The Black Company by Glen Cook
In the late 70s/Early 80s there was a revival of what one might call “Low Fantasy” (as opposed to the “High Fantasy” of Tolkien, his ilk, and his imitators) or “Heroic Fantasy”, aka also “Swords and Sorcery”; notable in my memory are the “Thieves’ World” shared-world anthologies and Andrew J. Offutt’s Conan revivals, though John Jakes’ “Brak the Barbarian” novels were re-printed in this period. Basically, this was fantasy that was grim, gritty, and often dark, featuring Heroes who were often Barbarians (capital ‘B’ deliberate), swordsmen of some sort, or thieves; rarely were they wizards and magic was always dark and often demonic. The Black Company was a good example of the type.
The Black Company was the title of the novel, the trilogy* and the group at the centre of the story.
The Black Company, last of the Free Companies of Khatovar, is at the time the story starts on garrison duty in Beryl, self-described Queen of the Jewel cities. It isn’t a happy city; the Company is propping up the rule of the Syndic, the city’s ruler, against rebels known as “the BLues” (we never learn why they are called that). Our first-person narrator is Croaker, Archivist and physician, which two titles make him effectively an officer. First-person can be a limiting viewpoint if the author sticks tightly to only what the character sees and hears for himself, but as the stories we are reading seem to come from Croaker’s archives, he also records what other people tell him so we don’t have to have him in every scene.
As Beryl comes close to breaking into open war in the streets, two things happen: an ancient evil is released from a tomb inside the city (the forvalaka, a kind of vampire were-leopard (look, folklore is full of this kind of thing, okay?)) and a giant ship from the north comes and hangs off the coast, offering alliances. When the Forvalaka kills the Syndic, the company is taken in by the northerners, who take over the city and hire them away. The commander of the ship, the Company’s new patron, is a short man (or is he? Croaker later has his doubts) swathed in leather armour, his face always hidden behind a black morion (I had to look that up. It’s a kind of helmet). What makes him really stand out is that every time he speaks, each sentence is delivered by a different voice. Men, women, children, old, etc. It’s not that he never uses the same voice; just never twice in a row. The Company’s wizards (okay, this is going to take a bit of a digression, since the wizards play a big role in the story. The Company starts the book with four wizards: Tom-tom, One Eye, Silent, and Goblin. Silent never speaks. One Eye has only one eye left. Tom-tom carries a small drum with him and uses it for emphasis. Goblin’s short and ugly. Tom-tom and One Eye are brothers, ancient black men who are a legacy from the days when the Black Company was made up solely of black men. Wherever Khatovar is (and no one knows any more; the oldest archives were lost long ago) it must have been far to the south. The Company’s wizards are small fry as wizards go, not overly powerful so they have learned to be tricky, which serves the Company’s purposes fine. Tom-tom is killed when the Forvalaka kills the Syndic) are terrified by this guy, but it isn’t until Croaker remembers some old stories that he realises who it is.
Over 3 centuries ago, a pair of wizards rose in the north, so powerful they might as well be gods: The Dominator and the Lady. They conquered the souls of ten slightly-less powerful wizards, who became known as the Ten-Who-Were-Taken, or for short, the Taken. One of them was Soulcatcher, who now controls the Black Company. The twelve of them were so evil that Croaker compares their empire to Hell, but they were defeated 300 years ago by a general known as The White Rose, though no one now remembers how he won. Instead of killing them (maybe he couldn’t?) the White Rose buried them all in a great series of barrows from which they were recently raised (or raised themselves, with help from the outside). All, that is, but the Dominator himself. The Lady is now in charge and the Black Company now work for her.
Of course, the Lady’s new empire is new and there is opposition. Before the Black Company heads off to face the Rebels, they are joined by a local man who chooses to take the name Raven. Raven is a badass’ badass and we spend a fair bit of time with him since Croaker is fascinated by him (one reason Croaker is the Archivist is that he wants to know everyone’s story. This comes back and bites him on the ass hard before long). As a local, Raven brings some bad blood with him and one person he’s feuding with is The Limper, one of the Taken. This kind of works for the Company, as Soulcatcher is also feuding with the Limper. It also works against the Company, since they keep getting caught between two of the most powerful evil wizards in the world.
As the Taken quarrel, the rebels start winning. Is there more going on than meets the eye? And speaking of eyes, early in the Company’s time in the Empire Croaker tries to figure out the Lady and winds up writing some romantic twaddle. As embarrassing fanfics have a tendency to do, they are found and read by his fellow soldiers, and now the Lady, the greatest evil of this age bar one, has her eye on the Company in general and Croaker in particular. Driven back by the ascendant rebels to the Lady’s tower, the Black Company prepares for another, possibly final, last stand . . .
It’s hard to say whether I recommend this book or not. I enjoyed it a lot, both on first read and re-read, but it’s not for everyone. The situation is quite bleak; there are no heroes in this story, only a choice of villains. Even Croaker, our viewpoint character, has his darkness within, and our heroes end up standing by the Lady because she is the least bad choice. Also, major TRIGGER WARNING: this is a “realistic” low-tech war scenario; while we don’t have to sit through graphic depictions there are a lot of deaths and sexual assaults. One character, a nine-year-old girl, is introduced when Raven saves her from gang rape (by Imperial forces, not by Rebels). In another scene, the Company wins a big battle and the ensuing celebration . . . well, it’s not in any detail, thankfully.
So, yeah: hard to call. Recommended, but not for everyone.
*You might hear rumours that there were more than three “Black Company” books. This was not true. Any books after the third were merely scurrilous lies; you should not believe them and you certainly shouldn’t read them.