It’s been a long old road but the end is in sight. Stay with me for just one more post, I promise not to get all sentimental until the last couple of paragraphs…
The thing is though, if I hadn’t already read these books I would have thought that Water Sleeps would have been the last we saw of the Black Company. I know there was mention of Soulcatcher, Narayan Singh and the Daughter of Night but even so, it just felt like a natural ending (even more so now I’ve had a couple of weeks to think about it). The war may still be going on but the Black Company has reached the end of its journey, especially now that they can’t get to the place they’ve been marching towards for the last few books. What could possibly happen next?
Well, we have a whole book in front of us that will answer that question. Shall we get going? Before we do though, be warned that I will more than likely be incredibly spoilery over the next fifteen hundred, or so, words. If you haven’t read the book yet then you really should bear that in mind. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Are we all good? Good, one final push then…
In the comments on Water Sleeps, LynMars makes the excellent point:
“Tobo rising as the Company’s new wizard as One-Eye and Goblin’s stories finally end is a signal that the series itself is coming to a close and what the Company will be after the current generation passes will be different—but will still be The Black Company.”
The Black Company is bigger than any of its individual parts and while there may be changes on the way, the Company will remain a home for the outcasts of society; all bound together by tradition and brotherhood. And this is essentially what Soldiers Live is all about. While the series could have ended with Water Sleeps there’s a split between those who were freed from the stasis field and those who were never caught in the first place. I don’t think anyone really considered what would happened after the Captured were freed… The Black Company has to be whole before it can march on and I think Cook knew that, hence this book. The events that kick the book off felt a little contrived to me; Lisa Bowalk coming back from Khatovar for revenge felt more like a chance to get the ball rolling rather than something that would actually happen. And the way that One-Eye died amidst the carnage of the Forvalaka attack, it was almost an afterthought and no way for someone like him to check out. But “Soldiers live and wonder why.” It’s just enough though for Cook to have a reason for splitting the Company in two and starting to tie up those loose ends. And the biggest loose end is Croaker himself, something he readily admits.
No one from my era was involved anymore. Like One-Eye I am a relic of a distant age, a living icon of the history that makes up so much of the unique social adhesive we used to hold the Company together.
While I feel sorry for the rest of the captured, it’s Croaker who really gets my sympathy. What he knew as the Black Company has moved on and left him behind. Croaker is a man out of time with nothing to really fall back on apart from his old role as Company Physician. A chance at settling an old score is just what he needs and it nudges him on a path that will eventually see him fulfill a promise to the Golem Shivetya. I’m jumping around a little bit here but the more I read it the more I think this was the only way Croaker’s story could end; doing the right thing by the woman he loves and finally getting to fulfill his own personal quest.
“I whiled my time exploring the expansive wonders of Shivetya’s memories – but avoiding those including Khatovar. Khatovar was a dessert I meant to save until there were no distractions at all. Khatovar was a special treat for a time when every flavor could be savoured.”
The Black Company books have been Croaker’s story all along (even when he wasn’t there to narrate) so I’m glad Croaker got there in the end, especially after he had found Khatovar only to find that its inhabitants, the Voroshk, know nothing of its history. I love those little touches of irony by the way. Cook knows that people can fight for their dreams but the world is indifferent to all that and has its own agenda. Soldiers live and wonder why.
This is a book then where loose ends are tied up and the new Black Company cut loose to forge its own path. For me this was the most important theme running through Soldiers Live and, despite that wobbly start, I thought Cook did a solid job here. Soldiers Live is a both monument to all the Old Guard (who brought the Company to this point) and a clean slate for the future Black Company to make its own mark.
It would be a pretty poor book though if Cook didn’t use the opportunity to draw a line under a few other sub-plots that could really do with closure (while there’s a book to do it in). It’s a good job he does then.
I’m going to be honest and say that, every now and then, I thought Cook went off into a little too much detail with everything somehow needing to go through everybody before things could get moving. It reminded me of when I read Gilded Latten Bones where Garrett spent most of the book talking to people before he could get anything done. I do appreciate that Cook is playing with a large cast here and it’s a sign of real respect that everyone gets their time in the spotlight. It did make the read stodgy though, there’s no getting around it.
There is a lot to be said for Soldiers Live and the way that the Glittering Stone sequence comes to an end. Cook stays true to the roots of his storytelling and shows us that there is no such thing as a happy ending in times of war, just differing degrees of tragedy and irony. We’ve seen Croaker’s tale already and amongst the many things that happen to Lady is the fact that her chance of revenge is taken away when the possessed Goblin kills Narayan Singh. Not only that but Lady is put in a position where she has to kill her daughter and stop Kina’s Year of Skulls. What an intense few passages and real proof that Cook can do dialogue that isn’t just soldiers talking.
“I love you,” Lady said, responding to a question never asked, existing only within the girl’s heart. “I will love you forever. I will always love you. But I won’t let you do this thing to my world.”
And Goblin. As soon as Blade heard him calling for help I was so happy to see him back but saddened by what I knew was coming. Goblin was no longer the man who enjoying baiting One-Eye and I’m not just talking about Kina’s spell on him. Goblin was a broken man (the “Goblin thing”) with just left of his old self to take a suicide mission to finally get some peace. Another one of the Old Guard cut loose so the Black Company can move on.
What really struck me though is how some of these endings were ironic and apt all at the same time. Mogaba dies and finally achieves some kind of redemption (that I don’t even think he knew he was looking for) in the eyes of the Taglian people. They see his machinations against Soulcatcher as heroism for the people and that’s one final dig at Croaker that can’t be returned. Soulcatcher herself is put into stasis (in those same caves) and that’s the only way it could really end for her. You can’t kill Soulcatcher so stasis is really the only option left.
It’s BooBoo’s ending though that made me well up; not for BooBoo herself (although you have to feel for her, having everything taken away like that) but for Croaker who finally shows a little crack in that world weary cynicism of his.
“I never knew you darling.” A tear rolled down.
I feel a little heartbroken myself, coming to the end of the story and having the realisation that, sometimes, just to make it to the end is a happy ending for some characters. At the start, I wasn’t so sure that this book was necessary but I couldn’t have been more wrong. An astonishing ending to an astonishing series.
And that’s it. Thank you everyone who has read these posts and commented, even though I am so far behind replying to what you all said. I read everything though and I’m looking at the Black Company books in a whole new light because of that.
Thank you all for sticking with this re-read; despite the false starts, the missed deadlines and constraints meaning that we couldn’t discuss in as much detail as we all wanted. I’ve had a lot of fun here and I hope you have too.
It’s time for me to go and read something light and fun now. Or maybe find a cute puppy to cuddle, I’m all grimdarked out! And it’s only fitting that the last words should belong to Croaker himself.
I am putting the pen down.