The Black Company by Glen Cook

black co

I originally read The Black Company over 20 years ago, and then lent out the book, never to be seen again. So when I saw that Tor.com was offering a free download, I quickly took it up on its offer. Per my usual modus operandi I then forgot about it for around year. BTW if you do not get the Tor newsletter you should give it a look, I really enjoy it and it offers up a great deal of info on new books as well as old.

Having miraculously finished several books over the holidays that I had started long ago I was looking for something that was a bit different that the histories I had been reading and decided to take up the book again. A bit of background for those who are unfamiliar with Cook, or the Black Company series. These books are often viewed by some of the founding fathers, so to speak, of the Grimdark genre.

The company is very dark, using underhanded tactics to win. More than that it commits the crimes that ravaging forces often do on an innocent population. Although its rape, murdering and pillage are just mentioned as a minor note, the actions are present. However I cannot recall any book I had read up to the time I originally read this that had the side I was rooting for do such evil. Conan always talked about it in the past tense but whenever presented with an opportunity he usually took the chivalrous route. I have read that people put Corwin from Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes of Amber series in this category but I don’t really see it. Written earlier, but read by me much later is Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane series and he is openly much worse.

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The Black Company bills itself as the last of the Free Companies of Khatovar, a band of highly trained mercenaries that has the ability to fight way above its weight class. The book (first in a series) follows the adventures of the company as it extracts itself from a sticky situation and into a much more dangerous one.

The story is narrated by the company’s surgeon and annalist Croaker. Keeping records of the company is something of a mania for both Croaker and the company as a whole as it carries around its histories and regularly has portions read to the men to remind them of their brothers who have passed before them. Some segments of its history have been lost.

The book opens with the company idling its time in a decaying city called Beryl, ruled (mostly) by a man called the Syndic. Wanting to depart the dead-end job they develop a work-around to their contract, which their honor would not allow them to out and out break. They facilitate in the killing of the Syndic, an action that gives you an idea about the men. To reinforce this image as they march out of town they cast a spell on one of the cities military units putting it to sleep and then massacre its men.

They have already agreed to a new contract with a visiting wizard that goes by the name of Soulcatcher. Soulcatcher is one of ten, called The Taken, that are ruled by a greater wizard, The Lady. They, along with The Lady’s husband the Dominator, had ruled a might empire, been overthrown and imprisoned for centuries until she was released, and then the Taken, but not the Dominator. She resurrects her ancient kingdom and meets with a revolt, just like old times.

The company is sent north to the fighting, wins many battles but the Lady is losing the war, due to the poor overall performance of her armies and the backstabbing of the Taken. The company does capture one of the enemy leaders. Named Whisper, she is their best general and one of its pack of wizards, named the Circle of Eighteen. The Lady turns her into one of the Taken and then she is sent to the Eastern front, where she instantly starts racking up victories.

However the outlook is very different on the Northern Front, as losses start to pile up. The company, along with remnants of the northern armies are forced to retreat back to a huge monolith called the Tower, where the final showdown will occur between a quarter million rebels and roughly 25,000 troops of the Lady. With the wizards on both sides making major contributions.

The final battle in many ways reminds me of David Gemmell’s Legend, which has a final battle that I have always found to be unsatisfactory.

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While I remembered the bare bones of the story I was surprised at how much I had forgotten, including Raven, who emerges as one of the main characters. I think that when I originally read the book I just devoured it because it was unlike anything I had read before and when I read like that I am waiting for the next page and not really thinking in detail about what is occurring on the page I am reading. I just want to see how it ends.

There are a number of minor points that annoy me about the book. Few characters are very well described. I have a mental image of almost none of them. The Lady is described as the most beautiful woman ever, but that is pretty much it. She seems to fall for Croaker, no idea why unless it has to do with the school boy fantasy that he writes about her.

Some interesting plot twists, one that I guessed but others that I did not and that you can see at the end of the book how they will influence future books in this series.

Another is distance and logistics. The company travels over 1,000 miles to the north, and later is forced to retreat, followed by a multiple enemy armies numbering around 250,000 men. Yet the retreat is very rapid and logistics for both friend and foe are not really mentioned. Yet they travel through one desert and a huge forest, both of which would put immense pressure on having adequate food for the men and the animals

Overall I found the book very readable and a great look back at the roots of what could be called the rise of the anti-hero. However not sure if I would recommend the book to friends because it has a dated feel to it, particularly the worldbuilding.