The Black Company Reread on

The Black Company Reread: Shadow Games

As of right now, I am officially heading into territory that I haven’t stepped foot in for a number of years. The promise of Khatovar lies in the distance but there is a lot of pretty much unknown territory to cover first. And can the remnants of the Company even make it that far? Only seven men were left at the end of The White Rose after all…

Okay, maybe that’s over dramatising things a little bit. With another five books to go (and blurbs easily found online) we know that Khatovar will be reached by at least whoever is telling the story at the time. I guess what I am trying to say is that Shadow Games marks a whole new beginning in the history of the Black Company and anything could happen here on in. Exciting isn’t it?

Before we get started though, lets just take a second to go over the ground rules of this post. Apologies to those who have already read this, in the other posts, I really don’t mind if you skip this paragraph and go straight to the good stuff…

For everyone else, I’m not one for dumping copy and pasted plot or rehashing the plot in my own words. If you do need to catch up then there is a very detailed plot summary over at Wikipedia. This is a good one by the way, perhaps the best of the summaries that I have come across so far. I’m also making the assumption that we all know the plot (or are catching up on Wikipedia…) so there will more likely than not be spoilers. You’ve been warned…

Are we all good? Good, lets get cracking with the first of the Books of the South…

We were not really the Black Company anymore, just rootless men from nowhere headed the same direction.

Is it me or do the events of The White Rose seem all the more apocalyptic the further away you get from it? What was once one of the most feared mercenary companies in the world has now been reduced to six men and Lady, sticking together almost out of habit and following a man who is doing the only thing he can think of: getting the annals back to Khatovar (wherever that may be). There is a big question of identity to be resolved, then, and Cook takes his time answering this, all the way from the crossroads, by the Barrowlands, to Trogo Taglios deep in the southern continent.

What is interesting here is that while Croaker and his men still see themselves as the Black Company, it is not something that they can really shout out loud. Certainly not when they are having to make their way through a fragmenting empire that they have helped to bring down. Going off on a tangent slightly, it is also interesting to see Lady do what she can to hold her empire together before she runs off and leaves it. While she may have been a dictator, I think it is becoming increasingly fair to say that she was a benevolent one, looking out for the interests of her people (and still doing so, even though she’s leaving them behind).

As the Company heads further south though… It’s almost like they are becoming the Black Company again, whether they want it or not. Not only are they picking up recruits, on the strength of their reputation, but that identity is also being thrust upon them and for differing reasons. It’s something that Croaker and his men need (in terms of regaining some identity and purpose) although Croaker is right to be a little wary. Especially when they are being shadowed by a walking tree stump… For some reason I thought this was Limper but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Talking of which, I got a lot out of the Company’s near encounter with the Limper at the Temple of Tranquil Repose; I’m not so sure how much I would go along with “a soldier’s instinct saving the day” but it was a nice little nod back to The Silver Spike (although not so heavy that you would be missing out if you hadn’t read that book)

I stalked through the old neighbourhood, past the old tenement. I saw no-one I knew – unless a woman glimpsed briefly, who looked like my grandmother, was my sister. I did not confront her, nor ask.

Backward in time. Backward into our own history.

It’s strange to watch the Black Company embarking on a new journey that is taking them backwards in time as they go. It is especially poignant for Croaker, not only walking back through the streets of his childhood (you really can’t go back and he knows this) but also in his position as Company Annalist (a position that he isn’t keen to relinquish, even though he is the Captain as well). There is a lot of Company history, in the southern continent, so much of history in fact that Croaker and his men cannot help but assume it. This is most evident in the city of Gea-Xle where the descendants of the original Company (who had taken on a commission there) insist on sending their best men to join up.

The Nar [a word meaning Black] were indeed the descendants of our forebrethren. They did form a separate caste, a warrior cult built around the myths the Company left behind. They kept their own set of Annals and observed the ancient traditions better than we did.

What a great way for Cook to basically bolster the ranks of the Company while reminding his readers that the Black Company is something pretty massive in this world. Wherever the Company marches, it will leave footprints that last for centuries. Footprints so large in fact that when the Company reach Taglios no-one will even mention the word Khatovar to them.

Shadow Games isn’t just a book about history though, although I think this is the most important theme of the book. The other emphasis lies on the word Games; this is a book about games being played by all sides against each other. Games that see the Company’s identity forced on Croaker a little earlier than he would have liked. Games that I think Lady would have used to take charge herself if Croaker wasn’t on top of his game… And before I get ahead of myself, there’s a growing relationship that needs to be looked at. I loved the awkwardness on Croaker’s part and the fact that Lady could have pressed things, but chose not to (waiting for Croaker to get his act together). It was just like some kind of gritty fantasy romantic comedy, and just goes to show that you can be two of the most powerful people in the world but still end up suffering all the pitfalls on the path to true love.

But where was I? Games, that’s it. I’m not good with intrigue at the best of times so I’m not going to lie, I sometimes had trouble keeping up with what was going on and who was trying to hoodwink whom. This was one of the occasions that I was glad that Cook can be a plain speaking kind of writer; he paints a very good picture of bubbling intrigue but will have a character offer some kind of explanation (generally Cordy Mather or Willow Swan as the Company slowly become more entwined in the schemes of the Prahbindrah Drah, crown prince of Taglios). The Shadowmasters have their eye on Taglios and Croaker is slowly convinced (by the Prahbindrah Drah) that the only way to Khatovar is through their territory. Train the people of Taglios (this reminded me of The Magnificent Seven for some strange reason), defeat the Shadowmasters and the way to Khatovar is clear. Sounds simple doesn’t it? If only it was.

The Black Company (at the head of an army of Taglian citizens) are back to doing what they do best, fighting dirty wars for other people. This time though, there is the promise of Khatovar if they can win through. From where I was standing, it looked like the Company did as well as they did not just through their ability (and training the Taglians), but also because the enemy suddenly found that they were being attacked from somewhere else entirely and couldn’t focus.

Now, I think Cook writes some very good battles and totally gets what it is to be a “grunt” on the front line while the big magic is going down. Why (oh why) did he have to bring back the Taken though? It’s been a long time since I read Shadow Games so this came as a surprise to me… I liked the sound of Shadowmasters, an entirely new threat in a brand new continent. To have one of them revealed as someone whom I was pretty sure died when Lady lost her powers (along with the others that we have already met during the book)… I wasn’t so keen, although we do get to see the Forvalaka again as a result of this. (I probably should have guessed from the front cover…)

And what a way to end the book… Wars can turn on the slightest thing and to see Lady buried under a pile of corpses while Croaker is captured by none other than Soulcatcher…? Well, I’m not too impressed at seeing Soulcatcher return either (she died books ago) but it’s such a powerful ending that I’m prepared to let that go and see how things develop in Dreams of Steel. And just what is happening on the Plain of Glittering Stone? Seriously, I can’t remember. Talk about leaving it all hanging…

That is about it for me this week. I’m painfully aware that there are bits that I either haven’t covered or not covered enough (there has been a lot of childcare duties this last week) so I am hoping that people will chip in, in the comments, and keep this going. I may not be able to answer but I do read the comments; you guys have already got me looking the series in a whole different way.

Enough of that though, I’ll see you in a fortnight.

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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