Aaaargh why has it taken me so long to read this book?!!? It’s so good! THE BLACK COMPANY is the story of an elite mercenary unit called, well…The Black Company, and mostly follows a small squad through the narration of the Company’s physician and Annalist, Croaker. The majority of the book follows them on campaign in the Northern Empire, fighting in the employ of the wizard Soulcatcher, working on behalf of an immensely powerful sorceress known as the Lady. Soulcatcher is one of a group of wizards called The Ten Who Were Taken, historically the most powerful servants of an even more powerful overlord who established an empire known for its unparalleled capacity for evil, called The Domination, which was overthrown in a rebellion led by The White Rose. For centuries, The Dominator, the Lady and the Ten Who Were Taken were imprisoned in the Barrowland, before being unintentionally released by the wizard Bomanz – all except the Dominator himself, who was betrayed by the Lady and left imprisoned while the Lady herself resurrects the empire and fights the second rebellion led by the Circle of Eighteen.
What makes this book so compelling is the fact that the Company isn’t fighting on the side of the uprising against the evil empire, they’re actually employed by them to crush the rebellion. But had they been approached and paid for by The Circle, would just as readily have fought on that side of the war. The morality of the company is questionable at best, and we see this very early on in the first chapter, which is possibly my favourite part of the book. We’re introduced to them in the middle of a contract to the Syndic of Beryl, a city racked by political instability and military unrest, a situation made worse by the murderous rampage of a creature know as a forvalaka, which is running amok through the city, causing untold panic and fear. The forvalaka is a formidable adversary though and the Captain readily accepts the new contract offered by Soulcatcher by, shall we say…exploiting a loophole that the contract comes to an end should their employer no longer be alive to employ them. Some of the Company might feel uneasy about this kind of behaviour sure, but ultimately these are the kinds of men we’re dealing with here. At the same time though, they’re capable of doing good things, like rescuing a young girl and old man from the attentions of a rampaging army unit in the aftermath of the sacking of a small town. It can sometimes sound trite these days to talk about complicated or morally grey characters but it feels very natural in The Black Company and the characters are people living day to day, sometimes doing contradictory things that display contradictory values at different times and in different situations. It’s something I think about from time to time when asking myself if a character in a particular story would really have done such-and-such a thing in such-and-such a situation and sometime the answer won’t always be the same. Cos people have values, but people are also complicated and contradictory and don’t always hold to those values 100% of the time.
I really want to read more about Glen Cook and how his experience as a soldier in Vietnam shaped this story, cos the camaraderie between the soldiers feels real in a way I’ve not seen in a fantasy book before. And I think that’s what makes this book what it is; there’s all this complicated factional politicking, strategising and conspiracy going on at the political level between the Taken and The Circle of Eighteen (and amongst each of the Taken themselves) but a lot of the story really hones in on the camaraderie, bickering and comradeship between the Company mercenaries and their petty side vendettas with other military outfits. So we get to see Elmo ribbing One-Eye cos he can’t win at cards without cheating and One-Eye starting playful and entertaining wizard duels with Goblin in between campaigns to distract them from the ever-present looming threat of death. And they’re always making glib jokes about how they might be dead soon and laying claim to personal items if their friend is killed. I’ve got no military experience myself, but from what I’ve gathered these books were very popular among serving soldiers and veterans who recognised the authenticity of the banter and gallows humour the soldiers of The Black Company employed.
If what you crave in your fantasy is a deep examination of the politics and social forces that drive the conflict then you’re not going to get that here. At most we get an overview of the history of the Lady and The Ten Who Were Taken and we know the rebels see them as evil incarnate and have taken up arms against them. Usually I love to see all that politics and economy and other social forces stuff examined in as much granular detail as possible, I fucking love it, but it worked really well in the context of this story to only be concerned with the broad strokes. Cos it’s a story about a company of soldiers who have a job to do and it’s not their job to be concerned with the whys and hows, or even if they’re on ‘the right side’, if such a thing even exists. In fact Croaker becomes increasingly concerned over the course of the story that the Lady is actually a piece of shit and her victory would be a pretty terrible thing, but it never stops him doing his job and staying steadfastly committed to the sacred bond he has with his brothers-in-arms in the day to day missions they undertake. I used to be very heavily involved in the movement against the invasion of Iraq and met a few soldiers in that time who came home and started campaigning against it themselves, and the way they spoke about their experience sounds very similar to Croaker. They had serious misgivings, but they had a job to do and would never contemplate behaving in a way that would let their comrades down in the midst of it all.
I’m not overly familiar with military fantasy so I can’t say for sure if this is military fantasy, but it definitely felt like it to me. The Company is a military unit after all, and they’re less concerned with politics than with doing the job they’re damn good at doing. It’s fairly light for most of the book, there’s a fair bit mentioned about troop movements and supply lines and terrain and stuff, and it weaves naturally into the story, though there is a bit of a lengthy section towards the end where Cook talks a lot about the defences of a stronghold in a way that didn’t hold my attention all as much, but it still made sense as part of the story and fit very well, so that’s just the limits of my own personal taste for that kind of thing.
All told, I really enjoyed The Black Company. In particular I liked the fact the Company has a history that’s chronicled by a Company historian, or Annalist and we’re basically getting to see a brief snippet of that history as recorded by the current Annalist in Croaker. From what I’ve read of the meta-plot of the series, as a whole it spans a roughly 40 year period in the 400 year history of the Company so I’m curious to see if Croaker will be the Annalist for this whole period and what role the Company goes on to play in the war between the Empire and the White Rose rebellion. Really great book man, I foresee a rather rapid series binge in my near future.
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