Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Book review: The Black Company

The Black Company

By Glen Cook

(Tor, 1984)

Having read and enjoyed Erikson's Gardens of the Moon, I was curious about Glen Cook's work. I knew that Erikson had admitted the influence of the Black Company novels on his own work, so I was intrigued to check them out for myself. Plus, let's face it, The Black Company just sounds cool. I mean, a novel with that title just can't be rubbish, can it?

The Black Company of the title is an elite group of mercenaries, and the novel follows them as they flee from the troubles of the city of Beryl, only to find themselves dragged into a war between the Lady and the Rebel. As the war reaches its climax, the line between friend and foe becomes increasingly blurred...

It didn't take me long to realise that The Black Company was not at all similar to the other fantasy works of the same time period that I'd read. For example, when it was published in 1984 Terry Brooks was working on his epic Shannara series and Ray Feist had, just two years before, delivered the all-time great fantasy novel Magician. Epic was therefore big business, fantasies with elves and dwarves were all the rage. It was interesting to find out that The Black Company shied away from all this, heading in a very different direction.

For a start, it doesn't make use of the traditional tropes that Brooks and Feist indulged in. There are no elves or dwarves, no dark lords. In fact, Cook focuses intently on the men of the Black Company, exploring their relationships, emotions and beliefs. It's a stripped-down approach that portrays a world where everything is cast in shades of grey and evil is simply a matter of where you stand. In short, it's a more realistic take on things. You could even argue that it's the forerunner of today's 'gritty' fantasy novels (by today's standards it couldn't really be called gritty - no sex, no graphic violence, minor swearing - but by the standards of the 80s it sure as hell could).

The plot, as mentioned, follows the trials and tribulations of the Black Company as they find themselves - somewhat unwillingly - conscripted into a war. The story is seen through the eyes of Croaker, the company's physician and erstwhile historian, and the first-person narrative leaves plenty of room for introspection and exploration of various themes in between the action.

The characterisation is one of the novel's strongest aspects; Cook portrays the men of the Black Company - and their relationships - with commendable realism. Black Company novels are apparently popular among members of the armed forces, and it is easy to see why: Cook's soldiers act like real soldiers. They fight, bitch, argue, laugh and support one another. Their relationships add some real depth and realism to the novel. Lighter moments are also provided by the amusing antics of the wizards Goblin and One-Eye, who constantly strive to out-do each other with their little tricks.

Croaker himself is a likeable narrator, a regular guy who is just trying to do his job. His plain honesty and genuine love for his comrades endears him to the reader, and it's intriguing to see him slowly unravel as the stakes get higher. We see all the action through Croaker's eyes, and subsequently share his thoughts about the nature of evil, the hopelessness of war and the importance of loyalty and honour. It's impossible not to sympathise with the nasty situations he finds himself in, and to desperately hope that he makes it through as the screw tightens.

The human characters are only one side of the coin however. Alongside them, you have the 'Taken' - ten powerful wizards that were enslaved by the Dominator, and now live to serve the Lady. It's these figures that add a more fantastic edge to the proceedings, with their magical abilities and unnerving appearances. For example, Soulcatcher's voice changes from scene to scene, female one minute and then male the next, while Shapeshifter is - you guessed it - able to assume different forms. It's the Taken that to some extent drive the plot along, with their incessant infighting and plotting, despite all being technically on the same side.

The plot itself rattles along at a frenetic pace, giving few clues as to where it's going and managing to spring a few surprises as it reaches its climax. Cook shies away from the heroic quest aspect and instead tells an absorbing story of covert missions, assassination attempts and nefarious backstabbing. While the focus of the novel is relatively narrow, concentrating by and large on the fortunes of the Black Company and Croaker himself, the final battle is surprisingly epic. Cook makes good use of the events to highlight the horror and pointlessness of war, and the helplessness felt by those caught up in it.

There are some aspects I felt could have been handled better. Cook's worldbuilding doesn't match his characterisation and sometimes I felt I didn't have as good a grasp of the world as I could have done with a touch more exposition. Sometimes it feels like the war is being fought over place-names rather than actual cities. In addition, magic is prevalent in the novel but there is no explanation as to how it works, meaning it is hard to appreciate magic use, as you have no real idea how difficult it is for the users to summon the power that they do. Both of these points can largely be forgiven on the basis that this is Cook's first novel.

One thing you can't fail to notice - if you've read any of the Malazan novels - is how much Erikson was influenced by The Black Company books. For a start, Erikson has used similar names for his cities and characters (Cook has a city called 'Roses', Erikson has 'Tulips'; Cook has a character called 'Silent', Erikson has 'Sorry'). Furthermore, the camaraderie (and rigged card games) of the Black Company is a clear influence on those of Erikson's Bridgeburners. In fact, the Black Company are almost a prototype of the Bridgeburners, such are their similarities. Erikson has also clearly been influenced by the backstabbing and infighting of Cook's 'Taken', which is reflected in the treachery carried out by the various agents of the Empress in his own books. In addition, the Taken were obviously the inspiration for Erikson's own Ascendants.

All things considered, The Black Company is an enjoyable read and Cook deserves much credit. Not just for writing a novel (and its sequels) that would prove the inspiration for one of the greatest epic fantasies of all time, but also for shying away from the popular style of the time period and for writing a very human story about war that resonates with real meaning.

Verdict: dddd

Recommended for fans of: Steven Erikson, David Gemmell, James Barclay


anrake said...

Hey, I just found your blog through Aidan's link. I was thrilled to see such a great review of the Black Company. I'm on Water Sleeps right now and definitely rank this as one of the top epic fantasy series. Keep us posted on what you think of the other books in the series. I hope your reviews and the new omnibus editions help to bring this great series to more epic fantasy fans everywhere.

James said...

Hey Anrake, thanks very much for visiting and I hope you stick around!

As for The Black Company, I think it's a very overlooked series, which is disappointing given its influence. I'll definitely be checking out more of the books.

RobB said...

Nice review James. I just added you to my blog roll, not realizing this blog was you. If you catch my drift.

Rob B

Buhallin said...

Was looking for reviews on this, stumbled across your remarkably recent discussion. I was hoping someone could answer a question for me.

I picked up the omnibus Black Company, and absolutely blew through the first book - 3 days, start to finish. But I'm finding that I'm having a hard time getting into the second book.

The style was what grabbed me about the book. I loved the incomplete information on the world, the lack of detail bogging everything down, the limitation of a true, well-done first person narrative... But so far, it seems that the second book abandoned much of what grabbed me about the first. The narrative flips from first to third person, and even when we're in the familiar environs of Croaker's head it feels wrong - like it's still third person, just using "I" a lot. There also seems to be more of the world mechanics creeping in... I loved the utterly spontaneous nature of the sorcery in the first book, but less than five chapters into the second we have Silent unable to use another spell because he hadn't prepared for it. If I wanted that type of stuff, I could easily have closed my eyes and picked a random Forgotten Realms book out of the 18,714 available.

So, after that mini-rant, to the actual questions: First, has anyone notived the same thing? Second, what style prevails in future books? Is this the new norm, or does Cook revert to the first book's style?


Lossimur said...

This is in response to buhallin.
I enjoyed the series very much and have read it several times so maybe I can give satisfactory answers to your questions. First of all this series is written as though it were excerpts from the Annals of the Black Company (primarily the Book of Croaker) which is a traditional chronicling of the activities of this company of mercenaries. Consequently the viewpoint is first person and limited to what Croaker witnesses or learns of second hand. In Shadows Linger, Croaker adds an account given by Shedd after he meets and interrogates him. Croaker then inserts it back amongst his own narrative so that it follows along chronologically. Something similar happens in The White Rose. In fact, Mr. Cook’s style of writing varies a great deal between some of the books based upon who is the annalist (and, undoubtedly, due in part to his growth as a writer). You mentioned world mechanics and the nature of magic. Certainly they are mentioned in subsequent novels but not much in the way of explaining how it all works. I get the idea that Croaker doesn’t really understand it and doesn’t care to. He’s just a soldier and wants the company wizards to “get on their job”. I could go into details but I don’t want to spoil the story.
The short answer is yes and no. Some books are going to be similar in style to the first but others will be wildly different. The idea of a story gathered from journal entries remains throughout, so it’s still going to be a biased story told from a limited viewpoint. I enjoyed some of the books more than others but as a whole it is one of my favorite series. Don’t skip reading The Silver Spike which is not actually a Black Company story but involves some of the same characters and is told in a similar style. It takes place after The White Rose, concurrently with Shadow Games.

Anonymous said...

I've had to buy so many of this series because I kept loaning them out and never getting them back, I used to wait for each new Black Company novel as it came out. I now have 2 of each book, but no one borrows them any more.