Or maybe scrap that, as it is the first book in a long standing dark fantasy series – 10 novels, some short stories, a spin-off – that has only 217 pages. Only two hundred seventeen, indeed.
It features none of the things most publishers demand of fantasy in the 21st century: no impressionistic descriptions of exotic fragrances of herbs & spices on the local market, no 400 pages of set-up for the next book to sell. In short: this is the real deal, not some streamlined version of what generic fantasy has become.
More so, The Black Company is seminal, if we have to believe Steven ‘Mazalan’ Erikson: “With the Black Company series Glen Cook single-handedly changed the face 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 cliché archetypes of princes, kings, and evil sorcerers. Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote.”
Cook’s series is also often described as a precursor to grimdark – even if violence doesn’t take center stage in this first book. What takes center stage is plot: Cook wrote a fast paced story about a group of mercenaries involved in a continent-wide battle.
But characters aren’t unimportant either – this indeed is the story of a band of brothers, and while there isn’t that much psychological depth at display in this first book, I suspect that I will end up caring a lot about these men by the time the series is finished – even if most of them probably will be dead by then.
I think it’s a fallacy to equate a lack of obvious psychological depth to characters being trivial sideshows. Somehow, Cook managed to make me feel one of the boys already after 60 pages, and that proves his skill as a writer. Not that the book is just a bromantic boyish male testosterone fest: Cook shows such a keen insight in certain aspects of life during wartime that it should appeal to any sex. There’s enough depth to the book to make it surpass pulp easily.
One needs to play close attention though. While this is not of the same complexity as Mazalan, there is no spoonfeeding either. The narrator knows his world, his fictional audience knows his world too, and as this is a naturalistic story the result is that nothing is explained. The reader has to be sharp enough to fit the pieces together. Most negative reviews I read boiled down to: “this was too difficult for me, I didn’t get it” which translates too: “I didn’t feel like paying attention”, since this book is not about rocket science and perfectly clear if you put in some effort. The fact that Cook takes his readers serious is a welcome diversion from so much recent speculative fiction whose redundant glossaries only serve to signal that its world building tries to be on the same intricate level as Dune. No maps either, by the way.
Another selling point was the magic: none of the overwrought systems like Sanderson, but just wizards being able to do cool stuff just because. Thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening indeed. While published in the 1980s, this aspect of the novel felt very fresh somehow: an author not trying to come up with some bullshit convoluted rules to justify handwavium, but instead an author just letting his imagination run where it takes him, invoking awe and good old fashioned fun at the same time. This is not entertainment disguised as something serious, The Black Company is something serious that’s also entertaining.
Serious? Yes, about its outlook on life, the Black Company having experienced enough battles and bloodshed to realize there is no naive right and wrong in this world, only perspective. And while most of the main characters do have a moral code, they realize its subjectivity, and they realize justice does not exists as something that will befall all. Applied nihilism maybe, but not the cheap cynicism some make it out to be, as these characters do care about stuff, and do question themselves.
Cook’s series is popular among veterans, because of its supposed realistic portrayal of warfare and the soldiers partaking in it. I don’t think there’s a better seal of approval possible for military fiction. And indeed, this book feels authentic almost instantly, without embellishment or the need to prove some point other than the realism of war. That’s also why this is ultimately not grimdark: most battles happen off the page, most gore does too. The book is not about ‘grim’, but about characters confronted with what’s grim as a job, on a daily basis.
A few small points of critique.
Cook doesn’t manage to convey the size of the Black Company well. A mercenary army of over 1000 members at one point, it feels much smaller since he focuses on Croaker – the medic and annalist, and his surroundings, some officers and a few wizards. Not a big complaint, not even a nuisance, just something a bit unclear, something that could have been a bit more tight conceptually. I’m guessing that will be somewhat remedied throughout the series.
There are also two small instances in the story – one concerning wizards being secret in an overtly magical world, and the other about characters that should know better given the mind-reading powers of the Lady – that don’t fully add up, but again, nothing that amounts to a serious breach of credibility or something that unhinges the logic of the plot.
An final remark deals with the ‘ontology’ of the text. Cook writes it as if we are reading the Annals of the Company, written by the protagonist/narrator. But it doesn’t seem to be true to form throughout the text. There seem to be parts which would not be part of such Annals, but simply are a regular personal auctorial point of view. Again, this is a minor issue, and again, it could have been conceptually more tight. Then again, the way Cook did it makes for smooth, snappy reading, and this hybrid mode suits the story well. I’d even say hardly any reader would mind or even notice – only those with some years with literary science at uni under their belt, like yours truly.
Cook wrote 7 chapters that all can stand by themselves, a sequence of short stories so you will, with the same protagonists, generally fast paced. This makes for a great reading experience, each day reading a chapter that feels finished yet begs to read on to advance the exiting bigger story arc. And while the ending – victory, and the identity reveal of a prophetic character – doesn’t come as a surprise, the way we get there is full of unexpected twists and turns.
A deserved classic, and I would not be surprised if I end up reading the full series.
In 2007 Tor published The Black Company together with the other titles that comprise the so-called “Book of the North” – 1984’s Shadows Linger and 1985’s The White Rose – as Chronicles of the Black Company. These first three books form one story arc. After its 700 pages there’s an endpoint if you don’t want to commit to the full series. In 1986 both Nelson Doubleday & the Science Fiction Book Club published hardcover editions of The Book of the North as Annals of the Black Company – confusingly also the title of a 2018 Tor ebook omnibus that comprises almost the entire series. There are 3 further paper omnibuses collecting most of the other titles as well.
Tor will also publish a standalone paperback of The Black Company in February 2022 in its ‘Tor Essentials’ series.