Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review of "The Black Company" by Glen Cook

Glen Cook’s Black Company series has been going since 1984, ten books and counting.  Cook by and large flying low on most people’s fantasy radars, his is a cult following.  Unconventional sword & sorcery to say the least, the series is best represented by moral ambiguity, a focus on plotting (not character or setting), and a mythic scope on par with the best epic fantasies.  The first book, The Black Company, introduces the group that is to be the center point of the series and sets the tone, even if not all members survive to the end.

Narrated by their doctor, Croaker, The Black Company is the story of a group of mercenaries in an alternate world, .  Caught in the middle of kingdom-spanning events, war rages all around the Company, their swords and magicians for sale to the side most likely to prevail—and to themselves if no other option presents itself.  On one side fights the Lady and her Taken, a group that centuries previously dominated the land with powerful magic—a dominance they once again hope to set up with a new Empire.  On the other sits the Circle of Eighteen, a rebel group with less of the supernatural under their control, but with stronger unity.

The book opens with the Black Company casting aside their current employer when it becomes obvious his interests have been compromised by the war.  Setting out for the lands of the Lady with a Taken named Soulcatcher, things quickly go awry when Soulcatcher’s rival, another Taken named The Limper, appears on the scene.  The story moving in wholly unpredictable directions thereafter, Croaker and his company’s survival becomes only more tenuous with each new army, magician, and scene of battle they bounce their way to. 
Stealing a page from Michael Moorcock’s mythically styled fantasies, readers should not expect empathy to be the first emotion to arise reading of the exploits of the Black Company.  Cook maintaining a narrative distance from all the characters, it is their interaction, conflicts, and partnerships which link the story, the plot of utmost importance.  Magic flying fast and sometimes surprisingly, scenes are described from an objective point of view, little emotion injected to make the reader feel one way or another about the characters’ fates.  Soulcatcher and The Limper’s battles, for example, while running high on tension due to the magic at work, draw a reaction no different than Theseus learning Ariadne is dead.  Suffice to say, readers looking for warm characters or superheroes to relate to will not find them in Cook’s story.

With emotional content generally lacking, Cook instead uses dialogue and ability as means of delineating character.  The Company’s three magicians, Silent, Goblin, and Tom-tom discuss life like crazed fools, infight like children, and perform intense wizardry, depending on the situation.  Relatively bleak in outlook, all the characters express a world weary, nihilistic view of life typical of a career soldier, people for whom the uncertainty death and battle are merely a day’s work.  Cook ex-military himself, the experience comes through in the fiction, both by narrative tone and battle scene description.

While certainly the pace of The Black Company will be enjoyable for some, for others it will be too fast.  With setting, character, and action all described in a small to average amount of detail, events transition quickly.  This keeps the reader on their toes to hold pace, but perhaps leaves an unsettled feeling that the story could have been exposed to stronger effect.  At no time does Cook really unpack a scene, instead covering a large amount of places, action, and characterization in 320 pages.  Even the climax, as much as it suits the story, is unveiled at a fast pace, perhaps needing to be read twice for understanding.

In the end, The Black Company is a fantasy novel (and series) that will be divisive for its unique elements.  Fantasy enthusiasts preferring comfortable narratives which flesh out heroes and villains, setting, and morals in detailed fashion will shake their heads at Cook’s brand of military fantasy.  However, for those who like unconventional sword and sorcery, The Black Company, with its everyday soldiers, unpredictability, decisive emphasis on plot, and lack of obvious moral orientation (there are no good or bad guys), may be for you.  Related to other fantasy series, The Black Company is like a stripped down version of Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon.  The eccentricity of Erikson’s wizards echoes Cook’s, as does the common man feel of the Bridgeburners, the Black Company.  A forerunner to modern fantasy espousing the “dark and gritty” (i.e. fantasy where sometimes the good guys die), the novel may also be enjoyed by readers who like that kind of epic fantasy but have not heard of Cook.

No comments:

Post a Comment