The Black Company series by Glen Cook

Werthead

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The Black Company

The Black Company is an elite mercenary force whose history goes back centuries. Last of the Free Companies of Khatovar, the Black Company fights for coin, but is also a proud army that is its own master. Accepting the commission of the Northern Empire and its ruler, the ruthless Lady, the Company soon finds itself fighting a war against an oppressed populace struggling to be free...but the leaders of the rebellion seem every bit as ruthless and amoral as the Lady and her senior sorcerer-warriors - the Taken - are. Evil battles evil, a continent bleeds and through it all the Black Company struggles to survive.

Glen Cook's Black Company books are widely regarded as being amongst the most influential and important epic fantasy novels ever written. Steven Erikson cites them as the primary influence on his Malazan series, whilst George R.R. Martin is a fan. A dozen years before Martin made 'grimdark' cool, Cook was already writing adult stories about wars, soldiers and the causes they fight and die for, with no elves in sight and no punches pulled.

Published in 1984, The Black Company is an object lesson in how to write a large-scale epic fantasy and execute it with razor-sharp focus and nuanced characterisation, and to do so in a relatively modest page count. More happens in The Black Company's 300-odd pages than in many entire trilogies. Empires rise and fall, battles that make the Pelennor look like a playground scrap are fought and all is seen from the point of view of a single medic and historian, who is all to often drawn in to become part of the events he is trying to dispassionately record.

The book is episodic, with each (very long) chapter relating a different incident during the war. As the Lady's empire battles the Rebel, so the different Taken feud amongst themselves and the Black Company are caught up in one of the exchanges (but don't exactly get much gratitude for taking sides), giving the conflict an air of complexity and extremely conflicted morals. This is emphasised by the addition to the Company of its first native northern soldier, Raven, who has his own agenda. Given that we are with the POV of Croaker, the medic, for the entire novel, Cook achieves an impressive depth of characterisation of the other principals. Other well-developed characters include the old, feuding mages One-Eye and Goblin, Raven and his mute ward, Darling, and the Taken Soulcatcher, who may be a servant of darkness but even he needs to unwind and chew the fat from time to time.

The prose is clipped and efficient, though some criticise it for being blunt. Cook skips descriptors in some sentences, or uses a soldier-style shorthand designed to transmit information with maximum efficiency and conciseness on the battlefield. It can be a little odd at first, but once you get into the author's headspace it becomes second nature, and a marvellously effective way of telling a large, epic story in a constrained space.

Problems? The absence of a map makes the geography of the war (which is critical to the plot) sometimes a little confusing. With one exception, we really don't get to know anyone on the side of the Rebel, making them a somewhat faceless and uninteresting foe. Cook also prefers to avoid exposition, starting in media res and pausing for explanations only rarely. However, unlike Erikson (who employs a similar device at the start of the Malazan sequence) Cook's story is actually pretty straightforward, and by the end of the novel the reader should have pieced together everything pretty nicely.

The Black Company (****½) is a novel brimming with verve, confidence and attitude. As fresh and readable today as when it was published a quarter-century ago, it's a stellar opening to the Black Company series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Chronicles of the Black Company omnibus (along with its immediate sequels, Shadows Linger and The White Rose).
 
I read the books many years ago and endorse the review. If there's a new omnibus edition out, I'll get it and read them again.
 
There is a pair of omnibuses (isn't omnibus itself a plural?), I think.

I remember being irked because Amazon doesn't (or didn't) sell the third book singly. Reminds me, actually, I've been meaning to get it from Abebooks.
 
I like Glen Cook very much. His books are all good reads. I'm more inclined to read his Garrett, private eye books. This is a matter of taste, as his Black Company books and his Instrumentalities of the Night are darker. He also wrote some Dread Kingdom books that are very dark.

Through all his books, his characters are vivid and lifelike.
 
There are four omnibuses collecting the ten novels. The first has both UK and US editions, the latter three are only available in US editions, but are easily available on Amazon UK:

CHRONICLES OF THE BLACK COMPANY: Books 1-3
THE BOOKS OF THE SOUTH: Books 4-6
THE RETURN OF THE BLACK COMPANY: Books 7-8
THE MANY DEATHS OF THE BLACK COMPANY: Books 9-10

Cook has plans for two more BLACK COMPANY novels set years later, though my understanding is that the series ends reasonably well at Book 10.


Shadows Linger

Six years after the mighty Battle at Charm, the Lady's Northern Empire has expanded further than ever before, carrying the Black Company into the distant lands of the east. However, orders come that will drive the Black Company on a march of thousands of miles to the far north-west, to the city of Juniper were mighty forces will clash as the result of the activities of one dirt-poor innkeeper.

Shadows Linger is the second novel in The Black Company sequence and comes as a bit of a surprise for readers expecting more of the same. The Black Company was a vast war epic, huge in scope. Shadows Linger feels a lot smaller in scale and more intimate, with the bulk of the action taking place in the single city of Juniper and focusing on the troubled life of the innkeeper Marron Shed. This division of focus - between Juniper and the Black Company as they cross an entire continent to get there - requires Cook to adjust his POV structure from the first volume. Whilst the bulk of the action continues to be relayed by Croaker, annalist and physician of the Black Company, we also get third-person POV chapters focusing on Shed. Later it is revealed that Shed recounted his adventures in detail to Croaker, explaining how this structure works.

Cook is at home with the small-scale story as he is with the larger, and he is able to inject real fear and tension into the mundane storyline of Shed's debt worries. As the story continues, we realise how Shed's apparently irrelevant concerns are related to the bigger picture, and once the Black Company reaches Juniper we snap back to a larger, more epic story with far-reaching consequences for the characters (several major characters don't make it to the end of this one).

The story itself unfolds relentlessly, with superb pacing as we flick between Shed's activities, Croaker's narration and the third-hand reports of the Black Company's march on Juniper. There are also hints of genuinely weird and fantastical ideas here, such as the bizarre landscape of the Plain of Fear (which features much more strongly in the third volume) and the black castles which grow from seeds (which Erikson clearly cribbed for the Azath Houses in the Malazan sequence). There's a feeling of constant invention as Cook deploys weird and wonderful ideas and combines them with the more traditional military fantasy shenanigans he has set in motion.

Complaints are few. The timeline feels a little shaky (in order for it to work, Croaker has to spend months and months in Juniper, which doesn't feel the case in the book) but this is not particularly a major problem. A few characters established as major players in the book seem to end their story arcs with damp squibs or rather off-hand deaths, but this may be part of Cook's intended effect - not everyone is a hero and some people do just expire unexpectedly in undramatic fashion. There's also much more of an obvious cliffhanger for the third book, but given that the third book has been out for decades and is combined with the first two in omnibus editions, that's not particularly problematic either.

Shadows Linger (****½) is more than a worthy follow-up to The Black Company. It's a fast-paced, addictive read which sees Cook not resting on his laurels and trying some new approaches and ideas, and succeeding well. The novel is available as part of the Chronicles of the Black Company omnibus in the UK and USA.
 
The White Rose



The Black Company - or rather the handful of its survivors - has broken ranks with the armies of the Lady and sworn its allegiance to the White Rose, who is prophecised to bring the Lady down. But the Lady's armies have besieged the Plains of Fear, hemming the Company and their allies in. As the threat draws in, Croaker, annalist of the Company, receives anonymous messages relating how the wizard Bomanz awoke the Lady and the Taken in the first place. As events unfold, it becomes clear that the Lady's husband, the evil Dominator, is planning his own return to the world, a prospect that cows even the Lady, and that the growing war will soon develop a third side.

The White Rose concludes the original Black Company trilogy, wrapping up story and character arcs begun back in The Black Company and continued in Shadows Linger. Based on those two books, the reader might go into this novel expecting a massive magical conflageration and battles of mythic proportions. Again, Cook blindsides the reader by crafting something far less predictable and much, much weirder.

Much of the book takes place on the Plains of Fear, an area warped into what can only be called surrealness by the presence of a god manifesting as a tree. Talking, teleporting menhirs warn of strangers on the plain, whilst flying manta rays and immense windwhales pass overhead. These chapters are more akin to the New Weird than anything in the epic fantasy canon, and keeps things fresh and offbeat. After this sequence the story moves to the Barrowland, the prison of the evil Dominator, where an unlikely alliance of convenience must be struck in order to ensure the Dominator's destruction.

The White Rose is certainly not the ending that I think anyone was expecting, but this is a good thing. Scenes where the apparently evil, amoral Taken and their mistress show their doubts and fears in the face of the threats of both the White Rose and the Dominator show an impressive degree of characterisation. Cook also reveals the backstory of the wizard Bomanz which shows that history has been rather unkind to him, and sets the warped version of history that Croaker and his friends are familiar with straight. Cook's succinct but still memorable prose and typical mastery of pace drives the story to a conclusion that it is expectation-defyingly small in scale, but nevertheless logical.

The White Rose is the third book of ten (so far) in the Black Company series, so obviously there is more story to come, but Cook brings things to a solid conclusion and the book has no cliffhanger for future books, making it an ideal pausing point for those not wishing to plough through the whole series in one go.

The White Rose (****½) shows Cook defying expectations once more and delivering a morally complex, atypical epic fantasy that is compelling to read. It is available in the UK and USA now as part of the Chronicles of the Black Company omnibus.
 
i read the first three books (CHRONICLES OF THE BLACK COMPANY) and i loved them than i got the second collection THE BOOKS OF THE SOUTH and for some reason i can't get into it as much as the first three books am i the only one that is having that problem?
 
Shadow Games

The wars in the north have come to an end. The threat of the Dominator has been eradicated, and the remnants of the Black Company are setting out for their ancestral homeland of Khatovar. Unexpectedly joined by their former ally and enemy, the Lady, they strike out across the Sea of Torments and across the vast southern continent. But their return has been foretold and the Prince of Taglios convinces the Black Company to join his war against the enigmatic Shadowmasters, an alliance that will have long-lasting consequences for the Company and its members.

Shadow Games is the fourth book in the Black Company series and marks the opening of a fresh chapter in the history of the mercenary army. Much of the plot baggage from the first three book is jettisoned as new characters, factions and locations are introduced. Some things stay the same, such as Croaker's ongoing first-person narration, but broadly speaking this is the series moving into fresh pastures.

It's a move that is mostly successful. The book covers an enormous amount of ground, combining the Black Company's mammoth journey (of about 7,000 miles according to one estimate) with political machinations in Taglios and military action as the Shadowmasters attempt to invade Taglian territory. It's as busy a book as its predecessors but Cook's mastery of pace wins out as normal, delivering a terrifically entertaining, page-turning read.

It's only towards the end of the book that the first notable problems appear. For the first time Cook seems to have run out of space to tell his story, resulting in a cliffhanger ending and a 'shocking' revelation being made in the final pages. How successful these moves are will vary for each reader (and, given the fact that the book is commonly now published in omnibus, not a huge problem), but it does feel a shame that the book lacks the feel of being a complete novel but also standing as part of a larger tapestry that the first three volumes enjoyed.

Beyond that, Shadow Games (****) is a fine epic fantasy novel and a worthy continuation of the series. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Books of the South omnibus.

Dreams of Steel

The Black Company and its Taglian allies have fought a great battle against the Shadowmasters at Dejagore. Whilst much of the Shadowmaster army was destroyed, the allies also suffered grievous losses and most of their army was forced to retreat into the city, where it now stands siege. Trapped outside and with Croaker missing, Lady is forced to assume command of the routed Taglian forces, attempt to regroup them and forge a new army strong enough to relieve Dejagore, but finds that politics and religious machinations amongst her own troops are as much a threat as the plotting of the enemy.

Dreams of Steel marks a notable change in the Black Company books. For the first time, Croaker is dropped as the primary POV in favour of Lady, who now serves as the main POV character, narrator and 'annalist', recording events for posterity. This shift in structure and approach is successful, with Cook employing a character who is far less prone to moralising than Croaker (it serves to remember that Lady was, more or less, the main bad guy in the original trilogy, and has only repented up to a point) and is still fully capable of using incredibly ruthless and bloody means to achieve her goals.

The book adopts a multi-pronged approach to the plot, with Cook alternating between Lady's endeavours, the situation with the Shadowmasters (who are, refreshingly, a foe of limited resources who themselves are in a bady way following the events of the previous novel), political events in the Taglian capital and the emergence of a third faction who delights in playing everyone off against each other whilst they sneak around in the background. This approach is successful in getting across the full weight of the story but also serves to slow the pace down. Compared to the first four books, which covered thousands of miles, numerous battles and some interesting character and plot developments in relatively modest page counts, not a huge amount actually happens in this book. For the first time, it feels that Cook is falling prey to the curse of the long epic fantasy series, namely the slowing of the pace and the easing off the throttle for more introspective books that may be interesting, but not as energetic as earlier books in the series.

Cook is enough of a good writer to overcome this problem with some solid battle scenes, an amusingly straightforward answer to politicking and some interesting characterisation, particularly of Lady as she realises how she has been changed by her time with the Black Company. However, returning readers may start to feel a little wearied when, once again, an old enemy assumed dead books ago unexpectedly returns to play a role in events.

Dreams of Steel (***½) is an enjoyable novel, but the shine of the Black Company series is starting to wear off at this point, with the first signs of it falling prey to some of the limitations of the subgenre. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Books of the South omnibus.

The Silver Spike

The Black Company has departed into the far south, taking Lady with them. For Darling, Raven, Case and the other outcasts from the Company, their future is uncertain. But when an enterprising band of treasure hunters steals the Silver Spike, within which lies imprisoned the undying essence of the Dominator, the world is again thrown into jeopardy and the heroes of the northern wars are called back into service.

The Silver Spike is a novel set in the Black Company universe, though not part of the main series. It's instead a 'sidequel', picking up after the events of the third novel in the series but taking a different group of characters off in another direction and following their adventures.

It's an interesting book, and I suspect one of the more contentious in the series. On the one hand, it's Cook on form, delivering an epic story of clashing forces ranging over vast distances but contained in a single volume. On the other, it's probably one of the starkest and most cynical books I've ever read in the epic fantasy subgenre.

In the earlier books in the series (published in the 1980s before this kind of thing became par for the course) Cook overthrew a lot of the conventions of the subgenre. The good guys sometimes did evil things and the bad guys sometimes showed compassion or mercy. The principal villain of the first three books is a hero (or at least a protagonist) in the next two. There was a high degree of cynicism, but also the apparent presence of hope .

The Silver Spike has little truck with that. There are masses of death and destruction, conveyed in a wearying tone that is at times genuinely depressing. The costly victories of our 'heroes' in the first trilogy are revealed to be brief as new villains (albeit of lesser magnitude) arise to replace the ones defeated first time around. One of the antagonists in this volume and (SPOILER WARNING!) one who gets away scott-free at the end is a murderous paedophile (apparently Cook's angry commentary that sometimes the worst people prosper). Those who do put their lives on the line to save the world end up fading into obscurity in a backwater, uncelebrated and unremembered.

It's a dark and grim novel that is not a happy read, for all of Cook's excellent writing skills. It's the epic fantasy equivalent of one of those 'difficult' albums that you listen to for the technical accomplishment or emotional power but you wouldn't in a million years put on at parties. It's an angry, harsh and raw book.

Characterisation is pretty good, with the 'antihero' cast of thieves and adventurers well-drawn, for all their nauseating habits. Raven is a bit more one-note than in previous books, but Case (our part-time first-person POV character for this volume) develops into a more complex, interesting character, as does Darling. There is a degree of repetition in the volume that regular series readers might find a tad predictable (Darling's use of the weird creatures from the Plain of Fear as her own personal army, yet again) but otherwise Cook's reliable powers of characterisation and plot development are in full force.

The Silver Spike (****) is a dark, grim and at times rather nihilistic read, but one that remains engrossing thanks to the author's writing skills. It may leave you wanting to read something more upbeat afterwards, though. The book is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Books of the South omnibus.
 
Brian - How would you compare them to the Malazan series? I have only read the first two in that series and got bored, I couldn't attatch myself to a character as there were too many, and too many unexplained things happening.
 
Well, I'm not Brian, but I'll render an opinion on your question, biodroid...
I've read many Black Company, mostly borrowed, long since lost track of which I have or haven't read, or where the Order went to. Love 'em. They stand well enough alone as individual paperbacks.

I took The Bonehunters as an accidental delivery from SFBC. I really wanted to like it, as deliciously similar to Black Company; but I got lost in a ridiculous number of disparate story threads, which showed no signs of eventual reconciliation, and never finished it.

I see now that Bonehunters was somewhere in the middle of the Bazzillogy and it may have helped had I started at the beginning.

Except... but... If the frontispiece is a four page "Dramatis Personae," in fine print, my eyes start to glaze over, anyway.

Personally, I just haven't time or inclination to invest in too many characters doing too many different things, and I like a story to wrap up somewhere short of volume xxx, sometime next decade.

I guess I'm saying that Cook is easily accessible and one had better prepared to develop a serious, long-term relationship with Erikson
 
Brian - How would you compare them to the Malazan series? I have only read the first two in that series and got bored, I couldn't attatch myself to a character as there were too many, and too many unexplained things happening.

Basically, if you took Whiskey Jack's subplot from the first Malazan book, kept only with that POV, and put a lot more fighting and character into it, you would have Black Company.

And at 260 pages, the first Black Company book is a lot more pacey as well.
 

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