The Black Company Trilogy
I picked up The Black Company after reading the first Malazan book, because Steven Erikson mentioned Glen Cook as an influence. Sure enough, the Bridgeburners owe a lot to the Black Company, and the Malazan series owes much to Cook’s world. In fact, most of the “high fantasy but dark and post-modern” stuff that is popular now owes its existence to books like The Black Company. Written in 1984, before fantasy went mainstream, the original trilogy far predates the backlash against Tolkien-imitating high fantasy that would lead to text-mountains like The Song of Fire and Ice and Malazan Book of the Fallen. To give some context, The Black Company came out after the early Shannara and Raymond Feist novels, in the same year as the original Dragonlance, just before David Eddings started the Belgariad, and a few years before the unending Wheel of Time.
I cite this chronology for two reasons. First, Cook was writing these at the dawn of the fantasy explosion. Plenty of fantasy had been written before, but this was the era that saw the first commercial success for fantasy paired with the rise of Dungeons & Dragons. Second, “gritty” and “dark” fantasy developed side by side with the elves and halflings that pranced through verdant woodlands (Thomas Covenant, anyone?). The timing of The Black Company suggests that Cook wasn’t writing in response to anything in particular or to prove any sort of point, which might explain the tone free of anything pedantic or incendiary. It may also explain why the Black Company (the soldiers, not the books) aren’t nearly as black hearted as they seem to think.
On to the books themselves. First of all, The Black Company as a trilogy stands as some of my favorite fantasy. The series gets better as it progresses; the first book starts out alright and ends up cool, the second starts out cool and ends up amazing, the third book starts out amazing and ends with me curled up in a fetal position on the floor, unable to resist its awesomeness. Others may dispute this, but that is their loss. I will attempt to explain, in spoiler-free fashion, just what it is about Cook’s world that beat me into submission and forced me to continue reading, even as I was blowing deadlines on my Master’s Thesis. (Fortunately, the books are not long, and I was back on track shortly thereafter.)
The books are narrated by Croaker, the Company Annalist. Croaker is, of course, different from the others. He writes histories while others fight, and reads stirring episodes from the Company’s past, football coach style, while the regular soldiers prepare to kill and die. Croaker has done his share of the fighting, but it is not his primary calling in the books. This serves both practical and literary purposes. Croaker is a natural and more or less reliable narrator for the tale. Simultaneously, his position as a historian becomes a central facet of the plot as the story moves forward.
The first book is a series of episodes that feel more like short stories shoe horned into a broader narrative. The Black Company finds itself in the employ of The Lady, who is quite evil, then proceeds through a number of situations that demand some combination of scheming and violence to resolve. Their opponents are ostensibly the Good Guys, but it becomes clear as the novel progresses that 1) The Lady is not as evil as her ex-husband and 2) the Good Guys aren’t all that nice either. I suppose this is the point at which some readers lose patience with the book, but these are the types who require clear cut, black or white situations in their lives. (That or they really want evil to be EEEVIIILL and probably cry when (spoiler alert!) Darth Vader tosses the Emperor into depths of the Death Star’s inexplicably located power plant at the end of Return of the Jedi.) Anyone who is comfortable with, or at least resigned to, the ambiguous nature of life will likely appreciate the nuance in Cook’s world.
This is not to say that there aren’t clearly defined choices. The White Rose is unquestionably Good, The Lady’s ex is unquestionably Bad. Everyone in between fits into a continuum of black, white, and gray, moving back and forth along it as the series continues. Playing a “Who’s The Bad Guy Now?” game proves endlessly entertaining. Again, this may not be for everyone. To me, though, it is but a reflection of real life, which is far more complex than many would care to admit. Lest any readers question my recurring defense of moral ambiguity, I refer you to Amazon comments posted by offended parties.
I will note one more thing before closing out this review. I am not normally receptive to romantic subplots, or any sort of “love” in my stories. I read my SFF for mind blowing ideas, space ships exploding, wizards rending the fabric of reality, but emphatically not for boys meeting girls. If people fall in love, that’s nice, but not really what I’m looking for. There is a surprising relationship in the trilogy that eventually forms the crux of the story. (I’m being purposefully vague here to avoid spoiling something important.) “Romance” is not a good word for it, but what happens between the two characters goes straight to the core of the narrative; by the end, this is the peg that the whole series is hanging on. To my great surprise, I couldn’t get enough of it. Very rarely do I care if characters are happy with each other, or be anything ever after, but these two won my enthusiastic support.
Rating: George Best, careening through the defense, dodging all attempts to break his legs, inexplicably remaining in total control at all times, and burying a perfect shot past the keeper’s outstretched fingertips.