One of my favorite fantasy writers is Glen Cook. I will do later posts about some of his other, lesser known works and focus this post on The Black Company novels. They follow the exploits of the “last of the free companies of Khatovar”, a mercenary company perpetually in an ugly dilemma. The first eponymous novel The Black Company begins with the company in the employ of a tyrant on his way out of power and the company trying to figure an honorable way out of their contract. An emissary and powerful sorcerer from the north offers them a commission. That is only possible once the company’s current bond holder meets an unfortunate ending at the claws of an ancient monster that is released from a long entombment on hill overlooking the city. The goes from the frying pan into the fire when they learn that they have just been employed by a nearly goddesslike sorceress known only as The Lady.
Unlike many fantasy novels, the Black Company is a gritty story told from the point of view of a character who is a guy on the ground, in the trenches so to speak. The narrator, Croaker, is the company’s surgeon and annalist. The annalist is an important office within company because they record the history of the company and counsel the captain to maintain the honor and traditions of the company. The company’s successes usually involve trickery, deceit and guile. They never fight fair and if they can humiliate a foe while killing him, all the better. While Croaker does end up getting mixed up with most powerful characters in the story, he always retains his soldierly voice and characteristics.
The magic in Black Company is more free form and doesn’t seem to have a lot of rules other than the fact that wizards have to spend a great deal of effort and time preparing their magic before they can finally unleash it. Once a particular application of magic has been developed, it is far easier to put into use later on. The wizards of the Black Company frequently use illusion magic to confuse or bait their foes, have some faculty with healing though it is limited, and construct or enchant weapons for a specific purpose or foe.
More often than not, the company finds itself on the edge of extinction and with difficult dilemmas to deal with. Rarely do they have a clear path in front of them. Always, the company captains have to decide which option is the least bad one to take. They often have powerful enemies and powerful employers who they can’t trust. Once they take a commission, they see it through to the end. They are disciplined professionals and very skilled at their work. Their skill makes them feared and respected.
What I like the most is that the series has characters who are flawed, in a bad situation but trying to do the right thing, as they see it. Croaker can be grouchy, and blind to his own shortcomings, especially in the later books. The company’s wizards are bootleggers, smugglers, card cheats and practical jokers. Most of the company’s soldiers have their own moral and professional failures, but all of them would sacrifice themselves (and many do) for their brothers. As a Marine Corps veteran, that read the most true to me. They are very enjoyable books with memorable characters who behave the way I would think a real person would behave in the situations they find themselves in.
I highly recommend these for any fan of fantasy fiction.