Alchemical Words reviews the epic military fantasy, The Black Company by Glen Cook
I decided to expand my fantasy books reading list reading, including fantasy books that I might not normally choose. I’ve spent hours scouring the net for lists of Top 10 Fantasy Books, Top 25 Fantasy Books, Best Fantasy Books of All Time… You get the idea. I’m sure a lot of you have done similar searches in the past or, who knows, you may be searching for a new read right now.
One series of books that seems to pop up on almost everyone’s list is the Black Company books by Glen Cook. I checked on BestFantasyBooks.com and they currently list The Black Company at #6 with a reader’s rank of #19. They comment:
“A big divergence between my ranking and the readers. The book style is a bit different than what you might expect if you are weaned on Wheel of Time sort of fiction…”
So feeling brave, I plunged in. This story is bit different? Seriously guys? These books are vastly, incomprehensibly different. That is not saying they are bad, better, worse than say, Jordan’s Wheel of Time series but they are very, very different – to the point of being apples and oranges.
Synopsis of The Black Company
Some feel the Lady, newly risen from centuries in thrall, stands between humankind and evil. Some feel she is evil itself. The hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must, burying their doubts with their dead. Until the prophesy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more. There must be a way for the Black Company to find her… So begins one of the greatest fantasy epics of our age—Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company
If I’m going to completely honest, I would have to say that I both loved and hated this book at the same time. I loved the story of a band of mercenaries who prided themselves on their loyalty and dedication to completing their contract – even if they ended up being betrayed by their employer. They just complete the contract -one way or another – then get their revenge for the betrayal, which seems to happen with every job. That was refreshing. I’m so used to reading about amoral mercenaries that trade sides with the winds of chance, going with the highest bidder. I suppose this is a variation of the “hooker with a heart of gold” or some such trope but Cook does it well.
I started this book wanting to love it, after all, I had read so many good reviews and if I’m going to plunk done my own hard earned cash, I want to get my money’s worth or at east not be disappointed. I found many of the characters to be interesting, especially “The Lady” and “Raven”. Flawed, conflicted, yet moral in their own perverse way. The cadre wizards, One Eye and Goblin were an amusing comic relief, often unreliable, but there when the chips were down. Croaker’s chaste/erotic infatuation with “The Lady” is well done and offers a lot of insight into Croaker’s character as well as setting the stage for the subsequent volumes of the series.
With the exception of Soulcatcher and Limper, I found the pantheon of “The Ten Who Were Taken” to be unfortunately underdeveloped characters, especially the character of Shapeshifter, who pops up in subsequent books. For me, having a better understanding of his character would have gone a long way in helping me to understand why, after being portrayed as a classic loner, he later takes on lover/apprentice Lisa Bowalk.
I think part of the problem with this book is not the story but how Cook chose to write it. The Black Company is written in first person through the eyes of Croaker, the Company’s physician and resident historian. It is a limited point of view that doesn’t allow for the kind of secondary character development I’m used to seeing. For me, it is the secondary characters that add the flavor, the texture, the spice, the grit, the little something extra that makes a good story great.
In contrast, much of A Game of Thrones is written in a particular character’s POV but George R. R. Martin switches the POV around from chapter to chapter so that the reader gets the full flavor of the cast. In the Wheel of Time books, Jordan devotes chapters to each of the main character’s point of view, giving better rounded character development and a more complete view of the world. In my humble opinion, The Black Company would have benefited from a similar approach. It would have given the reader a firmer foundation, better character development and a better developed magic system.
The other part of my problem with this book is that it drops the reader into the story in medias res in a very big way. Cook doesn’t dedicate a lot of words to the kind of world building I’m used to seeing. You’re dropped into the middle of a mercenary encampment in an unfamiliar world and things immediately start happening – well before you’ve even begun to have a feel for who the characters are and how they relate to one another. I found myself having to backtrack, searching for the answers to basic questions like: Now, who is this character? Where did they come from? Why are they doing that?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I never want to be spoon-fed by an author… ever. But since I’m being honest, I’d have to say it took me fully ¾ of the book to finally feel like my feet were only somewhat on the ground. That lack of an anchor into the Black Company world almost made me close the book and set it aside. I hate reading a book where I still feel lost at page 300. But, if I’m going to pay money for a book, I’m sure as heck going to read the whole thing – even if it is a slogfest.
I’ve thought about this book for weeks before deciding to write this review, hoping that I could sort out how I felt about it. However, even now, the best I can say is that I loved it and hated it. I didn’t really relate well to Croaker as the narrator but Cook does switch this up in later volumes. The story and the characters are fascinating but the way the story is told missed the mark with me.
Overall, I’m giving The Black Company a 3.5 out of 5.0