And so we near the end of our months-long march through the ten books of Glen Cook’s groundbreaking Black Company series. While best remembered as one of the first military fantasy series, one important takeaway is that it’s not that at all. Yes, the Black Company, the last Free Company of Khatovar, is the main “character” of the books, but the tale told is filled with so much more than just war. War is always on the horizon, just a chapter or two away, but Cook’s 3,500-page saga gives us the Company in times of peace and times of flight. He shows how it grows, evolves, and mutates into something different but still the same, bound by four-and-a-half centuries of tradition. Its soldiers possess an intense fealty to the Company as the thing that sets them apart from the world in which they can find no other place.
The title for Soldiers Live (2000) comes from a cryptic statement made to Sleepy in Water Sleeps by the stroke-incapacitated One-Eye: “Soldiers live. And wonder why.” Sleepy interprets it as the question every soldier asks each time they survive a battle but comrades are laid low by swords and arrows. It became her mantra, taking the place of the larger question she asked of herself in the last pages of Water Sleeps.
For now, I just rest. And indulge myself in writing, in remembering the fallen, in considering the strange twists life takes, in considering what plan God must have if the good are condemned to die young while the wicked prosper, if righteous men can commit deep evil while bad men demonstrate unexpected streaks of humanity.
Soldiers live. And wonder why.
Four years have passed, and the Company is safer than it has ever been. Using one of the Shadowgates on the Plain of Glittering Stone, Sleepy led the Company beyond the reach of Soulcatcher and Mogaba and into another world. Despite the sanctuary it’s found, the Company is a changed thing. Goblin died fighting Kina, One-Eye is increasingly weakened by a series of strokes, and Croaker, Lady, and Murgen haven’t fully recovered from the effects of being trapped in stasis for fifteen years. Willow Swan is balding and the remains of his flowing blond locks are gray. Still, there is peace and, in a nice touch, Croaker has again taken up the Annalist’s pen. It’s through his jaundiced vision the final chapter of this epic will be seen.
Four years passed and no one died. Not of violence or hazard of the calling, anyway. Otto and Hagop did pass on within days of each other, of natural causes associated with aging, last year. A few weeks ago one Tam Duc, recruit in training, perished of the overconfident exuberance of youth. He fell into a crevasse while he and his lance brothers were riding their blankets down the long slick slope of the Tien Myuen glacier. There were a few others. But not a one by an unfriendly hand.
Four years has to be a record, though not the sort often recalled in these Annals.
That much peace is impossible to believe.
Peace that prolonged becomes increasingly seductive.
Many of us are old and tired and retain no youthful fire in the belly. But us old farts are not in charge anymore. And though we were prepared to forget horror, horror was not as accommodating toward us.
In those days the Company was in service to its own name. We recognized no master. We counted the warlords of Hsien as our allies. They feared us. We were supernatural, many recalled from the dead, the ultimate Stone Soldiers. They dreaded the chance that we might take sides in their squabbles over the bones of Hsien, that once-mighty empire the Nyueng Bao recall as the Land of Unknown Shadows.
This time of rest and rebuilding is coming to an end. Secure in the Land of Unknown Shadows, Sleepy is rebuilding the Company for its return to the homeworld to destroy Soulcatcher and deliver vengeance on Mogaba. Thousands of new recruits have been drawn to the black banner and inducted and trained in the Company’s many ways. Murgen’s son Tobo, taught by One-Eye and Lady, has grown into a powerful wizard, able to commune with and secure the aid of the Unknown Shadows, ghostly things that inhabit the land of Hsien. Whether they will be able to defeat their longtime nemesis is uncertain, but whatever happens there will be blood by the gallons.
Before the Company sets out to take its leave, another old enemy, Lisa Bowalk, makes a terrible reappearance. She first ran afoul of the Company thirty-five years earlier in Shadows Linger, a murderer who ended up imprisoned by the Taken Shifter. He taught her how to shapeshift into a were-panther, but when Shifter was killed by One-Eye, Bowalk was trapped in that form. She finally catches up to the Company in Hsien and kills One-Eye.
Croaker knows that Sleepy will not be deterred from her plan to destroy Soulcatcher, so he and other Old Crew soldiers set off on their own mission to kill Lisa Bowalk. So as the main body of the Company begins the journey home, Croaker follows One-Eye’s murderer into the world of Khatovar. What he finds there is definitely not the homecoming he’d dreamt of and struggled for for decades, but it does provide another infusion of new blood into the Company.
The first half of Soldiers Live ends with Sleepy and the revived Black Company marching north from the Plain of Glittering Stone towards Taglios. Soulcatcher and her scattered southern forces are trekking towards the Company. The Kina-possessed Daughter of Night (Croaker’s and Lady’s daughter) is loosed, and now protected by a dark servant of Kina inhabiting the body of Goblin. Back in Taglios Mogaba, contemplating his past sins as well as the increasing instability of Soulcatcher, prepares a rebellion to overthrow her.
Soldiers Live so far, though tantalizingly close, is not shaping up to be the great finale I was hoping for. Like Bleak Seasons and She Is the Darkness, there is too much going on. Even at five hundred pages (making it one of Cook’s longest works), as the page count to the absolute end of the series ticks up there’s a cramped feeling as myriad plots and character arcs are wound down. Fortunately, Cook is much more in control of things here than in those two earlier books. I just wish there was little less going on or a few more pages.
I’ll leave it there. The first 250 pages are essentially setup for the final inferno that seems bound to consume the Black Company, its enemies, and all of Taglios in its flames. I remember enough that I can say the end is stunning, but I am anxious to see how the actual writing holds up and how well it really works as a conclusion to such a mammoth series.
Catch up on all the past Black Company reviews at the links below.
The Black Company (1984)
Shadows Linger (1984)
The White Rose (1985)
The Silver Spike (1989)
Dreams of Steel (1990)
Bleak Seasons (1996)
She Is the Darkness (1997) Part 1
She is the Darkness (1997) Part 2
Water Sleeps (1999) Part 1
Water Sleeps (1999) Part 2
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.