Book Review: The White Rose

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The final installment in Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company which are also known by the moniker ‘The Books of the North’ in the greater chronology of his Black Company series, The White Rose is very much unlike any finale that I’ve read to date. I shouldn’t be surprised because, if you’ve read my reviews of the previous novels The Black Company and Shadows Linger, then it’s obvious by now that Glen Cook knows how to weave a unique tale that simultaneously embraces and eschews the fantasy norms.

The White Rose resumes about four years after the conclusion of Shadows Linger and the ragged dregs of the Black Company have retreated to the Plain of Fear, a wild region of the world where windwhales and change storms sweep the coral-covered desert. After suffering the Black Company’s betrayal at Juniper, the Lady is tightening the noose around them on the Plain. Darling, the girl around whom magic ceases to work, is plotting the downfall of the Lady and her northern Empire when a familiar shadow casts itself across the north: the Dominator.

One of my few issues with this book is that the story comes dangerously close to be an almost exact retread of the plot from the second book. In The White Rose, our protagonists and antagonists find themselves at odds with one another but must band together, setting aside their personal differences temporarily, in order to subdue the greater evil. What The White Rose boasts that Shadows Linger never managed to accomplished, and luckily elevates it therein, is a more mythic feel that arises from the fantastic locations in which it is set. The Plain of Fear and the Barrowlands, bought lively and monstrous in their own ways, are so integral to the plot of the novel that they almost become their own characters respectively.

Another great feat is the continued humanization of the Lady. Cook, through Croaker, really takes to task the notion of good and evil. Through the Lady, readers are asked to consider the idea that people can do terrible things in the pursuit of a higher goal and, therefore, not necessarily be evil. The Lady has massacred hundreds of thousands in her effort to maintain power and, just as willingly, sacrifices even more to secure the world from the return of her malevolent husband. Darling is another unique break from the status quo because she projects a null, a field in which magic can’t work. Therefore, any lasting resolution to the question of the Lady and the Dominator will almost certainly involve her specifically for practical, if not prophetic, reasons.

Cook lines up the many displaced pieces of his story to tell the story of what must be done for the greater good, even if the resolution is far from whatever happy ending readers might feel entitled do. In essence, The White Rose is about people doing the work that needs to be done—fantastic, realistic, good, or bad.

Generally, I’m wary when recommending series. Typically, they require an investment with little promise of a worthy return. I can safely say that The Chronicles of the Black Company, the compendium volume that includes The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose, is certainly worth the time of any reader looking for a series that will refresh their appreciation for the genre.

UP NEXT: A review of “Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey!

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Book Review: Shadows Linger

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Four years have passed since the epic final battle at the Tower of Charm in The Black Company, the first novel in The Chronicles of the Black Company, and readers once again experience the mercenary brigade’s adventures through the eyes of Croaker, the Company historian. Shadows Linger does not so much concern itself with the aftermath of the war against the Rebel but with the growing specter of the Dominator (the male counterpart to the first novel’s antagonistic sorceress and chief-employer of the Company, the Lady) and the forces that seek to return him to corporeal world.

As the Black Company purges the North of the last Rebel elements they are unhappily drawn to the distant fringe city of Juniper, a cold and religious place where a dreaded black castle inhabited by monstrous beings is engaged in the latest attempt to revive the Dominator. Currently entombed in the Barrowland, the Dominator’s minions are trying to build another portal through which he can return and usher in ten thousand years of darkness.

The Lady, ruler of the northern Empire, orders the Black Company to spearhead the siege but Croaker and the others inadvertently find themselves on the trails of Raven and Darling. Darling is the girl prophesied to be the White Rose who will ultimately destroy the Dominator and the Lady, and is a friend to the Company, which puts them on the defensive in more ways than one.

Shadows Linger is a strange sophomore installment because, in almost every way, it breaks from the traditional middle-book mold fairly regularly. Rather than center itself as a bridge between the first and third books Shadows Linger produces its own plot that is secluded enough that it can be read independently of the first book, but inclusive enough that it fits well with the trilogy. What’s more, it expands the narrative from Croaker to Raven and a Juniper-native called Shed. By doing so it better explores the depths to which these men will sink in order to advance their individual goals: Shed is a study in poverty and immorality; Croaker’s unusual relationship with the Lady grants us a peculiar view into the inner workings of a ruthless but almost humane tyrant.

But, like its predecessor, Shadows Linger shines when it’s Croaker that’s doing the talking. He, along with the rest of the novel, genuinely wrestles with what it means to ally with the lesser of two evils because as the Dominator nears his return,  Croaker and the rest of the Black Company must fight even harder to keep him down; and therefore in defense of the Lady. This central conflict overshadows Shed’s acts of heresy against Juniper’s dominant religion; and compliments Raven’s architecting the destruction of one of Juniper’s criminal overlords. Repeatedly, this book provides instances of characters picking the least worst option and never gets close to something as naive or unrealistic as a happy ending.

Shadows Linger provided a strong second installment in The Chronicles of the Black Company and is an excellent introduction to the final novel in this first trilogy. Succeeded by The White Rose, Shadows Linger did a great job of giving us more of the characters that we love in a world where the only choices are either bad or worse.

Book Review: The Black Company

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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.