The Black Company: The First Novel Of The Chronicles Of The Black Company by Glen Cook (book review).

A comet arcs across the night sky and is a herald of the prophecy. The White Rose has been reborn and will rise up to defeat the undying queen, known only as the Lady, and her army once more. That’s what the rebels hope, anyway. Their prophesied saviour has yet to appear and war is raging across the country.

The Black Company is the last of the Free Companies of Khandovar and has served whoever pays their contract for nearly four hundred years. They didn’t intend to serve in the Lady’s army but the contract took them out of a bad situation and war is their usual environment. In the blood and mud and chaos of war, both sides look just as evil and perhaps there is something even darker waiting for them all.

‘The Black Company’ was first published in 1984 and has now been re-released as part of Tor Essentials. Its publication was one of the first of the sub-genre ‘grimdark’ which is known for being…well…both grim and dark. Grimdark novels are generally dystopian and bleak with an emphasis on violence.

Both the setting and the characters are generally cruel and unforgiving unless they are bleak with the inevitable unfairness of the world. When ‘The Black Company’ first came out it was remarkable because it was pitted against books like Raymond E. Feist’s ‘Magician’, which came out two years earlier and the long heroic fantasy tradition of ‘The Lord Of The Rings.’ Instead of long descriptions of elevenses and trudging up hills, Glen Cook presented a world without heroes, without magic swords and pared back prose that lets the reader assume the characters are eating and all the other things people do routinely.

The story is told by Croaker, the doctor of the company and the keeper of their histories. He gets to poke his nose into whatever is going on and record it for prosperity. He has four hundred years of history to draw on to advise the Captain or to use to inspire the Company. The minimalist writing style suits Croaker who wants to be a romantic and write poems to barely glimpsed beautiful women but he can’t quite get the right words out. At heart, he has been beaten down into pragmatism from years of battlefield triage that will continue until he dies.

Croaker is most definitely not a hero. He’s a nice enough guy, healing the sick and such, but heroic? No. Croaker isn’t leading a rebel army against the armies of an undying queen. He is not the fabled saviour of prophecy. He’s a doctor and part-time historian slash reporter because he likes being in on the gossip. Croaker’s world weary viewpoint exemplifies the ideals of grimdark. He watches terrible things happen and it’s just how things are in the world. Nothing to be done but move on. The horrors are just a grey backdrop on a grey world.

This book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Despite being set in the front lines of a bloody conflict, there aren’t many action sequences. The grey backdrop of the grimdark world renders all the characters flat and colourless at times. It isn’t a fantasy novel flipped into being told from the villain’s point of view. It isn’t dramatic even as dramatic things unfurl a little way off the page. The realism of ‘The Black Company’ will either intrigue or bore you. I place myself as almost intrigued.

There are thin threads of hope running through the grimdark that kept me going and might keep me going on to read the rest of the trilogy but probably not the two subsequent series’. It reminded me of my first reading of Roger Zelazny’s ‘Amber’, which I didn’t think much of until I’d finished all the stories. It was a story greater than the sum of its parts. This is the hope that has me reaching for ‘The Black Company’ book two.

LK Richardson

March 2022

(pub: TOR, 2022. 288 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $17.99 (US), £13.80 (UK).   ISBN 978-1-25078-120-8)

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