Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Chronicles of the Black Company

The Black Company is the first of the fantasy series of the same name, written by Glen Cook and published in 1984. While Glen Cook did not start what is known as ‘gritty’ fantasy, The Black Company is one of the first examples of the sub genre which has now been introduced to the current generation by writers such as Joe Abercrombie.

The Black Company is the story of a campaign undertaken by a mercenary company in a magical war. It is told in first person and narrated by the company’s medic and annalist; Croaker. Croaker gives the impression that the Black Company is quite a large concern, but readers only get to know those that he associates with most closely. Men such as the wizards: One-Eye, Goblin and Silent. The competent sergeant Elmo. The mysterious Raven, and the Company’s two officers: the Lieutenant and the Captain. The officers are never given names, but are known only by their rank. There are only two female characters of any note: the Lady herself and a mute war orphan called Darling who is taken under Raven’s wing.

The Company are in the service of a godlike woman who is known simply as the Lady. The Lady is currently battling with a group called the Rebels in search of the reincarnation of their own saviour The White Rose. Both sides have the services of immensely powerful sorcerors often referred to as The Taken. Croaker faithfully relates what happens to the Company and it’s members in this war, it is often brutal and made more so by the matter of fact way that Croaker sometimes records the facts. This is not standard fantasy for the time, no elves or dwarves here, but there is magic. Some of the humour is created by the magical battles between the cantankerous One-Eye and the practical jokester Goblin.

It’s a well told story and readers get a sense of the rough camaraderie shared by the Company and the trust they have in each other as they put themselves into deadly situations to earn their pay. Cook doesn’t shy away from giving a warts and all depiction of a land torn apart by a senseless war, he’s also not afraid to kill major characters. One character who I thought would play a major part was dead before the end of the first chapter, he had been so well created in such a short time that I was little annoyed he was killed so early, because I’d grown to rather like him. It’s no surprise that Cook was in the US military (the Navy) or that the books are very popular amongst serving members of the forces or veterans. I was often reminded of Leon Uris’ Battlecry (the story of a WW II regiment from boot camp to the grim aftermath of Guadalcanal) when reading The Black Company.

Something else that Cook does very effectively in this book is drop the reader straight into the middle of things. This cuts down on the intricate world building and allows the reader to discover the world and explore the characters themselves, rather than have everything neatly explained for them.

I’m now kicking myself I didn’t read these earlier, because they’re a ripping read and I’ll be following the adventures of the Black Company from now on.

Following the success of The Black Company Glen Cook released a second tale of the mercenary company’s adventures; Shadows Linger.

Cook decided to flex his writing muscles a little with his second novel. It was actually two stories. One was from Croaker’s point of view as the Company continued their work for the Lady. The second story was told in third person and mostly concerned Raven, who had deserted from the Company at the end of the first book. Readers got to meet some more members of the Company; Pawnbroker and Kingpin. The character of the weak willed, cowardly tavern owner; Marron Shed, became the focus of the Raven story.

At some point both stories were going to have to collide and they did as the Black Company was sent to the city of Juniper to investigate a disturbance which had been caused by Raven’s activity. For a long period Cook continued to tell the story from Croaker’s first person viewpoint and also followed Shed in third person.

The final part of the story was all told from Croaker’s point of view and was an important part of the development of the series as the Company parted company with the Lady and actually became their former godlike employer’s enemy.

Partway through Shadows Linger I became aware of how much Cook had gotten me into this story. A sinister money lender in Juniper decided to have a run in with Raven. I read it smiling, thinking to myself: ‘You really don’t know who you’re going up against.’ At other times during fights I was hoping certain characters wouldn’t be incapacitated or even killed.

This is turning into a really enjoyable series and I’m looking forward to the third installment.

Like Shadows Linger, the third volume of the series; The White Rose, runs more than one story concurrently. The major story follows Croaker and is narrated by the annalist as previously. The two secondary stories concern a scavenger cum wizard by the name of Bomanz and the final thread is about a mysterious and dangerous character who is known as Corbie.

I had problems with the two secondary story lines for different reasons. I could never really get into the Bomanz one. I could not see why he was even there for most of it and it didn’t really seem to fit into the series anywhere until the end. I kept being pulled out of it because as I’ve said before I believe Joe Abercrombie was inspired by the Black Company and the magus; Bayaz, in his First Law trilogy, seemed very similar to Bomanz in name and appearance. The Corbie story ceased to have impact as due to the name I very quickly worked out that Corbie was in fact the former Black Company warrior Raven.

The setting for most of Croaker’s story before it converged on the other two was a desolate and magical plain. The White Rose and the Company had holed up there to combat the Lady. The plain itself was a great setting and very well imagined. It was the most magical thing I had seen in the series. It was sparsely populated with large flying creatures such as Windwhales and lightning shooting Mantas, on the ground were formations of land coral, walking trees and talking menhirs.

In the course of the narrative The White Rose and the Company come to realise that they and the Lady were battling the same enemy; the Lady’s former husband, the Dominator. Prior to them deciding to pool their resources the Company went up against the Lady’s most powerful weapons in the Taken. In the previous books I had always looked forward to the arrival of the Taken, because it usually meant that the odds would turn in the Company’s favour. In this book it meant the opposite. One-Eye and Goblin confessed that their skills really weren’t much above those of a carnival illusionist and that Silent was the only wizard they had who stood a chance against one of the Taken. Despite that One-Eye provided one of the most amusing moments when an over zealous city guard attempted to torture him.

We saw another side, a human side to the Lady when she and Croaker came to the realisation that the only way they could defeat the Dominator was to work together. Before this we’d never seen much of a system to the magic in Cook’s universe. It just worked without any explanation as to why. In the case of the Lady and the White Rose the magic seemed to be based around their true names. This isn’t new or revolutionary, but it was effectively done.

There was a definite ending to this sequence and this episode in the history of the Black Company, which is why it was issued in an omnibus. Overall I have to say I enjoyed it and will read more of their stories, but maybe not all in one go next time. The last story was at times a bit of a slog.

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