Thanks for joining me on this trip and apologies again for the slight delay in getting going. We’re all good now though; we’ll be heading north for a bit (and about as far north as you can go) and then turning round and heading south until we reach the spot where it all began. Just a couple of very quick things before we head off.
I’m going to assume that if you’re here for the trip then you’ve read the book and will know what happens in it. So, in order to free up more space for discussion, I’m not going to lay out the plot here although of course I will refer to it. If your memory needs refreshing then have a look at the plot summary on Wikipedia which I found to be very thorough and covers all the bases. With this in mind then I realised that avoiding spoilers isn’t that much of an issue. I mean, we’ve all read the book haven’t we? Just bear that in mind though if you haven’t.
All clear? Right, let’s go.
I guess the big question that I had, coming back to these books after so many years, was whether the books are as gritty and grim as they’ve been hailed and, if they are, how they hold up to the “grimdark” fiction of today. If The Black Company is anything to go by then this series can still hold its head high amongst the rest of them. What I found interesting though is the way that Cook handles it all.
War is war and Cook doesn’t shy away from showing us the true horror that can be found around the edges of otherwise noble looking battles between good and evil. That line is blurred anyway (and more on that in a bit) but Cook shows his reader just what it’s like to be on the periphery of these fights with covert missions ending in prisoners digging graves that they will fill and women suffering whichever side is victorious. War is a nasty business, make no mistake about it, but Cook handles it in a rather dispassionate “tell it like it is” manner that lays things right on the line without gloating. I like that approach for its honesty and for the fact that it doesn’t revel in just how grim the plot gets. And it’s all done through one short passage from our Annalist Croaker himself:
I should be used to this. I have been with the Company a long time. And it does bother me less than it used to. I have hung armor plate over my moral soft spots. But I still try to avoid looking at the worst.
You who come after me, scribbling these Annals, by now realise that I shy off portraying the whole truth about our band of blackguards. You know they are vicious, violent and ignorant. They are complete barbarians, living out their cruellest fantasies, their behaviour tempered by the presence of a few decent men. I do not often show that side because these men are my brethren, my family, and I was taught young not to speak ill of kin. The old lessons die hardest.
Raven laughs when he reads my accounts. “Sugar and spice,” he calls them, and threatens to take the Annals away and write the stories the way he sees them happen.
It’s a great insight into Croaker’s mindset and a great way for Cook to back up his approach. You thought it was bad enough already? Well, Croaker is actually shielding you from the worst of it and maybe you should thank him that you’re not going through what he has. Does make you wonder how seriously he takes being an Annalist if he’s not being entirely honest. The Lady seems to think he’s honest enough when she wants him to be her Annalist though, what do you think?
I found it a bit odd then that Cook throws this all out of whack with a brief mention of (Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse) Croaker dreaming about himself with two twelve year old girls; this is on page 284 of the mass market edition. Is this battlefield trauma leaking through into his dreams or is Croaker hiding some particularly nasty secrets himself? I’m leaning towards the former but it’s still a little odd (to say the least) to see this on the page when Cook has taken the approach that he has. Hmmm....
But, onto the book itself….
While The Black Company is equal parts war story and setting things up for future books, there is a lot more to it than that once you really get into the book. I’ve got to admit that, having read the book without looking at a map, none of the troop movements made an awful lot of sense to me. I mean, I got the general gist of things (the Lady winning then the Rebel winning and so on) but it just felt like Cook was marking time and trying to get things set up for the final battle at Charm. Not that the battle wasn’t worth the wait but the talk of battles leading up to it felt like it dragged.
It’s when Cook zooms in and focuses on the detail though, that’s when things got really interesting for me. Through the eyes of Croaker, you see what looks like a straightforward battle between good and evil turn into a battle where the Lady’s “evil” is fighting against a “good that has actually been supplanted by an evil from beyond the grave (the Dominator and her husband). If evil is fighting to halt a greater evil (albeit so the Lady can stay in power) then you have to ask yourself where the line between the two is drawn. If one side is pure evil, does that make the other side good by default? And then take into account the divisions within the Ten Who Were Taken and what that leads to… I actually found myself feeling a little sorry for The Limper (and that took some doing, he’s a nasty piece of work) when the dust had settled and the factions became more clear. And the bit where you find out who Soulcatcher really is… Who amongst us didn’t go “woah…”?
There’s also the question of what the Company is fighting for, other than money that is….
There had been times when the Black Company was prosperous, but never when it was rich. Accumulation of wealth is not our purpose.
For all the talk of “purpose,” you never really find out what that purpose is.
It’s not all deep stuff though, although the entire northern continent is at war there are breaks in the fighting for the Company where they basically kick back and take bets on whether Goblin or One-Eye will win the latest round of “magical one-upmanship.” I’d say the scores are even, although those two would disagree. Anyone else fancy keeping score as we go through the books? These are my favourite moments as Cook shows us that he has a (very childish) sense of humour that goes neatly with his sense of the dramatic,
One-Eye scowled and growled but did not catch on. He got a glimmer when we crested a hill and beheld a band of monkey-sized pygmies busily kissing an idol reminiscent of a horse’s behind. Every pygmy was a miniature One-Eye.
It’s childish but I know I’ll be laughing just as much the next time I read that and other passages.
Cook can also ramp up the action when he wants to and that’s basically every scene with Raven in it. Raven proves pivotal to events in the first five books so get used to seeing him around a lot. For now, he’s a hard bitten Lord fallen on hard times who joins up with the Company and then proceeds to drop them in it by pursuing his own vendetta against the Limper and his command (amongst other things, I’ll be keeping score here too). This will not be the most annoying thing that he does, for now it’s more annoying to see the Company make excuses for him after he proves that he can’t let the past go.
I’ve mentioned my favourite bits but have left the coolest bit for last; I’m talking Forvalaka hunting on the mean streets of Beryl (and they are mean, don’t let the name “Beryl” fool you). The whole question of whether the Company should renege on a contract (a really big deal for them) is firmly placed in the shade by a mythical beast prowling the streets and generally making a generally tense situation even worse. And did Soulcatcher plan it that way? I reckon so… chasing the Forvalaka through the tower was just like a scene from Aliens and the resulting magical firepower makes the comparison even more apt. And to see what has happened to the Syndic just afterwards, the Black Company may not like breaking a contract but if they have to then they’ll leave that contract well and truly broken.
I’m approaching the end of my space here so thanks for sticking around for a re-read that wasn’t so much about the plot as it was themes and things that I generally thought were quite cool. Shadows Linger will focus a lot more on plot I reckon and that post will arrive here in two week’s time. In the meantime, I’m sure I haven’t covered everything so please feel free to keep the discussion going in the comments thread and I will join in.
I’ll see the rest of you in a fortnight’s 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.