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.

bloodstone

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.

legend

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.

Fables of Ismeddin by E.Hoffman Price

ismed

 

I have a friend who is a huge fan of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle of writers and after discussing recent books we had read I recommended Karl Wagner to him and his counter recommendation was Edgar Hoffman Price, who had cowritten a story with Lovecraft.

Another Golden Age writer I have never heard of and one that seemed very prolific. I looked at a number of his offerings online and decided on the Fables of Ismeddin MEGAPACK from Amazon. I was a bit worried that the stories might have a strong racist tinge to them as some of Lovecraft’s do. I did not find that to be so. In many of the stories there are no real ‘heros’ in that there is some evil in all, but often it is the westerner that is the worst, such as in Well of the Angels.

There are a number of reoccurring characters and story styles, starting with the title character Ismeddin, a Kurdish holy man that is called a Darvish, an alternate spelling for dervish. Ismeddin is only in about half of the tales but is an interesting character.

dervish

Crafty, devout, wise, versed in ancient lore and an apparent practitioner of magic he is an interesting contradiction. He is also at times a caravan raider, horse thief, guide, advisor to travelers and Amirs as well as a man that deals with the devil. While looking down on the ruling class he often helps them maintain their thrones even when they are obviously cruel and corrupt.

Another reoccurring character is Bint el Hereth or Bint el Kafir, the daughter of Satan, a immortal seductress who entices men to their doom in a way that many men might be willing to follow. You will have to judge for yourself if she is evil or not.

There are a few historical fiction tales and several that does not feature Ismeddin and have westerners as their main focus. At first I was disappointed in this but a number of them are good tales.

I really enjoyed the stories and believe that they aged very well. A couple that stood out for me were Ismeddin and the Holy Carpet and the Girl from Samarcand, for very different reasons. The first shows the cleverness and resourcefulness of Ismeddin, and how quickly he can adjust to unexpected circumstances. The other, almost a ghost story, has a lot to say about day dreaming as well as the importance of hearing an entire conversation.

The stories reminded me in a way of a number of Robert E. Howard’s short stories set in the same area but there are major differences. The first is simply the era. Howard’s tales are mostly around the Crusades while Hoffman’s are primarily around the start of the 20th Century. Another major issue is that the hero in Howard’s stories are all European, while Hoffman’s are Kurds, Persians, Afgans and others from the nations around the Levant.

Hoffman wrote in a number of genres and there is both a Fantasy & Science Fiction as well as a Two Fisted Detective MEGAPACKS available that I will probably invest a buck on in the future. I wonder if his stories in those genres holds up as well?

When the Heavens Fall by Marc Turner

when-the

I bought this book without even reading the blurb on the back. I was in a rush and had credit on my Powell’s card and it looked interesting. What more do you need? Fantasy is one of the genres that I particularly like, and one that I tend to be very critical of, compared to say Sci-Fi where I find I can enjoy almost anything.

However over the years as complex characters that are neither all good or all evil and better world building has evolved my expectations of what I expect from a good fantasy novel have changed. It is no longer enough to have a hero or group of heroes on a quest to find gold, slay the evil wizard, stop the rampaging god or whatever. I am tired of elves and dwarfs. I dislike a character that is the greatest anything, swordsman, thief, cunning mastermind, you name it. Occasionally these can be elements that work but for the most part are played out.

The characters need to be believable and fully fleshed. They do not simply walk through a forest as if it’s a stroll thru Central Park, but the flora and fauna are also described as well as issues such as the difficulty of crossing a stream or finding food. Logistics issues are important. Why are they doing something? I dislike it when every major decision seems to be a childish whim, more in keeping with what a child or young adult of the 22 century would do rather than someone that has grown up in gritty, if fictional times.

I think that there is a range of current authors that are breaking out of this shell such as Erikson, Rothfuss and Abercrombie, to name a few, and this is my first shot at Turner, who is definitely in their class as a differentiated writer. As a side note several of these authors are worth following on Twitter as they can be pretty funny. Also maps. Did I mention maps? I like to see where the places that are referenced are and how far from point A to point B is.

While at the start of When the Heavens Fall seems to be your standard adventure, a disgruntled elite warrior is called back for a mission, rebellious and unhappy and forced to travel with unwanted companions. As his story line develops additional major characters are introduced as well as additional story lines that do not seem related, creating a complex picture in which at least one major player’s motives are unclear.

It is obviously a huge world with a complex past and many races and gods, immortals, forms of magic and rules on how and when they can be used. All of these features are introduced fairly slowly so that you are not overwhelmed by too much information, and there is a lot of it. Some are explained in a fair amount of detail and others just passing, as is needed. Most of the characters develop as the story progresses which I enjoyed a good deal. Their motives change, or are questioned, their relationships with others grows and their future goals start to emerge.

I felt it dragged a bit at about the midpoint, with the adventurers slowly inching closer to the goal. But as a first book I think that this was very good, and even in the slow parts important facts are dropped that I suspect will be important clues in future books.

dragon

The book ends with lots of unanswered questions, but not as a cliff hanger. As I think back about the story lines I see new ones emerging as well as some that I wondered about all book. The big one is about the subtitle The Chronicles of the Exile. Who is or was exiled?  Reading the blurb online about the next book- Dragon Hunters– it seems that none of the characters from this book will be present, which is too bad since there is so much unanswered, but I suspect that Turner will bring it all together in future novels.