Hold onto your butts, y'all. This is a long one.
It was almost 10 years ago when a copy of The Black Company by Glen Cook was first pressed into my hands. It was from one of my first bosses, a really cool dude who was just as big a geek as I was. "You need to read this," he told me. "It's one of the best book's I've ever read." Unfortunately, I didn't take his word for it, nor did I appreciate what I'd been given. I read the first couple of pages, couldn't palate the writing, and gave it back. But that wasn't the last I'd seen of The Black Company. It reappeared nearly a decade later, this time at a large used book sale they have in town every year to benefit the local literacy association. Call it divine provenance. I recognized the cover from the first time I'd seen it, and said, what the hell? It's just a dollar. Let's give it a try again and see if the old boss was right. And boy was he.
The book tells the story of the titular Black Company, an elite mercenary band, the last of the Free Companies of Khatovar and some of the most feared and ruthless warriors ever to draw steel. They're taken into the employ of The Lady, an cruel and inhuman Wizardess bent upon total domination of the land, and with her they fight a seemingly endless war against the Rebel, the peasants that are constantly trying to overthrow the Lady's rule. They're the bad guys. They're sons of bitches. But they've got their own code of honor, of loyalty to the employer and to duty. And whenever she commands, they execute that duty with merciless efficiency.
Over the past few months I've also read the second and third books in the series, Shadows Linger and The White Rose. I spaced them out in order to prolong the enjoyment, but I could have read all three inside of a week. They're that good. Recently they've been reissued as an omnibus edition, so in order to save a little time and spare you gentle readers from any more nonsensecal author worship than necessary, I'll be issuing the review as if I'd read the new consolidated edition. Kill three birds with one stone, and all that. So with all that said, steel yourselves, folks. Giddy fanboy ravings shall commence in 3... 2... 1...
The Black Company is the best fantasy book I've ever read, hands down. Yeah, even better than The Lord of the Rings. I know I'll get a load of grief over that from some corners, but it's the truth. While Tolkein's work is classical melody, Cook's is a knife to the gut. His prose comes in sharp bursts that hold more meaning than you can absorb in one reading. Often times you have to go back and reread passages, sifting through the entrails to divine the true meaning like an oracle of old. I mean, just look at these opening lines.
"There were prodigies and portents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye's handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.
Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill. One bolt struck the bronze plaque sealing the tomb of the forvalaka, obliterating half the spell of confinement. It rained stones. Statues bled. Priests at several temples reported sacrificial victims without hearts or livers. One victim escaped after its bowels were opened and was not recaptured. At the Fork Barracks, where the Urban Cohorts were billeted, the image of Teux turned completely around. For nine evenings running, ten black vultures circled the Bastion. Then one evicted the eagle which lived atop the
. Astrologers refused readings, fearing for their lives. A mad soothsayer wandered the streets proclaiming the imminent end of the world. At the Bastion, the eagle not only departed, the ivy on the outer ramparts withered and gave way to a creeper which appeared black in all but the most intense sunlight. Paper Tower
But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect."
Cook jumps straight into the story. There's no holding the reader's hand, describing who characters are or what the various names mean or anything but the bare details of the setting. A good writer can craft an entire world with context clues short jabs of information and never have to halt in moving the story forward. Cook does it with masterful ease. As my literary tastes have matured, it's this kind of narrative I've come to enjoy most. It requires an engaged and insightful reader, but the prose is so artful and full of meaning and depth that it simply astounds me.
But there's another reason I dig these books. Because they're real. Yeah, they're fantasy--or dark fantasy, to be precise. They're not actually real, but the characters, the motivations, hell even the military operations described therein are very realistic. I suppose that makes sense, given that Cook was a military man in his youth. He has first hand knowledge of it. Many times in fantasy it's a black and white world, there are good guys and there are bad guys, and the good guys win out in the end. There are lofty themes of honor and sacrifice and all of that stuff, and to be sure there's some of that to be found in The Black Company series as well. But it's tempered with a kick-you-in-the-teeth cruelty, a realism about death and imperialism and the nature of warfare. That's what sets them apart from most of the high fantasy drivel you see most out there.
As I said before, The Black Company begins with the Company being taken into the employ of The Lady. She's the bad guy, the villain. But there's an even bigger villain lying asleep in the
, her former husband, a cruel and mighty wizard known as The Dominator. Compared to him The Lady is a girl scout. He doesn't factor too much into the first installment, but he does later in the later ones in a big way. Anyway, the events of the story take the company through multiple engagements. Warfare is described in stark and grim detail. There's raping and pillaging and death, and there's no good guy. Not really. One side is just about as bad as the other in their cruelty to their fellow man. And isn't that the way it is in reality, too? In war there are very rarely any good guys. The retelling of it as history is what makes the good guys and the bad guys, not the events themselves. Barrow Land
As the book progresses more details slowly come out about The Lady and The Dominator, and a story comes together about how the two of them were interred in the Barrowland by a peasant girl named the White Rose. She and her wizards and her army defeated them in battle 400 years ago and, while not strong enough to destroy them entirely, she was able to inter them in stasis beneath a great barrow. Fast forward several centuries when an enterprising wizard named Bomanz made contact with the lady, seeking the secrets to her power, and unwittingly let her escape to plague the world once more. But for Rebel there's still hope, the prophecy (what would any fantasy book be without a good prophecy to stir things up?) that the White Rose will be reincarnated and during the passage of the comet will mete out The Lady's doom. And it looks to be happening. The story wears on and The Lady's armies start getting the worst of it. Eventually they are forced to withdraw to her Castle at Charm, the Black Company among them, and wait as a great Rebel army masses at their gates.
Don't worry, there won't be any spoilers. And I'm going to refrain from telling you anything about the later installments, as that would spoil the events of the first book. But as you can see, the plot is a significant departure from the typical fantasy romp, if only because the protagonists are on the opposite side of the equation than where you'd usually see them. Just another point for Mr. Cook, if you ask me.
Overall he's authored more than fifty books, most of which were written when he was an assembly line worker at a GM auto plant. Thus it's even more astounding that he was able to put out such a brilliant body of work while holding down a day job. I've got 3 more of his books, not all of them from The Black Company series, but I'm very eager to read all of them. Of course, I'll probably do what I did with the last few and space them out over several months in order to prolong the euphoria.
As far as ratings go, was there ever any doubt as to what I was going to say? I know in my gut that it probably isn't a complete masterpiece on the level of Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath or anything else that's found its place in the literary establishment, but damn it, I loved it so much I can't not give The Chronicles of the Black Company the highest possible rating. And yeah, people with different tastes will have different reactions to the book. So what? That's always the way of it. You can call me a fanboy; you can call me a sucker, but it is what it is. Five stars.