The Black Company Reread on

The Black Company Reread: The White Rose

Like I said in my last post, I’ve only read this series once and I’m looking forward to reading some of these books again but having it feel like it’s for the first time. I just didn’t expect that feeling to come around so quickly…

With The White Rose it felt like I was in brand new territory. I knew how the book was going to end (that much I do remember) and I knew where the remnants of the Company go afterwards. It’s just all the bits in the middle that I couldn’t quite place. Apart from Toadkiller Dog that is—there’s a name that will always stick with you (all the more so since I read the book and got reacquainted). So I read The White Rose and found that the big question I had to ask myself afterwards was, “awesome book but where did the hollow feeling come from all of a sudden?”

The White Rose left me feeling me feeling a little weird for two reasons. One was only to be expected but the other…? Let me tell you about it.

Before we kick things off though, it’s the return of the paragraph where I make a couple of things clear (apologies to those who have stuck with me this far). While I’ll be talking about things that happen in the course of The White Rose I won’t be dumping a copy and pasted plot here. If you’re after a reminder of the plot while reading this, Wikipedia is your friend once again. I found a pretty detailed plot over here that covers all the bases. You probably know by now what I’m like with spoilers but if not… There will be spoilers over the course of this post (possibly some pretty big ones); that’s just how it is I’m afraid. If you’ve read the book then that shouldn’t be an issue. If you haven’t… Well, I did warn you.

Are we all good? Good, lets get going…

A foot crunched sand. I turned. Silent gawked at a talking menhir. It had appeared in the last few seconds, startling him. Sneaky rocks. Like to play games.

“There are strangers on the Plain,” it said.

Plot twists to one side (although having everyone trying to guess the Lady’s true name, and all getting it wrong, ranks right up there) what I enjoyed most about The White Rose was the time I got to spend on the Plains of Fear and in the Barrowlands. These are places where Cook is able to demonstrate humour and a little touch of horror and weirdness all at the same time. Whales that drift on the wind and sarcastic boulders all ruled over by a “god tree” that absolutely has to be where Erikson got the idea for the Azath from. The Plains of Fear is where Cook gets to have his fun, often at the expense of Croaker who is resolutely determined not to rise to the menhir’s games.

The Barrowlands is where the horror can be found; not just in terms of the Dominator being interred there but in claustrophobic tunnels that are prisons for creatures that you really don’t want to run across yourself. Just be grateful that Raven and Bomanz do it for you; then you can get lines like this…

The Dominator sat up. And smiled. His smile was the most wicked Corbie had ever seen. Then the undead extended a hand in welcome. Corbie ran.

Strong stuff… But back to the story itself.

We’ve had warfare across a continent in The Black Company, and we’ve also had infiltration and intrigue with Shadows Linger. The White Rose is all about the Last Stand. The Black Company are holed up (literally) in the Plains of Fear with the Lady’s armies poised to attack. The Company has nowhere left to run, it’s do or die time and these men are absolute bastards if they’re backed into a corner.

The Lady hasn’t got it easy herself though as she has to nullify the threat of the White Rose (protected by the Black Company) before the comet comes. If that wasn’t enough, her husband is one river flooding away from escaping the Barrowlands and resuming his role as the Dominator. So that’s a war potentially on two fronts, and her generals aren’t exactly known for their loyalty; the Lady is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon and when she’s done she’s coming out fighting.

Even the Dominator himself is making a last stand of sorts when you think about it. If there’s one thing guaranteed to get two sides working together it’s the threat of someone like the Dominator being back on the scene. He is going to be fighting for his life before he is even out of the ground; if that’s not a Last Stand then quite frankly I don’t know what is.

That is a lot of “Last Stands” for a book that is only three hundred and seventeen pages long. All of the characters have a lot riding on how various situations play out and that is a massive hook to get a reader interested. I’d say that Cook really pulls it off in terms of setting things up and balancing all the outcomes. Cook uses his trick of multiple POVs to good affect, nudging the story along and bringing it all together at the right point. It’s also a great way of showing the reader just how long this particular story has been playing out. And was anyone surprised to see Raven again? I wasn’t but I don’t think we were meant to be all that surprised given the name he takes as a disguise.

Favourite characters in The White Rose had to be Tracker and Toadkiller Dog. Tracker for his dumb strength and strange affability; here’s a guy who really does to seem to drift with the ebb and flow of the plot and isn’t aware of what events actually mean most of the time. I think we can all identify with that most of the time.

Toadkiller Dog edges it though with a name, and attitude, that suggests trouble which he backs up right at the end (just when it matters the most). I loved the way that Cook hints at their true origins through the Change Storm, an event geared to having this revelation pass you by… until it’s all confirmed and then you think, “hang on a minute…”

Tracker and Toadkiller Dog were worse. The mutt had become as big as an elephant, fanged, possessed of the most evil eyes I’ve ever seen. He looked at me with a starved lust that chilled my soul. And Tracker had become something demonic, vaguely apelike yet certainly much more. Both looked like creatures from an artist’s or sorcerer’s nightmares.

And here’s a thought for you. If Cook is using the Change Storm to hint at the origins of these two characters, what (if anything) does that say about his description of Goblin, caught in the same storm?

His head had swelled ten times normal size. The rest of him looked inside out. Around him swarmed a horde of the creatures that live on a windwhale’s back, some as big as pigeons.

Is the Change Storm reacting with Goblin’s magic or is there something else about him that we do not know?

So why was I left feeling hollow then? I’m coming to that right now as it happens.

What I particularly liked about this approach is that there isn’t an awful lot of conflict in The White Rose; it’s all build up waiting for the final fight to kick off. I love how it’s done with the switching back and forth between POVs just when things start to get interesting in each chapter. I love how the Black Company has been holed up on the Plains of Fear for several years and have reached a point where they are almost itching for the inevitable final fight. I loved how an alliance between the Lady and the White Rose just feels like the right move at the right time; it adds another little bit of tension to the proceedings and makes that final twist all the more powerful.

What didn’t feel quite right to me wasn’t so much the result of the final fight with the Dominator, but how that result came about.

On the one hand, the Dominator is barely out of the earth a few minutes before he has to deal with the null effect of the White Rose and the attentions of some windwhales. That’s quite a lot by anyone’s standards but the Dominator has had such good press (in the last couple of books) that I thought he would be capable of putting up a bit more of a fight then he did—wrestled to the ground by Tracker and chopped into pieces by whoever happened to be nearest.

That son-of-a-bitching Dominator was tough. He killed a dozen men before they finished carving him up. Even then he was not dead. Like Limper’s, his head lived on.

I’m not going to argue, that is tough (and there are writers out there who can only wish they can write gritty like that). I just can’t help but feel like I was expecting more of the Dominator when he made his last stand. Maybe I was expecting too much, but there was a little touch of the anti-climactic there for me.

Having said that though, the rest of these closing chapters also left me feeling hollow in terms of the sheer devastation wrought. By the time Croaker takes charge of the Company, it’s only seven strong and his best friend is dead. The Lady and the White Rose have effectively cancelled each other out (in terms of magic) and all of a sudden there is a power vacuum waiting for the rest of the Empire to realise that it needs to be filled. The Barrowlands are a wasteland; this is warfare like you don’t normally see it and the after-effects will be felt for a while to come.

It’s also a time for hope, though. The Black Company may be severely depleted but still has a mission to fulfil. It’s one hell of a mission, one that will truly define what the Black Company is, and its senior members will not be the same once it is done. The Company is going back to Khatovar to deliver the Annals back to its birthplace. Croaker doesn’t even know what Khatovar is but he is sure as hell going to find it. We’ve had three books of awesome already but the true story (and journey) is only just beginning.

Or is it? In a fortnight’s time I’ll be talking about The Silver Spike, the rather odd place it has in this series, and why I think it’s a necessary one. You can join me then, but in the meantime, please feel to leave as many comments as you like after this post. I’m sure I haven’t covered everything that’s up for discussion and that’s where you come in.

See you next time.

Graeme Flory is a London-based writer and lover of fantasy and science fiction literature. Read his book reviews at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review.


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