Review: The Black Company by Glen Cook

This novel by Glen Cook was written in 1984, and from what I hear it was an influential fantasy book in that era, particularly as it uniquely combined a cast of low-fantasy anti-hero mercenaries with a high-fantasy world of magic and apocalypses. I don’t recall any of that because I was 5 at the time, but I can assure you that, back then, Generation One Transformers was the best cartoon ever.

What’s it about?

In the first book, our protagonists (I won’t quite call them heroes) are a band of mercenaries, the titular Black Company, doing guard duty in a southern country. Things go pear-shaped when the people rise up against their ruler (who hired the Company) and the Company runs for the north, where they take a new contract with one of “The Taken”, the magic warriors who serve The Lady, a magic overlord. The Lady is trying to put down an uprising (sound familiar?), aka killing all the peasants who don’t want to be ruled by a magic overlord. 

The men in the Black Company, who are mostly regular guys with regular concerns like eating and staying alive, quickly develop very complicated feelings about this situation. Some want to leave the country, but they don’t want to break another contract (because they’re professionals) and they definitely don’t want to anger a bunch of magic immortals like the Taken (because they’re not idiots). We’ve all been there, right?

Good guys include:

  • Croaker, the doctor and chronicler, who is our narrator 
  • Raven, a newly recruited edgelord who plays with knives and has a dark past
  • The Captain and the Lieutenant, who bark orders
  • Goblin and One-Eye, low-level wizards that mostly prank each other
  • Silent, a low-level wizard that mostly plays ninja
  • And a bunch of “normal” guys like Elmo

You’ll notice everyone has a nom de guerre, and no one’s real name is ever given. So that’s fun. They all feel a bit like secret agents or superheroes, in that regard. Except they die a lot more.

Baddies include:

  • The Lady, an immortal magic warlord who is cloaked in mystery and awe, who is desperate to maintain her power, who is afraid of her dead husband, and who develops a strange pseudo-romantic relationship with Croaker. Because mercenary doctors are hot.
  • Her bizarre lieutenants, the Taken, who are magic immortal warriors with disturbing decaying forms and cool names like Soulcatcher, Shapeshifter, The Limper, and The Hanged Man. 
  • Rebel leaders like Raker, Whisper, Feather, and Journey. (I think the author was running out of cool warrior names and just started using random words at some point.)

Most of these characters don’t have much real development, they exist simply to move around the chessboard, killing people and saying cryptic things to obscure their true motives and desires. 

What’s the big deal?

The story follows Croaker and the Company moving from battle to battle, trying to stay alive and trying to unravel the weird political machinations of their inhuman employers. There are some epic battle scenes and some intense (scary? weird?) magical interrogations / tortures / erotica scenes.

Personally, I found the politics and manipulations fairly mundane and at the same time a bit hard to follow. I connected with very few of the characters in this very large cast, so I had a little trouble following the long passages of mysterious exposition from the Taken as they told their various plots and lies about each other. Mostly it came across to me as an elaborate fantasy version of Survivor where everyone is constantly plotting against each other and making/breaking alliances.

Likewise, the use of magic in this book never quite made sense to me. The three hedge wizards in the Black Company seemed like your basic tricksters (most of the time), while the Taken and the Lady seemed like a cross between Ring-wraith monsters and Death Eater wizards from a bygone Age of Man and Myth. It felt like two very different types of fantasy, specifically Low and High, being crammed together in a not-entirely-successful way. 

On the other hand, I absolutely connected with the narrator Croaker, who was realistic and complex and felt like a living person. He even writes his own romantic fan-fiction about The Lady, and his friends make fun of him for it, until it gets him a date with the Supreme Queen of Magic and Mystery herself. My favorite parts were following him around in the “gritty” scenes, doing soldier things and doctor things, hanging out with his comrades and generally trying to not die. 

Recommended?

If you like your fantasy to be a bit grim-and-gritty, then you should definitely try the first book of The Black Company. I liked it on many levels, enough to read the second book, which I also mostly liked. The writing is solid and straightforward, and many of the characters are engaging and interesting. But the wider world of magic and immortals felt a bit incoherent to me and I was not intrigued by all the intrigue, if you know what I mean.

If you want a story where women are something other than victims or monsters, you might want to look elsewhere. Also, if you like fantasy books with actual monsters, then this might not be for you. I don’t recall anything remotely dragon-esque in this book.

Side Note – I picked up The Black Company because Matt Colville mentioned it several times as a book that influenced him a great deal. He is currently running a streamed D&D game called The Chain, which is strongly colored by The Black Company, so if you like the one you might like the other.

Where is it?

Wherever 1980s fantasy books are sold.

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