Review: The Black Company

The Black Company
The Black Company by Glen Cook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took a while for me to adjust to The Black Company, and for a third of the novel I couldn’t figure out why it felt like a shoe on the wrong foot. Many of my favorite books are in the High Fantasy genre, as this is, and I am pretty familiar with Dark Fantasy, but this book kept running counter to my expectations. It was my lack of experience in the Military genre, coupled with the fact that The Black Company is a mercenary army that severed my familiar moorings. There is a change of focus and interaction with this mix of characters which separates it from other Fantasy. Each character’s past is discarded when they join the company. The folklore and mythology is not investigated and lovingly unspooled as you would find in books by Rothfuss, Lynch and Sanderson. These characters focus on the mission. They look forward only, but without an aim for the future, because they know they likely will not be part of it. The men of The Black Company do not fight for an ideal, god, revenge or other common motivation; they fight for honor, money and for each other. It is a bit like reading the Lord of the Rings from the point of view of one of the Uruk-hai or Riders of Rohan. This disconnection from the past and future feels untethered for Dark/High Fantasy, but the immediacy, once acclimated, makes for a unique experience.

The character who provides our point of view is a veteran soldier, Croaker, who serves as the company physician and annalist. I like that each character gets renamed as he joins the company, reborn as a brother in arms, but also in a world of magic true names are themselves a dangerous weapon. Some of the names are absurd, but always appropriate and often provide a bit of color to otherwise background characters. Croaker’s role as the annalist requires him to chronicle the deeds and death of each man of The Black Company in their annals. At times Croaker makes asides which would indicate that the book we are reading are the actual annals of The Black Company, but his description within the text of the annals’ content seems not to align, and would read too self-serving as this book is primarily about Croaker himself. Each reference which pierces the illusion to address the reader is jarring and unnecessary, but brief and infrequent. Croaker and his immediate band of veteran soldiers do get pulled into the politics and feuds of the rulers and wizards, but as pawns, only to return to the fraternity of their comrades. The Black Company is well written and well-paced with kinetic action and decipherable battlefield strategy that reminds us that the typically anonymous legions of soldiers are full of rich characters with full lives and motivations separate from the magical few who overturn these worlds.

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