death goddess, temporarily halting her rise.
Topside, the throne room of Shivetya was revealed to be a diagram of the Plain itslef (actually a diagram inside a diagram). It turns out the the Plain is a major transportation hub, and along with keeping Kina at bay, Shivetya also acts as the eternal air traffic controller. There were many other Shadowgates, and all lead to other worlds (or variations of or different eras of the same world), and groups like the Black Company and the Nyueng Bao have been traveling them for ages, seeking the best way to raise Kina to bring on a universal Year of the Skulls (or something to that nature, this all gets a bit mind-boggling). Currently, the Gate to Khatovar is out of commission, but Sleepy strikes up a relationship with Shivetya, in which the god-golem imparts information at his leisure to key members of the Company (and give us more much-needed exposition).
At the end of Water Sleeps, the Company crosses the only other open Gate, and enters the Land of Unknown Shadows, where they are greeted by a welcoming party comprised of folks that resemble the Nyueng Bao in appearance, as well as dialect. Which brings us to....
Where we are now:
I cannot believe we are already here at the end of our journey with the Company. Or, maybe, I did not realize how emotionally invested I had become with this group. We all know that journeys end. People go. Soldiers Live. And wonder why. That is the mantra here. And, if you have become as close to this crew as I have, this book may stay in a special corner of your soul forever. It is immortality of a sort.
After crossing through the last working Shadowgate at the end of Water Sleeps, the Company finds themselves in a world that is a sort of clone of their own, inhabited by a race resembling ancestral Nyueng Bao. This land is known as Hsien.
It's been four years in this new land. Four years of peace, a complete anomaly to the veterans of the Company. The only recorded deaths in this time are veterans Otto and Hagop, passing on naturally with no fights to fight, and one risk taking recruit that took the wrong risk. Speaking of recording, for this last trip with the Company, Croaker has taken up the quill again. This is only fitting. And, as it should be, what makes Soldiers Live what it is is less the events that transpire, but more how this world looks to this aging veteran, now feeling every bit the antique in the only family he has ever known.
Just a few notes before getting into the actual story: yes, Croaker is again the Annalist. But, there are also a slew of third-person chapters focusing on the events involving adversaries and different locations. Speaking of chapters, not only is this the thickest book so far, it also boasts the most chapters at a whopping 148 (can you believe the first book only had seven chapters?). What's good about the format here is that, like in Shadows Linger, the chapters tell you where the events are transpiring, and are also named (quite cleverly too, I might add).
As mentioned, Soldiers Live opens during the peaceful times in Hsien. We get some needed background on the people and places, the system of government, etc. A lot of focus is on Tobo, and how much he has grown. He has bonded with the indigenous spectral creatures of Hsien known as the Unknown Shadows, patchwork critters reminiscent of the denizens of the Plain of Fear.
There are local feuds and such; everyone in Hsien is wary of the Company as they take no partisan stance. All the Company wants is for the information needed to repair the gate to Khatovar so they can complete the mission Croaker began. Well, not just that. Sleepy (still Captain) is killing some time so that she can keep retrieving all the treasures contained in the caverns under Shivetya's throne. But Sleepy is a conniving, duplicitous little number. Which is what makes her a good Captain.
When there is sufficient cash and a decent army arrayed, the Company begins to move back into the old world to start settling scores. Meanwhile, Croaker has a score of his own to settle. That would be with one Lisa Bowalk, the shapeshifter stuck in forvalaka mode who has finally exacted her revenge upon One Eye (no spoiler there; at the end of Water Sleeps, Sleepy notes that One Eye dies four years after that entry ends). Again, Sleepy has ulterior motives for Croaker's mission as well.
Keep in mind that Bowalk makes her retreat in what lies past the gate to Khatover. I won't divulge too much of what Croaker and his crew find there, but it involves a new race (the Voroshk, a very pale people with a loose family hierarchy system, interesting technology, and limited talents in sorcery). Some of these Voroshk end up traveling back with them once accounts with Bowalk are settled.
Back in the regular world, well, things fall into a regular routine. Some readers might get frustrated or exasperated at this point, since 90% of the proceedings still focus on the logistics of harassing Soulcatcher and Mogaba, and hunting down the Daughter of the Night and her guardian. Seriously. Even with the whole Kina/Year of Skulls angle still unresolved with fewer and fewer pages left, it is still focusing on Tobo and tactics. But there is a reason. There is always a reason when you look at it.
Cook has always been a patient and deliberate author. He is one of the very few that I can truly say rarely puts a word in his stories that does not have meaning. Cook is also known to plant the seeds of ideas that don't sprout until a few hundred pages later, leaving you madly flipping back through pages once understanding hits you.
And so, it is quite possible that some readers will be pretty disappointed with what they are reading as they are reading it. Soldiers Live marks Croaker's narrative return, but, after One Eye's death, his perspective becomes understandably more melancholy. So even though the book starts off with those trademark cynical, clipped sentences, it all lapses into exposition and disenfranchised battle reports. But can you blame him? How many decades has Croaker been soldiering for? At this point, the battles are just sad wastes of life. And for what? The whole Taglios aspect has ballooned, and, we all know that the religious angles are of no importance to him. As he points out, he was just passing through.
Croaker still does his work dutifully, though. He applies due diligence to reporting the tactics used, and makes note of fallen sworn brothers. That is his job as Annalist. This way the Company of the future can reference the victories and losses of the past. But there is no flamboyance in the battle scenes. I doubt that war is very flamboyant for broken senior citizens.
So, the battle scenes may seem anti-climactic. Some say the same for the reporting of the multitudes of deaths. There is no secret, almost everyone dies in Soldiers Live. Name a remaining Company member or affiliate, there is a 90% chance they die here. You almost never see the death scenes. It is mentioned, and recorded. As is Croaker's job. You might feel at first that this is a bit of a disservice to characters that have been evolved over several books, but consider Croaker. At his age, deaths of friends become more common. The occurence can be stated as fact no matter how it tears you apart inside. Plus, many of those that go are simply attached to the Company. He is actually doing them a favor by recording them. It is an immortality of sorts. If you think about it, it is perfectly significant when he gives a lackluster eulogy to a Nyueng Bao that passes. Remember, Croaker never trusted that group, and always considered them an additional burden foisted upon his considerable logistical workload.
And finally, what might be taken as the final disappointment is how so many important loose ends are hurriedly tied up. The Year of Skulls, especially. Don't get me wrong, the final showdown with Kina is impressive, but the Year of Skulls is kind of treated as, "Oh, so that's what it was? Ok, moving on...". This is not lazy writing, to repeat, Croaker is not big on religion. He cannot deny a god when he sees one, but he doesn't need to subscribe to the philosophy. Plus, the Kina stuff was never in his contract.
Personally, I was expecting the Year of Skulls to be the Company themselves. Their little jaunt in the South ended up causing tens of thousands of deaths anyway.
Reading this, you might think, "Well, if you keep saying the exciting bits are kind of boring, and the other stuff is rushed, this final book must suck, right?". It doesn't. Without giving away the very ending, let me put it like this: remember when you were a young student and wanted to go somewhere really badly, and had to finish a report for school before you could leave? That task, although necessary, or even being something you would usually be passionate about, suddenly becomes a mundane obstacle. And that's what happens at the end. There is a huge transition about to take place, and the assumption is that the Annals have to be brought up to date first.
There are parts in Soldiers Live that are written with some real emotion. These are the scenes involving Booboo (the Company nickname for the Daughter of the Night), Croaker's deep love for his aging wife (Lady no longer has the power to maintain her beauty glamours), and the parts regarding Tobo's evolution. This is an interesting aspect; most of Water Sleeps and the earlier portions of Soldiers Live seemingly fawn on Tobo as a sort of all-powerful, all-good wunderkind, but Croaker shows us how easily a wizard can go down dark, scary paths without proper grounding and a moral compass. These scenes are handled very well. A very good reminder that there is a very thin line between being a force for good and becoming the next Dominator. Croaker even manages to find a place in his heart for his enemies, Soulcatcher and Mogaba (remember, he was always more sympathetic to him than the other Annalists). And lastly, the most emotional aspect focuses on friendship. Not just camaraderie, but the true bonds of a unit that is family. There is a touching scene where Croaker reflects on the extents of One-Eye's friendship for Goblin, and wishes someone had cared that much for him. Then he realizes that someone had in fact done it for him as well.
Croaker's melancholy at his own aging sets quite an emotional tone for Soldiers Live as well. Maybe I am just a little more sympathetic to this plight as I am feeling a bit of an antique as well, but you can sense the frustrations of physical limitations. Of being humored rather than listened to. Especially when your observations and gut feelings might be helpful to a Captain who is very capable, but who also forgets the small details sometimes.
And yet, sadness and futility aren't the only messages of this final entry in the Black Company saga. Faces change, but the Company survives. Soldiers Live. And wonder why. There will be new Captains, new lands. New pairs of feuding wizards (I personally loved the Voroshk girls).
Best of all (bit of a spoiler here), Cook manages to come up with the happiest ending conceivable. Not to give it away, but he creates a true heaven for a non-religious man. What better reward is there?
Soldiers Live is by far one of the best "final entries" I have ever read, and I will place The Black Company high on the list of Best Fantasy Series read. Even though some things remain unanswered (like why so many extraordinary things happened to an ordinary man like Croaker), the story is completed and the door is left open for future tales. I know, Port of Shadows and A Pitiless Rain were announced long ago, but I hear varying reports as to whether they will be prequels or further stories.
For now, goodbye Croaker & Company.
Here's what it is:
Glen Cook ends his signature series with a grand finale that rates a hair short of the first book. So many have come and gone, but memories remain. Memory is immortality of a sort.
This piece by Jainschigg is easily my favorite of the old covers. The arrangement is nice, and the color palette is truly evocative of the tone. Love the idea of a faceless conglomerate of soldiers fulfilling their natural destiny. If anyone would be so kind as to give a gift to your favorite reviewer, there is an original painting of the cover here. I'll just hold my breath waiting....
Cover Final Score (Swanland):