The Black Company review

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Black Company is the most memorable work of prolific author Glen Cook. The series span more than 10 books (with more coming up) and several short stories. The first appearance of the mercenary company was in 1984 with the eponymous title (now in omnibus). Cook's name has been printed on the covers of so many books, I could not let him stand in my shame list any longer. Moreover, since his famous band is considered to be an inspiration for the Malazan marines of Steven Erikson, I had to oblige.

The Black Company is caught in a stalling situation in the city of Beryl. When a mean for them to get out of their commission present itself, they jump into the wagon. However, this offer came from one of the Taken, ten great wizards corrupted by the Dominator long ago who were restored to life by the Lady. Their new commissioner will take them back north and use the last of the Free Companies of Khatovar to restore lost grounds in the Lady's empire struggle against the Rebel, a group of 18 wizards waiting for the return of the White Rose to dethrone the Lady. Within the company, Croaker, the physician and analyst is recording the undertakings of the Black Company.

First off, let's get to the basics. The narration is set with a first person perspective, that of Croaker. That's a narrative mode I like a lot but it presents some difficulties. The protagonist doing the recounting must be one hell of a compelling character. The last attempts at this that I read and found successful were Jemisin's The 100th Thousand Kingdoms and Bledsoe's Eddie LaCrosse novels. So, as was the case with those two, Cook skillfully created in Croaker a character I understood and cheered for, the perfect standard bearer for the company from which I would have liked to hear the tale.

However, there's another aspect that you have to consider, the continuous presence of this character at the key scenes. In the end it was predominantly justified, but at times, I was struggling with the fact that Croaker, a physician and writer (but still a fighter), was chosen for some missions. I understand that the author had to put him on the front lines but it was occasionally stretched a little too far.

The accounts depicted here stand as epic fantasy with a significant touch of military fantasy (with mercs, it's almost a pleonasm). The company may be named "Black", they stand in the grayish area of the moral spectrum, and in fact they are probably completely outside the spectrum. Let Croaker explain the group :
Every ruler makes enemies. The Lady is no exception. The Sons of the White Rose are everywhere....If one chooses sides on emotion, then the Rebel is the guy to go with. He is fighting for everything men claim to honor: freedom, independence, truth, the right....All the subjective illusions, all the eternal trigger-words. We are minions of the villain of the piece. We confess the illusion and deny the substance.
There are no self-proclaimed villains, only regiments of self-proclaimed saints. Victorious historians rule where good or evil lies.
We abjure labels. We fight for money and indefinable pride. The politics, the ethics, the moralities, are irrelevant.
The lovingly cynical storytelling is not completely encompassed by a rich world. There are some lacks in term of world building and the magic system remains vague. More often than not you can't really grasp the political situation of the lands visited by Croaker. It was not a turn down for me since the heroes bonding and experiences and the general plot felt more important than the locations in which the events occurred.

The physician is surrounded by a great cast from both sides of the coin. One-eye and Goblin, two childishly fighting wizards (creating some funny stuff for the characters but not for the reader), Raven a dangerous and reliable companion and his young protégé Darling and the more than mysterious Lady and her voice changing delegate Soulcatcher to name a few. The relationship and personality of the mercenaries is the soul of the book. Add to this the naming choice and I can understand that Erikson was influenced by this and I found myself thinking of the Malazan marines often enough while reading the book. I think Cook created or strengthened the whole myth of mercenary groups we get to see these days.

If you're looking for an open-ended fantasy novel presenting a dark setting seen through the eyes of a cynical escapist in the mist of a sympathetic bunch of misfits banded together to create the most shady mercenary company to beat all the odds, then Cook's series will be you're best bet.

Although I own the omnibus and the stand alone original novel, I decided to give The Black Company a try in audiobook. The narration was done by Marc Vietor who did an excellent job. His coarse and gruff voice was a perfect match for Croaker and most of those lovable mercs. The length of the audiobook is 11 hours while the novel stand at 320 pages (217 in the Chronicles of the Black Company). As you can see below, the original cover was pretty awful but Tor corrected the situation with the various omnibuses of The Black Company, with stunning covers by Raymond Swanland.

The Black Company
review score :

Characterization............. 9 /10
World building............... 7.5 / 10
Magic system................. 7.5 /10
Story.............................. 8 / 10
Writing........................... 8 / 10

Overall (not an average) 8 / 10


Glen Cook Wiki page


Michael Stuart said...

guess I missed all these. glad they're all compiled together now, give me a chance to catch up.

Showtyme said...

I just finished this a couple weeks ago and have eagerly been awaiting your review. I pretty much agree with your assessment. I, too, found it hard to believe that the Black Company's only physician was constantly sent on it's most dangerous missions. Cook explains in there it's so the missions can be recorded for the annals, but no story is worth the life of your only doctor.

I had some trouble understanding the layout of the world, Cook doesn't describe it very well. I'm assuming he figured it was secondary to the story, because it's a very human, personal story. I really felt for the characters, and was rooting for them throughout this first omnibus.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this but I am really looking forward to doing so. I keep meaning to Your review is fantastic. It really pushes this read toward the top of my list.

Dom said...

Phil, you should link the fanmade maps since there are none in the book.

It helps when you want to follow the progress of the company.

Phil said...

@Angel: It was the same for me until the audiobooks were released.

@Showtyme : Did you go through more than the first omnibus?

@Sarah : Thanks, hope you enjoy! Was it on your "Tell me what to read" list?

@thevilebob : the maps are listed on my index :

Showtyme said...

Phil- I have not yet moved onto the second omnibus. I'll be starting it soon (once I finish Foundation's Edge). I needed a small break from the Black Company after the first one. Reading two omnibuses in a row would've been too overwhelming. I've read a lot of books in the same series in a row before, and it's made me lose interest in that series. The most I read in a row is three before breaking for some other books.

fbelic said...

Regarding Croaker being sent to dangerous missions, his main duty is that of Annalist, which is much more than just a simple recorder of events. This is explained in later books at much greater length, especially in (currently) last omnibus, "The Many Deaths of The Black Company".

Phil said...

@fbelic : That's good to know and I hope the justification is worth it. I'll let you know when I get there :)

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