No one will sing songs in our memory. We are the last of the Free Companies of Khatovar. Our traditions and memories live only in these Annals. We are our only mourners.
It is the Company against the world. Thus it has been and ever will be.
from The Black Company
You never know, when you pick up a book, the impact it will have on your life. In 1984, my friend Carl tossed me a copy of The Black Company (1984), a book I’d end up rereading half a dozen times over the next thirty-five years. It turned out to be the first book in what eventually grew into a ten book series (eleven actually, as the first new Black Company book in eighteen years, Port of Shadows, is to be published in September) and one of my favorite works of epic fantasy. Several of Cook’s other books are better written, better plotted, and more cohesive than The Black Company, but none of them has left as indelible a mark on me as this one.
The setup of the novel is this: a mercenary company unknowingly signs on to the service of Sauron’s wife the Lady, a great and powerful sorceress. Her empire has risen up in rebellion against her and her minions, the Nazgul Taken. Assassinations, intrigue between world-shaking sorcerers, and massive battles unfurl in a world notable mostly for its corruption, constant deceit, and an assumption that nothing ever really goes right. Never an especially good bunch of guys, by the book’s end, several important members of the company have grasped the awfulness of their employer and have started to have second thoughts about remaining in her pay. That may not sound original in 2018, but back in 1984, villains as protagonists was mind-blowing.
The novel is presented as a volume from the annals of the Black Company, a notorious band of sell-swords, as written by the company’s annalist and surgeon, Croaker. Not a senior officer, but not a grunt either, he serves as the perfect narrator of the book’s calamitous and epic events. He’s rarely in on the plotting out of the Company’s next missions, but he’s usually in a position to participate in the more important aspects of them.
There’s a sizable epic fantasy-sized cast in The Black Company, but by focusing so intently on a single character, Croaker, the story’s told on a very human scale. Croaker’s primary concerns, as a member of the company and as its doctor, are for the lives of his brothers-in-arms, more than for the concerns of empire. Through him we get a feel for the most prominent of the company’s soldiers and wizards. We see huge events from the perspective of someone effected by them but without any significant control over them. This is not a book about the destinies of kings and princes or heroes and wizards, but men who carry spears, grumble about bad rations, and worry about paying off their debts from losing at cards.
We first meet the Black Company, best known for using subterfuge and guerrilla tactics, during its service to the Syndic of Beryl, a city on the southern shores of the Sea of Torments. Between the murder of some of its men by the jealous leaders of the city’s regular forces and having to suppress the constant riots in the slums, the Company is feeling beaten down and worn out. Salvation of a sort arrives in the form of an evil-looking ship.
A breeze startled me. I faced the harbor. A ship was rounding the Island, a great lumbering beast that dwarfed the dhows and feluccas. A silver skull bulged in the center of its full-bellied black sail. That skull’s red eyes glowed. Fires flickered behind its broken teeth. A glittering silver band encircled the skull.
It has brought a legate from the great empire on the north side of the sea, seeking an alliance with Beryl. The city balks at the prospect, leaving the imperial agent to find another means of securing the city’s aid.
Mutineers accidentally release a were-leopard from its magical imprisonment, and it ravages the Black Company when they try to kill it. This disaster leads the Company to leave the Syndic’s employ and enter that of the Empire. They immediately turn on Beryl, killing its soldiers in their barracks before boarding the ship and heading north.
It is only then they realize that the legate is the sorcerer Soulcatcher, one of the Ten Who Were Taken, the greatest servants of the ancient evil lord, the Dominator, and his queen, the Lady. Centuries ago they were defeated in a rebellion led by a general named the White Rose and imprisoned in a great system of magical bonds. Eventually, the Lady escaped, resurrected the Taken, and reestablished her empire. Now she needs soldiers to put down another uprising. The Black Company soon finds itself a pawn of powers beyond their imagining and at as much risk of losing their souls as their lives.
So what’s it like rereading The Black Company? In a word, great. While it often feels more like a series of connected short stories (in fact, Chapter 3 appeared originally as the story “Raker” in F&SF), there’s tremendous momentum to the book, with each chapter upping the stakes and events, magical and martial. Cook knows how to do huge, and get you there without useless detours and wasted pages. By the end of the book hundreds of thousands of rebels are storming the Lady’s fortress, a five hundred-foot-high tower of black basalt surrounded by a mile-wide perimeter of slag.
Cook gets a lot of grief for his supposedly flat, almost barren style and lack of description. There’s absolutely a terseness to his writing, but that’s a large part of what gives his work its speed and immediacy. A lot of fantasy, particularly epic fantasy, is overly fond of endless descriptions of each rock, tree, meal, even every tidbit of history. Cook keeps all that stuff to a minimum. Instead of pages of interminable description, Cook gives you no more than what you need, to know what’s going on and where, without detracting from the business at hand.
There’s some clunkiness to parts of the book. Some of the writing, especially in the chapter connecting the brutal opening events in Beryl and the hunt for the rebel general, Raker, is a little sloppy. Nonetheless, if not poetry, there are plenty of times Cook’s prose, well, cooks. Here are the first few paragraphs from the first chapter.
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 Paper Tower.
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.
But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect.
We should have been better prepared. We did have four modestly accomplished wizards to stand sentinel against predatory tomorrows — though never by any means as sophisticated as divining through sheeps’ entrails.
Still, the best augurs are those who divine from portents of the past. They compile phenomenal records.
Beryl totters perpetually, ready to stumble over a precipice into chaos. The Queen of the Jewel Cities was old and decadent and mad, filled with the stench of degeneracy and moral dryrot. Only a fool would be surprised by anything found creeping its streets at night.
Right there, from the very start, there’s a wryness to Croaker’s style exposing him as more than a little cynical. The world he lives in is old and corrupt and the future appears to hold only chaos and doom. It grabbed me thirty-five years ago and it grabbed me with the same strength last week. I was really looking forward to rereading this series, but as it got closer I started to get a little worried; what if I found they stunk? Well, it doesn’t and I’m excited I’ve started this.
Something I didn’t think about much in previous readings of The Black Company is how much the company itself is the main character. We learn it’s been in existence for several centuries, the nationalities and ethnic composition changing as it’s migrated from the distant south to Beryl, but its codes and history remain constant and essential to its identity. Whatever names they had in their old lives, most are now known by titles, like the Captain and the Lieutenant, or attributes, like the wizards One-Eye and Goblin. Whatever or whomever they were in those past lives, they are now bound to the Company and each other. Like the Hollywood version of the French Foreign Legion, the Black Company is a place where men come to lose their pasts and find a new family, one where they truly have each other’s back.
Reconnecting with the soldiers of the Black Company was one of the best parts of coming back to this book. Cook knows just how much he needs to tell you about his characters and how much he needs to show them in action to make them memorable. They are characters who’ve remained etched in my mind for decades now. I was thrilled to find Croaker remains the secret romantic no matter how thick a layer of cyncism he tries to weave around himself. Raven’s a badass and cool as he always was. The thaumaturgical fights between Goblin and One-Eye remain funny:
Soon One-Eye was dozing again. It’s a trick you learn after enough weary miles on horseback. A bird settled on his shoulder. He snorted, swatted…. The bird left a huge, fetid purple deposit. One-Eye howled. He threw things. He shredded his jerkin getting it off.
Again we laughed. And Goblin looked as innocent as a virgin. One-Eye scowled and growled but did not catch on.
He got a glimmer when we crested a hill and beheld a band of monkey-sized pygmies busily kissing an idol reminiscent of a horse’s behind. Every pygmy was a miniature One-Eye.
The little wizard turned a hideous look on Goblin. Goblin responded with an innocent, don’t look at me shrug.
“Point to Goblin,” I judged.
I’m quite happy to report that The Black Company remains exciting and vital today. Cook knows how to walk the line between darkness and light. Yes, the precedents for much of what’s come to be called grimdark were laid out here, and that’s a subgenre I’ve been a little hard on at times. There is plenty of amorality and even evil on display here. There’s also lots of good, even if it needs to be backed by a sword much of the time. I find a lot of the “gray and gray morality” in some modern fantasy feels false and forced. Not here. Instead it feels real, not like a pose to show how transgressive the author is. It shook me when I was eighteen, stripping away the romanticism that was almost demanded of epic fantasy in the past. Reading it at fifty-one, it’s still shocking in parts, but I also recognize the humanity, both strengths and weaknesses, of Cook’s characters, a thing I find lacking in much of the work descended directly from The Black Company.
Yeah, I love The Black Company and have already started the next book, Shadows Linger. After the commando raids and monstrous battles of the first book, it’s practically a noir story (something Cook would explore later in a few of the novels about the private investigator, Garrett). If you’re a regular here, I’d be shocked if you hadn’t read at least the original trilogy at least once. If, for some absolutely-unfathomable-still-scratching-my-head reason you haven’t, do so.
If you don’t take my word for it, here’s what Steve Erikson, one of the best of Cook’s literary heirs, had to say about these books:
The thing about Glen Cook is that he single-handedly changed the field of fantasy — something a lot of people didn’t notice and maybe still don’t. He brought the story down to a human level, dispensing with the clichés and archetypes of princes, kings, and evil sorcerers. Reading his stuff was like reading Viet Nam war fiction on peyote.
That’s about as a cool endorsement of the books imaginable. Trust him, trust me, but read The Black Company.
Fletcher Vredenburgh reviews here at Black Gate most Tuesday mornings and at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him. Right now, he’s writing about nothing in particular, but he might be writing about swords & sorcery again any day now.