Pros: Amazing story! Great viewpoint. Neat characters
Cons: Writing feels a little rough
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 7/23/2002
You can always tell when I take a vacation — suddenly I’m reading (and thus reviewing) a bunch of books, some of which are (gasp!) fiction! “The Black Company” follows a certain honorable mercenary company with a very long tradition. Right out of the starting gate we see them having trouble with that honor — they have to choose between an ineffectual, annoying boss who is obviously going to lose, or a potentially very powerful new employer.
They choose the new employer, and come to regret it several times over. Their new employer is mysterious, and they eventually come to know him (her?) as SoulCatcher, one of the mysterious “Ten Who Were Taken,” wizards who once served two ancient and powerful figures: the Dominator and his Lady. Some idiot resurrected them all (except the Dominator), and now they’re trying to take over the North. They’re meeting a lot of resistance, though. But is that resistance what it seems? Or is it something else entirely?
The story is told by Croaker, the Annalist of the Black Company. This is an epic tale told not by the heros nor the villains, but rather the guys in the trenches — the army hired by one side to help it win. It’s a very interesting perspective. It means that both sides are mysterious, largely unfathomable. It’s harder to tell what’s going on and who’s doing what to whom. You’re never quite sure who is really what they seem, and who isn’t.
So, who is the Lady? Who is her enemy? Who is the reincarnated legendary White Rose, who brought the Dominator down the first time? Who is SoulCatcher? Why does the Lady take an interest in Croaker, anyway? And what consequences does that have? Sorry, I’m not here to tell you how the book comes out. It’s an amazing thing, and you’ll just have to see for yourself!
I have a feeling that it’s blasphemy to say this, but the writing isn’t perfect. There’s a whole lot of raw talent here, but it is just that — a bit raw. To give an example, there’s a point early on where Glen Cook switches from narrating the action to saying that a certain event has passed off-screen. And I had to stop and double- and triple-check that he’d really done that. It seemed like he’d just said, “oh, and this really bad thing happened, but it isn’t important right now.” Very confusing.
He also props up his dialogue with a lot of unnecessary stuff. It seems like everyone squeaks, rumbles, and whispers their way through conversations, and it gets tiring after a while. The writing does smooth out the further in the book you go, though. And it isn’t a major distraction. Certainly it’s more than worth reading through in order to explore the amazing story that these mercenaries take part in. Now I have to go hunt down the rest of the books in the series; I need to know what happens next!
The characters really come alive, even the ones wrapped up in hoods who don’t speak much. The world is fascinating, and unexpected in many ways. The book subverts many of the expectations of the epic fantasy genre, thanks to its unusual narrator. Be warned — these soldiers are not nice people, despite a certain standard of honor. They do terrible things sometimes, as do those around them. This is not a sweet, white-washed little fantasy.
So go read it already!