Mon
Jul 1 2013 8:00am

The Black Company Reread: The White Rose

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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7 comments
Alicia Dodson
1. LynMars
"Hollow" is a good word to describe the almost too-quickly-over battle in the Barrowlands. I mean, it stretches for several pages (at least on my kindle it seemed to) and a lot happens to a lot of people, but I felt...strange after.

Not in a bad way, though. I think it was an emotional reaction to this particular storyarc resolving finally, the loss of so many characters, the still-conflicted feelings of the survivors. I was satisfied as a reader, but still eager to see more of these people in the next books of the series to see where they go now that the Dominator is truly gone and both the Lady and the White Rose (as figures of power) are no more.

This is the start of Raven's downward spiral, as the "cold badass loner" trope he embodies is broken by the "betrayal" of Croaker and Darling's own harsh response; he never expected her to actually grow up and change, I think, as if she'd stay a lovestruck teenager until he was ready to do something about that.

Croaker has to step forward in the wake of losing most of his beloved brothers, to do what he never wanted but what's needed. And he can only think of one thing to do. The Lady's new status is an ambiguous one--explored much more in the Books of the South, but here it almost seems hopeful, a little, as they spend much of the book growing closer as people instead of their roles as Ruler and Historian.

I'm looking forward to The Silver Spike read; I actually really enjoyed it. I'm working on the last two books in the series now, my first time through.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Toadkiller Dog is one of the best names ever.

I know what you mean about kind of wanting to see more of the Dominator, but the key is that if we had actually seen very much of him then everyone else would be dead or worse.

The loss of Elmo and the rest really has heartbreaking.
Terence Tidler
3. libertariansoldier
First, I need to thank you for the reread. I had never made it through to the end, as the Book of Murgen had always but me off to the degree that I stopped. Thanks to the reread, I finally went through to the end.
second, while the loss of many old timers, especially the Lieutenant and Elmo was sad, I think that is in fact a principal theme of the books--time passes, good people die, evil can always return, and it is the Company that is eternal (well, at least 400+ years).
concerning the final battle with the Dominator, I do not agree it was too short, or that he was not kick ass enough. It took everything the Lady and the White Rose combined to bring him down, and logically it all had to happen in a short period of time--either he gets out from the short radius of the null bubble, or he doesn't.
Narsham
4. Narsham
The brief moments when the Dominator is outside the null seem sufficiently apocolyptic that anything more would have meant a loss for our team. If anything, I felt it was more epic in the sense that the Dominator was genuinely cornered (save for his last ace in the hole) and everyone else there was focused on his defeat first, then backstabbing each other. The fight itself is almost an anticlimax in the sense that we expect things to work out until after the Dominator is defeated, at which point the real drama occurs.

And it does.

Much like the confrontation with the Limper in Shadows Linger, the fight here with the Dominator reflects our heroes doing everything they can right, while the villain doesn't exactly have much subtlety. But Cook's also very interested in deflating the idea of epic battle. If you're fighting a close battle, either you really messed up or the other guy is unbelievably tough.

I also like the slow realization that the reason Darling can help defeat the Dominator when the original Rose couldn't has to do both with her ability to collect allies and with the Dominator losing all of his. Underneath all that is a shift from the martial traditions of the lone hero to the traditions of the Company: employing guile as much as might, taking your enemies systematically and piecemeal when possible. Add the Lady's own brand of bureaucratic slaughter to the picture and you get the battle Cook gives us.

The real hollowness here captures survivor's guilt about as well as I ever hope to understand it (second-hand). At the same time, it hammers home the point Cook always makes, that one powerful being is never a match for people working together.
Narsham
5. Evan C
Great re read! Thank you for this. I just wanted to put in a plug for Bomanz because he single handedly took on a dragon (twice) and is a large reason they succeeded in defeating The Dominator.

Also, what are people's thoughts on the whole legacy of Dominator's thing the Old Tree brought up? How every thousand(?) years or so an dominator rises to terrorize the world. It really plays into a point made earlier that Glen Cook really pushes the idea that evil always finds a way back. Which interestingly ties into the fate of the Company. Doomed to die out and rebuild again and again, so long as a single seed remains. I do wish we could have learned more about the era of the Old Tree and its origins.
Graeme Flory
6. graemeflory
I'll be back to comment properly tomorrow but this is just a quick one to say that I totally dropped the ball with my 'Silver Spike' post and it will be here next Monday instead. Following that, everything will revert to the bi-weekly schedule (August 5th, August 19th, and so on). Sorry about that everyone.

Cheers,

Graeme
Wm Henry Morris
7. WHM
Fantastic comment, Narsham. I'd only add that one of the reasons this is one of my favorite books of the series is because of the emotional journey the Lady experiences.

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