THE BLACK COMPANY – Glen Cook (1984)

While the goofy 80ies cover by Keith Berdak to the left suggests otherwise, The Black Company hardly feels dated.

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.

Highly recommended.

In 2007 Tor published The Black Company together with the other titles that comprise the so-called “Books 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 Books of the North as Annals of the Black Company – confusingly also the title of a 2018 Tor e-book omnibus that comprises almost the entire series. There are 3 further paper omnibuses collecting nearly the full series.

Tor will also publish a standalone paperback of The Black Company in February 2022 in its ‘Tor Essentials’ series.

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.


34 responses to “THE BLACK COMPANY – Glen Cook (1984)

  1. Mass produced dumbed down and shitty SF/AFANTASY will glean the less educated. So will Harlequin Romance, True Crime. Most SF/FANTASY readers approach the text with pre-conceived notion that SF/FANTASY is not worth reading carefully and so don’t read carefully. Thereby missing the character detail which creates empathy in the reader. The interesting part is that it appears those who enjoy SF/FANTASY are guilty of the same bias as the snobby literary readers. Science Fiction was the catalyst that began my love affair with books. I was once told by an intellibully that I couldn’t possible understand the book I was reading. This was in fourth grade and I was reading Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Star Beast”. The challenge was accepted! Since that time, and because SF was blooming on TV and the movies I continued to read it and my imagination soared. Reading SF/FANTASY does not dumbs us down but even if SF/FANTASY itself were to dumb us down somehow, it also creates a need in a person for more information which in no way makes us stupid. Of course, as you so aptly put it, the problem nowadays is that most of the SF/FANTASY readers need to be spoon-fed…

    Wonderful review Bart. Made me want to read the all shebang!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes good points Manuel. Never bought the idea speculative fiction is inherently low brow either. The only thing I’m not sure about viz. the current state of the market is whether it is the readers rather than publishers, and whether there truly has occured some kind of shift. Pulp has always existed. I had a discussion about it recently, on Reenchamtent I think, and my hunch is pulp simply got better at disguising itself as serious fantasy/literature.

      It’s hard to compare I guess. Due to increased levels of literacy, cheaper printing methods, etc, the number of readers has increased, maybe that had an impact on the avarage level of intelligence of readership. (And cheap/easy word processing has increased the number of aspiring writers, and the page count as well, try handwriting/typing your debut 800 pages High Fantasy tome. )

      On the other hand, I don’t want to sound as an intellibully so it might just be an increase in laziness too rather than an average decline of intelligence. And laziness is nothing to be ashamed of either in these ratrace times that seem to burn so many people out. So I guess publishers today have found an audience of people with money to spare that just want to be entertained without much effort, and convinced them that they are reading Serious stuff because it of a few thinly veiled political characters.

      I don’t mind at all actually, if people are happy with their chosen forms of entertainment, more power to them, but it does get tiresome if I want to separate the wheat from the chaff when trying to determine what I want to read next. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find quality recent titles. I would love to review something from 2019 or 2020 or 2021 that’s actually really good, qualitative, sharp, original. Piranesi was good, DeLillo’s Zero K was 2016 already, Palmer’s Version control too. KRS’s latest was excellent and interesting, but it will be dated very fast. I’d just want some space opera on the level of Anathem you know? I’d even be extremely grateful for something like Banks’ Culture novels. It doesn’t need to be heavy, just original, solid prose, no plot holes, imaginative, without too much obvious MESSAGING that always takes me out of the story, and back into today. And the few books I’ve come across that seem to tick all these boxes simply don’t seem to attract me (Ada Palmer comes to mind).

      Anyhow, sorry for the rant, but I was just looking at my recent reviews and it’s all about older stuff, except for the non-fiction, and I don’t want to be a blog that focusses on older speculative fiction at all. A nice spread of decades has always been my goal, with a slightly bigger emphasis on the last 10 years, but alas. Oh well, there still is Greg Egan.

      Liked by 3 people

      • (I’m also still very upset that R.S. Bakker’s second book was so terrible qua prose/writing. I’m pretty sure the content of The Second Apocalypse is right up my ally, but I couldn’t get over it.)


        • It’s interesting that your reaction to Bakker’s prose is not exactly the norm. Many reviewers gush about his writing and even think it is great. There must be something about his style/approach that didn’t work for you. I had no problems with it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Main issue was the needless, endless repition in the 2nd book. Maybe not so much a prose problem as a structural flaw in the writing itself. I had no issue woth the first book, loved it.


      • 2I don’t mind at all actually, if people are happy with their chosen forms of entertainment, more power to them, but it does get tiresome if I want to separate the wheat from the chaff when trying to determine what I want to read next.”

        My thoughts exactly. My preferred medium was and always be SF but my God, what a chore it’s today trying to find something worthwhile to read! So much crap! And I don’t mean the Sturgeon kind…we’re way past the 90% mark he postulated back in the day. I’d say we’re in the 99.99% mark…

        And the same goes for some of reviews one reads on social media. Goodreads is essentially useless because of the infantile behavior that reigns supreme. Wading through reviews that seem written primarily by teenagers and often range from nonsensical to downright malicious is a waste of time and tells one nothing about the merit of a book.

        Today it’s a real pain finding a bookblogger worth reading…it’s always about the buzz of the latest instantiation of particular author and all of a sudden everyone starts gushing about it! Insufferable!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I do think there’s a lot of worth in Goodreads still, but it is all about following/friending the right people. I’ve found about 10 or so in the speculative fiction niche that write quality, critical reviews and whose taste at times align with mine. But indeed, it takes time to compare reviews. I tend to filter for 1 or 2 star reviews too, these often tell me more than the positive ones.

          With blogs, it’s mainly down to about 5 bloggers whose opinion I really pay attention too. I follow a bit more for social reasons, and/or to keep my finger on the pulse of the SF community.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review Bart, sounds very interesting indeed. I take it that you will continue the series? And thanks for linking to my article.

    I only know about this series as the great inspiration behind Erikson’s Malazan series. I’ll put this one on my list as well, for after finishing Erikson’s series. It would be fun to compare the two. I know that Ola said that Erikson’s inspiration from this series went quite deep.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am guessing the issue with the reader is that it published it at the date you started writing it.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the BC too. I am glad I read it AFTER Malazan though because otherwise I would have really ripped into Erikson for stealing so much.

    I finished my read through back in ’17 and probably by ’30 I’ll be ready for another run through 😀 I’m already looking forward to what I think of it upon a re-read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s the reason, but it’s strange because normally the default setting is “publish immediately” and then it takes the time/date from the moment you push the publish button, but somehow this time it retained the date I originally started writing it, Maybe this was because I published it on another computer than I originally started writing (other network even), but I have done so in the past without any problems, so no idea why it glitched this time.

      I used to copy/paste posts I worked on for a few days to a new post exactly to avoid this issue, but I stopped doing that because I noticed it didn’t happen anymore.

      Good to know you liked the full series and are eager for a reread. That’s heartening. As I hinted at in the comments above, I’m happy to have found a new series to really like, I’ve been a bit in a reading slump lately, not finding that much that thrills me, at least, not in fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, WP can act very weird for no reason sometimes 😦

        Go for the old stuff. Today’s SFF, for the most part, truly reflects the culture we live in and it’s as shallow and simple as it 😦

        Liked by 1 person

        • Not sure if there’s a true shift. Lots of culture has always been shallow and simple.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I do wonder if the increase of ease in writing and publishing has something to do with it.
            As much as I sometimes rail against gatekeepers, they kept a LOT of the junk that should never have seen the light of day from seeing that day.
            Now, with self-pub’ing and places like Amazon taking advantage of that delusional state of mind by those reject writers, that trickle that used to get through is now a flood.

            But even WITH publishers, just go read Ola’s latest post to see what is being put out. It’s downright depressing….

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes agreed, increase in ease of writing/publishing is an important factor. Still, there was a large amount of pulp in the past too. As I wrote above, I think pulp just got better at disguising itself, and its readers are self-delusional and think they are reading Great Important Literature. Part of that may be a change in culture, since we began to tell every child that all opinions are equal.

              Then again, I wouldn’t want to go back to the times when elites thought their opinion was better just based on their birthright either.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. A love letter to Black Company! I’m very happy to see you enjoyed it so much, Bart! 😀
    It has its ups and downs, as any series, but overall it never disappoints. It’s very much spot on as a military lit, not just mil fantasy; some fantasy tropes will be shed, and other elements of worldbuilding will become quite realistic soon enough, bringing to mind Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia – and India, too ;). Also, there will be a bit of SF thrown in the mix, in Zelazny’s Lord of Light style, and damn, Cook is good – he really pulls it off. But you are right: all these fantasy/SF accoutrements are just this: props, and they never become the main thing – Black Company is a series about war and people in it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Very good to read all of that, again, heartening, like I wrote in my reply to Bookstooge. Interesting it won’t fully remain fantasy and sheds tropes. Makes me even more curious.

      Did you read everything? The short stories as well? I’m guessing publication order is the way to go?

      And thanks for recommending the BC, I wouldn’t have bought the book if it weren’t for you.

      Liked by 2 people

      • You’re very welcome! I’m happy I can spread the love for the BC 😊

        I’ve read the whole series up to Soldiers Live and maybe one or two stories. I know there is a 2018 sequel called Port of Shadows but I kinda refused to read it 😅 – you can check a few reviews to make up your mind but I just felt I don’t need any sequels or prequels; to me BC feels complete at Soldiers Live, which offers a fantastic bittersweet conclusion.

        I have the Tor omnibus edition in soft covers; pretty nice, actually. Looking forward to your next reviews!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I received email notification of your review. I’m not sure if this means it also appeared in the reader. Best wishes, Anthony

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been aware of Glen Cook’s works for some time now, thanks to my fellow bloggers, but until now I have not had the opportunity to fit them into my overflowing TBR, but your description of the story and its overall “mood” seems to indicate that they might feel close enough to Joe Abercrombie’s style to turn them into a favorite read very easily…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Aonghus Fallon

    Vietnam on Peyote sort of sums it up. And I reckon how much you like the sequence would very much depend on how you feel about this particular combination. I only ever read the short stories (which I enjoyed) but could have done with a stronger sense of place.

    The generic fantasy novel has been a staple for as long as I can remember (I blame LOTR) but has never really impacted on me as I happen to dislike Epic Fantasy. I guess this means 85% of fantasy is an unknown quantity for me*? I can live with that.

    * if not that unknown, given – as Jeroen points out – Epic Fantasy’s reliance on well-worn tropes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess Cook focuses more on plot and what happens to the characters rather than place. I see what you mean, and I agree to a certain extent, but the lack of world building is also what makes this refreshing.

      As for generic fantasy being around forever, sure, but I have the feeling there’s simply more of it due to cheaper publishing costs, etc. But I could mistaken. Would be an interesting topic for PhD research.


  8. Aonghus Fallon

    I guess self-publishing is a factor? And maybe the popularity of the films? Historically, RPG played a huge role in making certain authors household names (e.g. Fritz Leiber).

    A friend of mine said she got very tired of having nerds tell her The Lord of the Rings was the best book they’d ever read when she reckoned it was the only book they’d ever read. An exaggeration? Sure – but it does seem like Tolkien fans are happy to read endless – and increasingly threadbare – iterations of LOTR, so much so that what they see as startlingly original is really little more than a minute variation of the same basic formula.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Self-publishing too, and cheap computer word processing. Imagine writing/editing 500 by hand or on a typewriter. The computer made sure also non-die hards or fools could start writing. And apparently there’s money in what they write for the publishers.

      Your friend is spot on. It’s like on certain online groups were Dune fans only read and reread everything in that world by Frank and Brian, and think it is all genius.

      It’s all the more puzzling because these people are readers at heart, so why not branch out a bit. I’d understand it if they wouldn’t read, and happened to read Dune or LOTR just once, coincindetally.

      I liked LOTR as a concept a lot, a feast of imagination, etc. But as an experience the movies did a better job to excite.


  9. Aonghus Fallon

    I preferred the movies – certainly the first one. I think the fact that Jackson was a Kiwi (as opposed to English or American) helped, as he brought a fresh perspective to the material.

    And yeah – just like you say – these people are often voracious readers, so why fixate on one particular book?

    Liked by 1 person

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