Mon
Oct 28 2013 11:00am

The Black Company Reread: Soldiers Live

Glen Cook Black Company Soldiers Live 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.

 


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 and at his blog.

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14 comments
Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
Thanks Graeme--good reread. Whenever “Port of Shadows” comes out, please do resume.
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
The last I heard was that (WorldCon 2012 talk with Glen) was that it was a go but that exactly when it would get published wasn't known at that point.
Drew McCaffrey
4. PallonianFire
While Soldiers Live is not a book without flaws, to this day it has my favorite ending of any book. The last chapter with Arkana and Shukrat narrating was perfectly done, and Croaker's last testimony to the many brothers that fell along the way was profound and resonated well with both the book itself and the series as a whole.

"...I remember, and they all live again.

Soldiers live. And wonder why."
SwissArmyCheese
5. SwissArmyCheese
"The Will will reign triumphant" - Lady on one of the things the Dominator used to say - Dreams of Steel
I like your point on how that old score to settle is what nudges Croaker into action.
I feel that the Forvalaka attack was an act of Shivatya's will. It did more damage than merely killing One-Eye, Croaker himself suffered potentially fatal burns that all but destroyed his eyesight.
Shivatea planned for the old phiscician to lose his sight. It has a sort of poetic ring to it as Croaker trades his blindness for Shivatya's omniscience.

While we are on the subject of Will, am I the only one that picked this up when reading the last books of the glittering stone?
"Surrender to the Will of the Night" Willow Swan on a -
When I first read that phrase I googled it to see if it has been used anywhere else. What we have here is a title drop for one of Cook's future books in the Instrumentalities Of The Night series.
The Bucket List

The way that the eternally wounded Otto and Hagop died, peacefully during a time of peace, fit them just perfectly. I really can't picture this pair losing thier lives in battle. Plus it sort of ads weight to the theory that Hagop and Otto were blessed, and that the blood they shed was the price of their immortality
SwissArmyCheese
6. SwissArmyCheese
It has been sung that Soldiers Live takes place 40 years since the end of the battle of Charm. I feel that a more accurate number would be 37.

The Books of the South take place in a completely different hemisphere to the first trilogy, where there exists an alien astronomy.
In Dreams of Steel Kina is said to be at her most vulnerable under the light of a comet. Just because no one in Soldiers Live notices the comet, once thought of as the sign of The Lady's doom, does not mean it is not there, shining its light on the people of the northern hemisphere.

The French call this series "Cycle de la Compagnie noire", and I think the word "cycle" fits the series perfectly. There is the cycle of the comet; We have One-Eye's cycle of vengence with the Forvalakae (Who else recalls that not only his brother, Tom-Tom, but also One-Eye's teacher was killed by a forvalaka?); There is a cycle in the trek the Black Company has made from the city of Khatovah, Here There Be Dragons, to where the dragons lie (The Barrowlands), and back again.
Julian Lighton
7. jl8e
I think One-Eye's death was fitting; dying of natural causes would be too quiet, while dying at the hands of an enemy would betray his nature as the ultimate survivor. If he had to go, it needed to be something flashy, stupid, and partly his own fault.

I recall not really liking this book when I first read it, around the time when it came out. I think I was still too young to really appreciate a book which is so much about getting old.

Everybody Croaker knows is dead, replaced by youngsters he doesn't really know, and we get to share in the experience, as nearly everybody we know from the old books dies, including the ones that Croaker never really knew. (The longest-tenured Company member at the end may be Suvrin, who was introduced right at the end of Water Sleeps.) This works to make us share Croaker's isolation, but it also makes for a really grim book.

Meanwhile, Lady is being forced to acknowledge that she'll never again be what she once was, neither the legendary beauty that all men desire, nor the legendary sorceress that all men fear. The things she has shaped her life around for so long (the empire, then revenge) are gone or faded, and she's very much adrift.

I think that explains why she can't bring herself to kill Soulcatcher. We know from the first book that she has it in her, and that was when Soulcatcher was a much smaller threat to her. Now, Soulcatcher is the only link left to her past.

(As for why Soulcatcher never killed Lady when she had a chance, she's suffering from sibling rivalry on an epic scale. It's not enough for her to beat Lady; she needs to be able to rub Lady's nose in it. She seems to set her goals by what's important to Lady. Once she thinks Lady's dead and the Black Company destroyed, she seems to be ruling Taglios more out of inertia than anything else.)
SwissArmyCheese
8. Sean Fear
Jl8e,

I agree with all that. For all her faults, I certainly felt very sorry for Lady, up until the last page. Despite being highly intelligent and competent, she'd lost everything she valued over the course of the series; Croaker, her daughter, her magic, her political power, and her looks. So, it was nice to see her story end on a hopeful note.

Without Lady to fight against, Soulcatcher just finds life very empty and boring. She even tries to provoke rebellions against her rule, simply to provide some interest in her life.
SwissArmyCheese
9. Faust
I wish Goblin got a little more recognition. He was the one who got trapped with Kina, and it wasn't his own fault. Then he strikes the final blow and all we get to appreciate of him are bits and pieces that may or not be part of Goblin. He was the last of the original crew with the company since Beryl, and his death paled in comparison to how One-Eye's was treated.
That said, what a great end to a great series. The reader really got the chance to connect and feel how Croaker felt about all his friends being gone, and all the youngsters being oblivious to it, at the end of the long road. And now he gets to remember them forever. It's the best ending a soldier could ask for.
SwissArmyCheese
10. SwissArmyCheese
On Mogaba
When you said that Mogaba beeing venerated as a hero was "one final dig against Croaker", I have to disagree. I felt that out of all the annalists, Croaker was the only one not to despise Mogaba, (although that might have to do with the fact that he gained access to Mogaba's diary).

The tradgedy comes forth as a result of how the Great General and the ex-Dictator never confront each other in Soldiers Live. Croaker never has a chance to forgive Mogaba to his face...
----

Mogaba the Shadow
"You shall lie in the ashes ten thousand years eating only wind"
"My brother unforgiven" - Tobo's graphity
I sort of have a theory that Tobo turned Mogaba into a shadow; Whom abusing Tobo's insomnia, mislead the boy into an ambush from Aridath Singh.... (well, that second part of the theory is optional).
Mogaba was "unforgiven", and shadows are also known as the "unforgiven dead".....
I feel this theory I have has died from malnurishment.
Julian Lighton
11. jl8e
Croaker may not have despised Mogaba -- he certainly respected his abilities, but that doesn't mean he was willing to forgive him.

This book is the only time we really get to see Mogaba operating freely as a general, and he lives up to his reputation. It's hard to rank the best generals of the series, but my top five would be:

1) Darling: Not really any question there.

2) Mogaba: He may be the best battlefield commander, but his ego can get the best of him, and I think Darling has him beat in long-term strategy and resource management.

3) Sleepy: You can make a case she's better than Mogaba, but when they actually fought on more-or-less even terms, it was only a draw because one of Mogaba's commanders completely failed him.

With the intelligence resources she has for most of the last book, she's better than him, and she's also got plenty of skill at guerrilla warfare.

4) Lady: She's probably the weakest on this list on strategy and tactics, but she's the best at logistics and making the most of her available resources. Starting from nothing, she pulled a respectable force together pretty much out of thin air. With the resources of an empire behind her, it was a real question whether Darling could topple her.

She also seems to be the only one with a technological mindset. The stuff the empire produced to combat Darling and the Plain of Fear was completely new. She set up a sorcerous assembly line to make the fireballs. Sorcerers don't do that in the world of the Black Company. They sit on their secrets, sharing them reluctantly, if at all.

5) Whisper: Whichever side she was on was the one making gains back in the first book. If she'd never been Taken, might the battle of Charm have gone differently?
SwissArmyCheese
12. SwissArmyCheese
@StevenHalter
Considering the heavy chapter-by-chapter analasis you did of the first book, I have to say that I am rather disapointed on your latest comments. I am sorry that I didn't tell you earlier that I was reading your commentaries, but at the time of you posting I hadn't learnt how to post comments whilest bearing a red name tag.
----

One bit that really got to me was when Croaker recalls Elmo. In Water Sleeps' discussion we spent a good deal on Big Bucket's influence on the annalist; but we've never really talked much about Sergent Elmo, whom was Croaker's sponcer into the Black Company.
Steven Halter
13. stevenhalter
SwissArmyCheese@12:Haven't had a chance to walk through the later books chapter by chapter. So many books, so little time.
SwissArmyCheese
14. Thomas Lain
I have read every book in this series, several times. Except for Melanie Rawn's Exiles series (which it appears will never be completed), Glen Cook's Black Company series is my favorite all time read. I have to say that why my heart says I would have also fell in love with Doretea Senjak (Lady), my brain knows that Soulcatcher would have tripped my trigger a whole lot more (always had a thing for crazy). Sleepy was a true surprise as an annalist, you really understand where she came from, even if you don't get the details. But on to where this leaves the story, I do not believe that Lady will be able to go quietly into the night, she has been granted threumocratic ability again by Croaker/Shiveyta, and do not forget the Vorsch girls statement that if Lady does get back to her old nastiness Croaker can release Soulcatcher at any time to provide a foil. And Tobo, let's not forget that he has shown a penchant for Darkness himself...

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