The Black Company by Glen Cook
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s amazing how well military and fantasy seemed to mesh in this story. The Black Company is an elite mercenary unit that holds two values sacred: Committing fully to any commission they take on, and watching out for their fellow members, their brothers in the unit. This unit consists of hardened fighting men, some of whom happen to be wizards, and our narrator, Croaker, who is the annalist (records the history of the unit) and the doctor of the unit.
The world they live in is plagued by war between the Rebels and those who serve the Lady. After leaving their present commission for a minor potentate in Beryl (a dead end that could have ended up with them all dead had they not found a way to ‘honorably’ terminate their employment), they take a commission with one of the twelve extremely scary Taken (a cabal of undead wizards who serve the Lady), an androgynous figure called Soulcatcher. Soulcatcher has the tendency to speak in various voices, male and female, sometimes at the same time. The Company knows there is something not right about Soulcatcher. Soulcatcher is probably evil. But for the Black Company, they don’t look at morals that way. Their greatest ethical commitment is to put in a good day’s work for their present employer. The problem is this job is going to take them into really nasty places, and cause some of the men of the Black Company to reevaluate their morals for serving their questionable employer, particularly Croaker.
The writing style in this story appealed to me, with a brisk narrative that managed to convey exactly what I needed to know. The humor is subtle, and the depiction of violence is done very well—not excessively gory, but clearly expressing the ugly nature of war. As I mentioned above, the fantasy elements went hand and hand with this military adventure. The use of magic was a weapon used by both sides in the military conflict. The wizards in the Company were quite the characters, often having competitive showdowns with each other that were great comic relief.
I appreciated the time spent to bring the characters to life. Although these are guys who work for pretty much anyone who can pay for them, I felt that they were honorable men in their own way. Croaker was a good narrative choice, because he was a seasoned soldier who had seen a lot, and pondered what he experiences in a way that brings the reader right into the narrative, along for the ride. He’d been in the business too long to be morally righteous in the traditional sense; but there were things that he and the guys in his unit definitely wouldn’t stand for. Croaker would be one of the first to admit that most of his brothers sit at various points on the evil spectrum. But there is evil, and there is worse evil, as they soon come to find out. The problem is trying to figure out which side is worse.
Another standout character in this story was Raven. He was, well, scary, but tremendously fascinating. A man who joins their unit shortly after they take on the commission with Soulcatcher, he is driven initially by revenge. A formidable killer who scares even the hardened men of the unit, but with a sense of honor that causes him to intervene when another group of soldiers murder a village of children, and gang-rape a nine year old girl. That girl and her grandfather essentially become part of the unit, and Raven becomes like a surrogate dad to the little girl called Darling. This unlikely adoption of a mute little girl and her grandfather adds to the rag-tag family atmosphere of the Company, as they all end up becoming fond of the girl and her grandfather.
Shades of gray. This story is definitely about that spectrum between black and white. It touches on the fact that war is more often the means through which figures in power work out their political squabbles, and less about doing the ‘right thing’ or righting wrongs. And the puppets of their war are working men, getting paid to fight their battles. That doesn’t erase their individual responsibilities for the wrongs they do, and they carry those burdens in the ways they can best manage. But at some point, one has to wonder when it’s time to walk way, to save what’s left of one’s own soul. That’s what Croaker struggles with.
I like that fantasy can go to these places that I wouldn’t necessarily explore out of the fiction setting. The military life is not one I would choose for myself. However, I respect those in the military a lot. Like any profession, a soldier has his own set of ethics and rules, and the good and the bad that goes along with his job. Cook illustrated the inns and outs of military campaigns very well here, the grueling days and nights, and how war isn’t always some crazy, dramatic battle. Sometimes it’s about the long waiting, the even longer marches, and the deprivation when supplies are down, losing men faster than they can be saved, and digging in while the Company is surrounded by the enemy. And everyone has their part to play in the conflict, even if it’s just cannon fodder (sadly enough).
I’m on a roll. I’ve liked most of the epic fantasy I’ve read so far. But this one stands out with its military esthetic, which was done very well. I read this story out of an omnibus collection of The Chronicles of the Black Company, and I’m glad I went ahead and bought it because I want to read more of the Black Company’s adventures.
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