Epic fantasy chronicles often focus on the doings of the high and mighty, the holders of power. Military fantasy focuses on battles, tactics, and stratagems…the movement of pieces on the board. Glen Cook’s The Black Company turns these generalizations on their heads by being an epic chronicle in which the powerful are tangential characters in a complex military fantasy that focuses on the doings of a less-than-honorable company of mercenaries in service to a being of great evil.
The Black Company is a motley band of hardened soldiers and hedge-wizards; most are running away from something dark in their pasts and hide behind clever nicknames or cynical silence. Croaker, a battle-hardened physician and keeper of the Annals, relates the tale of how the venerable mercenary company came into the service of Soulcatcher, a powerful sorcerer and one of the Taken, a servant of the evil and beguiling Lady who rules the lands to the north with fear and power. After the Company takes on a mysterious man who has debts and connections to the Taken, Croaker and the Company begin to have their traditional indifference to the moral ambiguities of war tested.
Cook pulls off the rare feat of presenting a high-fantasy, magic-laden setting in a grim and realistic manner. Scenes of bawdy, comradely banter and boredom are interspersed between instances of horror and violence. A prime example of this are the ongoing battles between the wizards Goblin and One-Eye, magical altercations that invoke the wizard battles of Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone” as seen through a much grimier and deadly lens. The first-person point of view presented through Croaker describes the events thoroughly but without the exposition required to introduce his audience to the world in which they, presumably, already live. This is both the narrative’s strength and weakness: the style brings immediacy to the story while pressing the reader to scramble and figure out what is actually going on. Further, the world that Croaker describes is bleak: this is not a tale of heroics and platitudes, but of cynicism and the tribulations of evil, or at least indifferent, men. The most sympathetic character is Croaker himself…fitting, as he is the teller of the tale.
The Black Company is an interesting piece of fiction. Cook has done something thoroughly original with some standard fantasy tropes. I found myself intrigued by the characters and their trials—intrigued, but not engaged. I held the characters, and as a result the narrative, at arm’s length. It was not the unsavory characters or the grimness of the story—I have read grimmer tales and I have engaged with much more evil characters in my reading. I suspect that the apathetic nature of the Company, of Croaker, and of the world the author has created, seeped into the text and pushed me away. Nevertheless, the book is a game-changer for the genre and should be experienced.