by Matthew Thompson (This post features cover art for the series by Raymond Swanland. His Official Website can be found here.)
(This review of Glen Cook’s Black Company series is spoiler-free so I could share why I enjoy it so much with my friends and readers and not spoil anything on the off-chance it motivates any of them to give it a try. I did however mention some spoilers when talking about my favorites in the bullet points. They are kind of vague, but if you haven’t read the series they might be worth skipping.)
When I got hooked on Game of Thrones and subsequently read the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, I got my first big introduction to fantasy literature and I loved it. When I finished up A Dance with Dragons, I was looking to branch out further into the genre and see what else was on offer. After browsing the web looking for another series to dig into I discovered Glen Cook’s Black Company books. Now a year later, I have finished all ten novels in the series and not only experienced another amazing tale, but fallen further in love with the genre.
The Black Company series is a dark military fantasy story told over course of ten books (with a couple more to come possibly). It follows the exploits of a mercenary group, the titular Black Company, as they take different contracts doing whatever they must to keep their little group of misfits going. The first novel really takes off once they go to work for the Lady, the most powerful sorcerer in the world and the ruler of a vast empire. They aren’t exactly working for the good guy, but a bunch of other factors make them an easy gang to get behind regardless of what their latest employer has them doing.
Those factors definitely begin with a rich, diverse cast of characters. There is the no-nonsense head of the unit simply known as the Captain. There’s the new recruit Raven whose skills in a fight make him a valuable commodity to the group, but whose mysterious past means he is a bit of a wildcard. It includes a couple of small-time wizards named One-Eye and Goblin. Both over a hundred years old, they are long-time members of the company. It is pretty clear all this time spent together means they are great friends, but they live to torment each other using various tricks of sorcery. Their escalating war of practical jokes help to lighten the dark tone of the books. As does my favorite character, Croaker. He is the real heart of the series. As the company annalist, he keeps the history of their exploits and in doing so acts as our narrator and window into the story being told. He isn’t some sword-wielding badass or powerful wizard. He’s the primary physician and historian for the company which makes for a unique viewpoint on the goings-on and he has a great wit about him which again gives the material a much-needed dash of humor.
Another thing that hooked me into the series early on was Croaker’s odd obsession with the Lady. He basically writes fan-fiction about and draws sketches of their never-seen employer. It makes for some fun ribbing from his comrades, but when the all-knowing Lady takes note of his attention it also begins a strange relationship that helps shape the narrative going forward.
That evolving relationship is just one of many things that is fun to see change over the course of the series. The whole saga spans about 40 years. The company ranges from having thousands of men in their employ to being just a handful of wanderers looking for their next job and purpose in life. It isn’t spoiling much to say that some characters die. Some move on. This will leave positions vacant. Others will fill them. Seeing the changes in the Black Company over the years, watching these characters we knew in one way change roles and then seeing them through someone else’s eyes since the narrator switches quite a few times over the course of ten books, it makes for a fascinating read. When I think back on it all, the evolution of these characters and the company as a whole is one of the things that really strikes me about the series.
As I mentioned, this is fantasy with a decidedly military slant to it which means there are plenty of impactful battles on both a large and small scale. Throwing some of its cool magic into the mix makes for some truly thrilling passages as massive armies square off in the battlefield. But the Black Company is not known for besting their opposition through force, but rather guile. Their trademark involves cleverly set traps and watching their devious plans unfold can be just as fun as the big battles. I found myself shaking my head at times when I realized just how they have pulled off their latest stunt. I also think they do a great job of nailing the comradery that develops among a close-knit group like this.
The series feels like it fits into two different parts. The original trilogy tells one overarching story dealing with the Company’s tenor under the Lady and her fight against a rebel uprising. I also appreciate that each individual book within that trilogy tells a story of its own. It makes for a supremely satisfying set which has been bundled into one omnibus called Chronicles of the Black Company.
After the original three, there are six more main entries. These follow more adventures of the company and while they are kind of split into two portions, I find they tell part of another larger story. It is a little more inconsistent than the original trilogy and each one doesn’t have as satisfying of an individual story, but I enjoyed them all and just like the original trilogy, the final book wraps things up well including tying off character arcs that started up back in the early novels.
There is also a spinoff dealing with some other characters from the first three books which is fun too. Glen Cook is supposedly going to craft two more Black Company novels. It seems like he is tied up with other commitments lately, so I’ll have to see what comes of those. I’m really happy with how things finished up, but I’d certainly welcome more stories in his brilliant dark fantasy world.
The Black Company series was certainly a different take on the genre than A Song of Ice and Fire. Cook’s writing style is quite dissimilar to Martin’s. As much as I enjoy Martin’s writing, he can go a little overboard at times with descriptions. You may have heard jokes about his long-winded, flowery descriptions of food platters. There is definitely some truth in those jabs especially in the later books. Coming off of that, I really appreciated Cook’s more to the point style. The books are shorter, chapters are quicker, and everything moves along at a bit faster pace. It might hurt the world-building in comparison, but the trade-off certainly seems like a even one.
My Black Company Favorites:
- Favorite Book: I will say The White Rose. I love the conclusion of the struggle between Lady and The White Rose and I thought the Plain of Fear with all its crazy creatures was an awesome new location for the series. The original book and the final one, Soldiers Live, would be right behind it for me.
- Favorite Character: As I mentioned earlier, Croaker is my favorite, but I loved Lady, Darling, Soulcatcher and Sleepy. This series really had some kickass female characters and wasn’t afraid to put them in charge either which was really cool.
- Favorite Sequence: The Battle at Charm that closes the first book is really the segment that sold me on the greatness the series was capable of. I was enjoying it up until that point, but that was my first big “Wow!” moment, so I will go with it.
- Most Shocking Twist: The reveal of who Corbie was in The White Rose is one that really caught me off guard. I should have seen it coming, but I did not. Gave me a whole new appreciation for those sections before the reveal. This series fooled me more times than I can count especially with things like secret identities of characters, but I was proud when I was able to finally see a few of them coming towards the end. However, I did not see how Croaker would make good on his deal with Shivetya. That was pretty nuts too, but I really liked it.
With these two fantasy series being so enjoyable to me, I plan to delve into the genre a lot more going forward to see what else it has to offer. I have started Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy and ordered the first books in Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series to get a feel for more of his work in the genre and The Way of Kings, the critically acclaimed first entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. I also hope this post is the start of many more novel reviews here on the blog (hopefully individual ones, so I don’t have to try to cover so much like I did in this one!). Well that is all for now. Thank you very much for reading!