Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Black Company Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Glen Cook
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Sword and Sorcery, Military Fantasy
Series: The Black Company Books of the North Book One
Pages: 323

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Glen Cook’s The Black Company begins here (it can be a confusing series to follow). Originally published in 1984, this has been a highly regarded fantasy series for the last thirty years, and its reputation has certainly been justified.  This book opened the door for future writers of dark fantasy, military fantasy, and fantasy with moral compromise.

Before Steven Erikson’s Whiskeyjack was marshaling the Malazan’s into and out of desperate battles, and before Martin’s Tywin Lannister was planning his family’s dominance in the Seven Kingdom’s – the Captain was leading Croaker and the Black Company around the world to do the bidding of the Lady.

An elite company of mercenaries called the Black Company find themselves in a difficult situation when they must covertly murder their employer, thus jeopardizing their famed reputation.  Looking to redeem themselves, they take on a contract with the Lady and her ten servants called the Taken.
The Lady, whom had been imprisoned for 400 years, returns to an open rebellion led by the Circle of Eighteen. Looking to squash her enemies, she uses the Black Company to help secure her place of power, and to prevent the return of her even more powerful and dangerous husband, the Dominator.  As evil returns to the land, forces of good look to the prophecy of the White Rose, whom many hope has been reborn.

There is a lot going on in during the 300 pages that make up The Black Company.  Glen Cook gets to the point, and he gets to the point fast as the story shifts quickly from one part of the Lady’s war against the Rebels to the next.  Cook also throws in a large cast of characters and really doesn’t bother to explain every little detail. Readers just have to come along from battle site to battle site, and sort out the details as the go along. For people who’ve read the Malazan books, this feeling won’t be entirely unfamiliar, however, for those who haven’t this can make the first reading confusing. Once you get accustomed to the frantic pace, a complex story about morals emerges.

For a military fantasy – and yes there are plenty of battles – The Black Company is really more of a philosophical book about the moral decisions people make. Describing it as a story might be best posed as a question: what do you think Lord of the Rings would be like if it was narrated from the perspective of the Ringwraiths? While the Taken, may more functionally resemble the Ringwraiths in The Black Company, the point is that this is a book about the decisions being made by a group of people who know they have entered the service of someone who is evil.  As the Black Company carry out their orders, interesting questions about the moral compromises they make emerge, like why did they save these people, why did they kill these other people, and why not break their contract with the Lady?

Croaker, the Black Company’s annalist and medic narrates in first person, presenting the events in the book as episodes during this particular portion of the Black Company’s storied history. It’s through Croaker that most of the moral dilemmas are presented to the readers.  As a narrator he sometimes justifies people’s actions, while other times he doesn’t, which leaves room for a lot of ambiguity on deciding the morality of the Black Company’s decisions.

If the Black Company are the Ringwraiths, than the Lady is Sauron.  Unlike Sauron, whom in Lord of the Rings is merely a presence of evil, the Lady is an actual physical being – although Glen Cook teases her as a metaphorical presence of evil in the first half of the book.  After teasing The Lady’s realness, she makes one of the greatest villain introductions in fantasy. It’s an introduction that not only defines her role, it cements her legacy as one of the genre’s greatest villains.

Croaker also has a number of romantic fantasies with the Lady which seem to be purely of his own creation.   These fantasies add another element of danger to the persona of the Lady, but wisely it prevents her from becoming another evil seductress. It’s worth noting at the same time, due to the ambiguity of her power, she may actually be seducing him – and the reader and Croaker are just unaware.  As the story progresses, The Lady’s ability to manipulate continues to impress.  By the end, you can’t help but be as enamored and afraid of the Lady as Croaker is.

The only major complaints the lack of empathetic moments, which are passed on by due to the fast pace of the story.  There is also no map, which adds to the confusion by making it hard to get a visual of what’s going on and where. These flaws are only minor inconveniences, by its conclusion The Black Company has established a cast of well developed characters, and it’s opened the doors to a sequel that will continue to question the difficult decisions people must make in life.

Score: 9.5

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