The Black Company Reread on

The Black Company Reread: Shadows Linger

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve only been able to read through this series once (and that was years ago) so there are going to be books coming up where it will feel like I am reading them for the first time. I’m actually looking forward to that feeling.

Shadows Linger is not one of those books. I’ve read it a few times now and it has become my favourite book in the whole series (yeah I know, even though there are books that I can barely remember reading). For me, Shadows Linger is the most personal book of the series by a long way and that’s something I hope to talk about a little here. It’s also awesome for a whole load of other reasons which will be mentioned as well.

Before we kick off though, a couple of quick reminders about how things will go here. I’m making the assumption that you guys have read Shadows Linger so I’m not going to do a copy-and-paste plot here. If you need a quick  reminder, Wikipedia has a pretty good synopsis. Because I’m making this assumption, it’s only fair to warn you that spoilers will more than likely surface over the course of this post. So there you go. It’s also worth noting that anyone who wants to take things a little more slowly (and go into more detail) would do well to follow Steven Halters excellent commentary which is in the last conversation thread; it’s well worth the read.

Are we all good? Good, lets get on with the book.

While  The Black Company is a novel about the broad strokes of warfare across a large continent, and how a resourceful enemy can swiftly bog down an advance, Shadows Linger zooms right down onto the ground level where everything is far more up close and personal. We’re talking warfare in a city that doesn’t even know it’s at war—either with the black castle (“The people of Juniper ignore the castle’s existence… They do not want to know what is happening up there.”  What a great line) or with the people its ruler has asked for help.

And what a city Juniper is. It’s worth taking a moment to look at Juniper as this bleak setting really drives the plot and events arising from it. Juniper lies far in the north and life there boils down to getting ready to survive the winter. If you can’t find wood to burn or you miss a repayment to a loan shark then your life is as good as over. It feels like Cook doesn’t describe it all that much (the Iron Lily, the burial grounds, and some alleyways aside) but that just seems to add to the overall affect. What’s to describe? All that matters is that Juniper is a nasty place that will kill the weak and not even give the matter any thought. It’s a harsh setting and one where people will do literally anything to either survive or leave. This perhaps might explain why the citizens are paying little attention to the evil growing in their midst, there are far more important things to worry about far closer at hand. Take our good friend Marron Shed for example.

Marron Shed’s tale is what makes Shadows Linger the stand-out book of the series for me. I’m hard pressed to remember another story where someone has sunk so low (through bad luck and then through choice) and then made a conscious decision to go for some kind of redemption, no matter what the cost to themselves. It all seems to happen to Shed and the fact that Cook lets us see it coming gives things a lot more punch when the hammer falls. If there is a strong man looking to take advantage, money that is owed or a woman being all beguiling then you can just bet that Shed will be stood in the line of fire. It’s a vicious downward spiral that can only end at the castle on the ridge.

This is where the horror really kicks in (the castle creatures are creepy) and I for one wasn’t surprised to see Raven blithely go after the cash regardless of the consequences. I mean, I get what Raven needs to do (and why) and it’s an easy way to make money. Can’t he see what is happening though? And surely it’s not too hard to put two and two together? You could say that the influence of the Dominator might be behind this but even so…

When you hit rock bottom then the only way is back up. It’s a hard struggle for Shed but he now has something to work for other than money and some previously hard choices become very easy to make. I love Cook’s sense of timing here. Just as Marron Shed is ready to do some good (he is still mired in evil deeds but ready to turn I think) then the men of the Company make an appearance in his life. And thanks to some alternating POV chapters, it turns out that they really weren’t that far away at all.

This is what the Black Company does best, infiltrating a city and then getting things ready for the hammer to fall. Croaker and a few others were dropped into Juniper to scout things out (while also working with the Prince’s men) before the rest of the Company arrives and it’s a real lesson to see them at work—both in terms of what they do and how Cook shows it on the page. There isn’t a lot of action here, it’s more about hanging out in the pub (or tagging along with the local law enforcement) and watching events play out. It’s in these moments that I started to see the relationships within the Company slowly define themselves a little more. It all looks like laconic chatter on the surface but when you take into account how long these men have known each other (six years since the battle at Charm and a lot longer before that) then you start to see a depth in that conversation. Croaker and Otto deferring to each other’s expertise, the familiar chatter over a game of cards. The conversation has been stripped back over the years but the meaning and closeness is still very much there. They’re all bastards (to one degree or another) but I challenge you to read some of those passages and not think that you wouldn’t mind sitting in on a hand of Tonk.

As the big picture slowly becomes clearer (and Shed’s chapters slowly merge with those of the Company) the stakes get higher and the read becomes all the more compelling for it. This is especially the case as factions start to develop and the men of the Company must start playing one side against the other in order to survive themselves. What kicks all this off? The reappearance of our old friend Raven.

What can the men of the Company do when they realise that not only is Raven on the scene but directly responsible for the growth of the Black Castle? Especially when men like Croaker must tread very carefully for fear of betraying their own hand in the events just after the battle at Charm. It’s a tricky question that attacks the identity of the Company right at its very core.

You have to understand what the Company means. For us, it is father, mother, family. We are men with nothing else. Raven getting caught would kill the family, figuratively and literally. The Lady would disband the Company after she had mauled us for not turning Raven in way back when.

Could the Lady actually disband a mercenary unit like the Company? Croaker seems to think so, although I think that it would only last until the men could join up again. The Company has bonds that are not easily broken but Croaker leaves us in no doubt what the stakes are (especially as we know by now that he’s a “tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy”). The Company has lasted six years in the service of the Lady. Certain people know that they betrayed their commission and now the pressure of that knowledge is starting to really build up; especially with everything else going on in Juniper.

This Juniper business was like some giant, tentacled sea beast from a sailor’s lie. No matter where we turned or what we did, we got deeper into trouble. By working at cross purposes with the Taken, trying to cover an increasingly obvious trail, we were complicating their efforts to deal with the peril of the black castle. If we did cover well, we just might make it possible for the Dominator to emerge into an unprepared world.

Again, the Black Company is good at playing sides against one another while maintaining a show of loyalty to the person with the biggest stick (the Lady). It can’t last though. Events overtake Croaker and his men quite literally (a massive display of pyrotechnics between the castle and the Taken) with nothing less than the resurrection of the Dominator at stake. What’s interesting here is that the fracturing of the Company is far more powerful than the return of an old evil. And so it should be. When there’s no turning back, you just have to take what’s coming on the chin. The Company is turned against itself and loses its figurehead into the bargain.

The carpet skipped like a flat stone, hit again, bounced again and smashed into the face of a cliff. The spell energies ruling the carpet degenerated in a violet flash.

And not a word was spoken by any member of the Company. For as the carpet had torn through the rigging, we had glimpsed the face of its rider.

The Captain.

That sobering passage reminds us just what it means to be a member of the Black Company. It’s a family thing and those with the most invested in it will give the most to protect it. This one action for me marks a real turning point in the evolution of the Company and a big step towards how the Company shapes up over the next few books. That one passage builds up a lot of momentum and things really kick off from there.

This would have been a great place to end if there weren’t loose ends to be tied up and another fledgling black castle to deal with. After the momentous battle in Juniper, these events feel like a slight anti-climax but they are very important in terms of character development and setting things up for The White Rose. Marron Shed’s arc has to end and it does in the only way that it possibly could, given what a harsh and uncaring world this is. The chance of redemption is always there but don’t count on being around long enough to enjoy it. Marron bows out with a smile on his face though and maybe that’s all you can ask for.

Raven also bows out (for the second time in one book—a record?) but does anyone really believe it? All the right people do and that sets things up for what should be an explosive finale to this arc in The White Rose. Darling has a prophecy to grow into, the Lady wants to stop her and underneath the Barrowland the real villain of the piece is stirring…

That’s it for this week, I’ll be right here in a fortnight’s time for The White Rose. I’ve tried to cover as much as I can, in the space that I have, but I’m sure you have more to add. You can do that in the comments thread and I’m looking forward to hearing what you’ve got to say.

See you in a couple of weeks.

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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