It’s time for another Book of the Week, this time going back quite a few years to the first book in one of my favorite series: The Black Company. We’ve already had one book from this series feature in as a Book of the Week (book 5 or 6, depending on how you read the series), but the first book is more than deserving of its own space here.
So, The Black Company. I hardly know where to start with this one. Glen Cook’s The Black Company is such a seminal work in the fantasy genre, often credited for kicking off the trend of “gritty,” “realistic,” or “grimdark” fantasy that has spawned such popular works as Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy, and most famously, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen.
(Indeed, Cook’s ten-book series is well-known to be Erikson’s direct inspiration for Malazan, and it is not uncommon to hear people accuse him of ripping off The Black Company.)
In my opinion, however, the term “grimdark” really doesn’t apply to Cook’s series. Oh, The Black Company certainly has its grim parts, and very much gets dark, but it’s the tone and focus of the series that takes it out of the genre. The focus isn’t on the gritty, unsettling aspects of war. It doesn’t glorify violence or attempt to shock the reader with rape. Instead, Cook’s series is all about the human element of war, and the first book is perhaps the best example of this.
At the opening, the Black Company is a group of hardened mercenaries, chafing under a contract their honor will not let them break. Events escalate rapidly, resulting in them finally moving on and taking on a new contract, where they find themselves fighting for the evil Lady of Charm against the White Rose Rebels, who await a prophesied savior to destroy the Lady and restore freedom to her vast empire.
We are presented this story in a first-person retrospective, the point of view of Croaker, Black Company Annalist and physician. While the story takes us over hundreds of miles and dozens of battles, most of the scenes concentrate on what life is like for the men in the Company between fights. We see their schemes and penchant for strategy as they huddle in fortresses in the dead of winter. We get levity as they play pranks on each other and while away the hours over a game of tonk (their preferred card game). We get interspersed, tense scenes of peril and action, arduous battles and pitiless displays of sorcery.
Through it all, it is the humanity of the characters that shines. From Croaker’s dry wit and cynicism to the Captain’s bearlike act and the hijinks of the Company’s small-time wizards One-Eye and Goblin, Cook manages to provide an emotional connection to hardened, cruel veterans. It is possible only through the tinted lens of Croaker’s Annals:
You who come after me, scribbling these Annals, by now realize that I shy off portraying the whole truth about our band of blackguards. You know they are vicious, violent, and ignorant. They are complete barbarians, living out their cruelest fantasies, their behavior tempered only by the presence of a few decent men. I do no often show that side because these men are my brethren, my family, and I was taught young not to speak ill of kin.
And here we get the core of what the Company means. The notion of family, of belonging, is central to the motivations of each character. When a man (or woman…) joins the Black Company, he forsakes his old life. Many join to escape justice or a ruined life, but many more join for adventure or riches (ha) and thus abandon families and friends. No matter the initial joining motivation, the Black Company becomes a new family for one and all. Through the wars, the endless marching, the skullduggery and assassinations and machinations, it is this sense of brotherhood that keeps the Black Company effective and implacable.
The Black Company is truly an essential offering in the greater canon of epic fantasy series. Any fan of the genre should pick up the first omnibus edition, titled The Chronicles of the Black Company, which collects the first three books in the series and features gorgeous new cover art from Raymond Swanland. The first book, The Black Company, gets 4 of 5 stars from me. We’ll be back next week to talk about the sequel, Shadows Linger, and how it takes things to the next level across the board.