Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Black Company: Glen Cook

The Black Company is the first book in a fantasy series by Glen Cook. Per Wikipedia...
The series follows an elite mercenary unit, The Black Company, last of the Free Companies of Khatovar, through roughly forty years of its approximately four hundred-year history. Cook mixes fantasy with military fiction in gritty, down-to-earth portrayals of the Company‘s chief personalities and its struggles.
The saga spans nine novels, plus one spin-off novel. The Black Company has a code, and although the company is hired out to whatever contractor can pay, once hired, they do not switch allegiances lightly. At the beginning of the first book, they are in a contract with the Syndic of Beryl, and continued association with him may mean the end of the company. The Syndic has been offered an alliance with the Lady, a very powerful wizard, but has refused. The Black Company then agrees to serve the Lady, who commands 10 lesser (but still very scary) wizards with varying powers. The rest of the book follows the Black Company as they fight for the Lady, and begin to wonder if the new situation is any better than before.

My thoughts on the book:

The first couple of chapters I was lost. There was a lot of fighting and a lot of talking and I did not know what was going on. The reader is immediately immersed in the world of the Black Company with little background provided. Through those two chapters dribs and drabs of some background are supplied, but I was still confused. In the end I decided that this element is related to the way that Cook builds his world. He doesn't use a lot of expository text to lead up the main story, but just throws you in there and lets you get it by osmosis, through actions and conversation in a way that seems normal, and doesn't break up the pacing of the story. I am assuming in subsequent books this isn't an issue.

What kept me reading? I found the story to be very well written and I began to get to know some of the characters. The narrator of the story is Croaker. He is the physician and the archivist of the Black Company. The history of the group is important to those who fight for it.

This is military fantasy. I have enjoyed military science fiction (which I find surprising), but I never really thought about military fantasy. The Black Company series is often cited as one of the first examples of "grimdark" fantasy, a forerunner to later examples such as novels by Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, or George R.R. Martin.

Others disagree. I don't know enough about the fantasy genre or its subgenres and I haven't read anything by the authors listed above. Grimdark fantasy appears to be an area where the definition is hotly debated. I found the topic so intriguing that I spent a good amount of time researching the definitions and the arguments for and against grimdark as a fantasy sub-genre.

This book is grim and it is dark, and I assume that the other novels in the series have these same characteristics. But there is not much graphic violence, and especially compared to contemporary grimdardk novels.  Yes, the main characters in this novel may be flawed, and they may be fighting battles for evil masters, but it is their good characteristics that shine through. They are concerned with the moral ambiguities of their actions. They are loyal to each other, and they are a family.

The Characters:

There are several aspects of this book that I loved. I loved Glen Cook's writing style, including the first person narration by Croaker, and the dry humor. Also very high on the list are the characters.

Croaker is the most important. The story is told as if this is the annals of the company as written by Croaker. This sounds like it would be very dry, but the story telling is very informal, as you expect with someone who doesn't have much time to write what has occurred, in between doctoring the wounded and the ill, and taking part in some of the missions. The Captain, the leader of the company, is not one of the more prominent characters, but he is important and you can sense that he feels a strong connection to all of the men under his command, yet knows that his responsibility is to make the best decisions for the company as a whole. One Eye is one of the minor wizards within the company; another is Silent, who may be my second favorite character after Croaker. He does not talk but Croaker often extracts advice and information from him by the strange method of communication they have. Raven is a new member of the company, who doesn't always fit in. He brings in a young girl, Darling, also mute, who was orphaned as the result of a battle; she becomes very important to the saga of the company.

So, all and all, I enjoyed the book and will continue the series. I have read and reviewed a fantasy / detective novel by Glen Cook, Sweet Silver Blues, the first book in the Garrett, P.I. series. That one was fine but I liked this one better.

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Publisher:   Tor, 1984. 
Length:       319 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       The Black Company, #1
Genre:        Fantasy
Source:      Borrowed this book from my son.

18 comments:

  1. I have to admit, Tracy; this is out of my usual 'comfort zone.' I'm not one to reach for a fantasy novel, much less a military fantasy. But a well-written story is a well-written story. And well-drawn characters are well-drawn characters. I'm glad you thought this was worth the read.

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    1. Reading Fantasy is fairly new to me, Margot. I must have started reading the occasional fantasy book about ten years ago. And I don't think I have read other military fantasy. I wasn't sure I would like it but it worked for me.

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  2. I have several of THE BLACK COMPANY books. After your fine review, I'll have to start reading them. I have read the fantasy detective novels by Glen Cook. They're a lot of fun.

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    1. Thanks, George, and I hope you enjoy books in THE BLACK COMPANY series. I plan to continue on both series.

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  3. Like Margot, I'm not a big fantasy reader but am open to giving it a shot. -Keishon

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    1. Unlike most mystery novels, Keishon, I cannot always depend on liking a fantasy novel. Usually I get recommendations from my son or book reviews, but still sometimes they are just not for me. But I have enjoyed enough of them to keep sampling books from fantasy authors.

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  4. I envy your eclectic tastes in reading, Tracy. I've never been able to catch the fantasy fever myself. You make this sound interesting, tho, and I agree that good writing can overcome many obstacles.

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    1. Ah but you read more in nonfiction and "literary" fiction than I do, Mathew. For some reason I usually stay in genre fiction, although I would prefer to think of it all as literary fiction.

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    2. I agree with your preference, Tracy. It's only what I call the "pecksniff gatekeepers" who make such literary distinctions.

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    3. You have quite a way with words, Mathew.

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  5. Okay, I'm intrigued, Tracy. Adding this to my TBR list. Sometimes with these kinds of stories, I do get lost and give up the struggle early on. But I'll stay with this one because it sounds mighty good. We'll see. :)

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    1. I do hope you enjoy the story if you give it a try, Yvette. I am looking forward to trying the next one to see how it compares.

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  6. I remember being interested in your previous review of one of his books, but this one doesn't sound like my thing. Still thinking about the other one...

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    1. Someday I will read and review the second in the Garrett, P.I. series. But I am so far behind in reviews, who knows when that will be... although I do tend to review the fantasy books faster. Rambling here. I do think he is a good author, but fantasy isn't for everyone.

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  7. Glad you enjoyed it Tracy, but not a genre I'm drawn to.

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    1. I understand, Col, there are elements of fantasy that I resist, for instance trolls don't do anything for me. But I readying a Zombie detective series right now, and enjoying it.

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  8. Tracy, I often fail to grasp fantasy and science fiction stories and novels and I find that very frustrating. There have been times when I have read such books through and understood little. The satisfaction lies in having read it! This fantasy series sounds unusual and it's probably better to start with the first novel.

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    1. Prashant, I read my first book in Terry Pratchett's Disc World series a few months ago (and still haven't reviewed it). It was confusing to me a lot of the time, but in the end it was worth. Fantasy especially can be difficult for me.

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