Ever wonder what it’d be like to work for Sauron? Or Voldemort? Or just about any other big-bad in fantasy literature?
To be honest, it was a question I hadn’t pondered until THE BLACK COMPANY cunningly brought it up. Glen Cook’s fantasy exodus is narrated from the vantage point of Croaker, the historian of the mercenary group known the world over as the Black Company. For 400 years the company has moved from employer to employer, doing deeds and moving on. When their latest employer, a malignant ruler of the empire in the north who is known simply as the Lady, hires the Black Company to help her win her war against a rebel uprising, the spirited sell-swords are dragged into a terrible conflict.
And, as it turns out, it proves to be a thrilling journey that is quickly paced, deviously plotted, and left me desperate for more.
There’s so much to love about the Black Company. Maybe it’s Croaker, the historian and physician, who hasn’t quite lost his own spark of goodness. Not that the rest of the company has either, since the novel makes clear that good people can still do terrible things. Or maybe it’s the brilliantly written, stunningly executed antagonist known as the Lady. Sometimes mocking, sometimes cruel, but always brilliant—the Lady is a treatment on villains done exceptionally well. Perhaps it’s the web of strategy, betrayals, and subversion that the Company finds itself caught in amongst the Lady’s most ancient and dangerous servants, the Taken?
Add to that the tried and true story of the Rebel fighting against the oppressors, but this time add in the horrors and realities of war, and the result is borderline magnificent. Reality is an omnipresent theme of the first novel in the omnibus set called the Chronicles of the Black Company. Croaker and the rest of the Company don’t read like the stereotypical military unit that is portrayed in other books and movies. Rather, it’s a band of outcasts who join together to try and create their own bizarre family while doing the work demanded of them to get paid.
Make no mistake, the Black Company isn’t an easy read. In fact, it can be challenging because of the ideas it proposes and the grisly scenes it presents. But Croaker’s central tenet that the Company often picks the lesser of two evils and that morality is inherently subjective sets the stage expertly for the showdown between the imperial forces of the Lady and revolutionary army thrown together by the Rebel. Is either force really any better than the other? Is there a breaking point where the money doesn’t outweigh the values of morality?
In several ways, The Black Company is a book that proposes questions but hardly bothers to answer any of them. In the end, Cook leaves us with a haunting scene. A pyrrhic victory.
In a sense, the first book in the Chronicles proves to be something of an initiation rite for readers. By going through this haunting experience with characters that feel less imaginary and more real, Glen Cook does an amazing job of establishing his world and making its merits, successes, and losses all the more poignant.