Saturday, March 22, 2008

Glen Cook - Chronicles of The Black Company (Book Review)

-----"With the Black Company series, Glen Cook single-hadedly changed the face of fantasy - something a lot of people didn't notice and maybe still don't. He Brought the story down to a human level, dispensing with the cliché archetypes of princes, kings, and evil sorcerors. Reading his stuff is like reading Vienam War fiction on peyote."
------------ - Steven Erikson
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Glen Cook is in no need of any introduction, but for the uninitiated and those who somehow missed his works and the impact he had on the genre I will reiterate some of the essential information. He is a contemporary American SF and fantasy author, best known for his fantasy series which follows the exploits of The Black Company. The first trilogy, aptly named The Books of the North, which later expanded into an ongoing series, are ironically his first published works as well as most known and renowned among critics and fans alike. the books I am speaking of and am about to review are as follows: The Black Company (1984), Shadows Linger (1984) and The White Rose (1985). There three books were neatly packed into an omnibus by Tor in the late 2007 and were given a new name - Chronicles of The Black Company. The advantages of this omnibus edition are:

  • The original books are out of print, thus very hard to obtain.
  • The cover art by Raymond Swanland is absolutely stunning and represents, as far as I'm concerned, an almost perfect melding of artist and writer - the cover is dark, moody, expressionist with a hint of both romance and subliminal violence.
  • Financial accessibility; three for the price of one, enough said

This means that you get quality, beauty and a cornerstone genre books in a new shiny package all in one. What's not to like?

This book, three of them actually, griped me, held me tight for the bumpy ride, left me dizzy, out of breath and definitely wanting for more. I feel extremely happy that the Tor Books is releasing the follow up novels of The Black Company this summer within another omnibus – The Books of the South.
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The Black Company is the last of the free companies of Khatovar...which basically means that they are mercenaries for hire and they actually excel at their job. Croaker, a physician and the official Annalist of The Black Company, is the POV through whom the exploits of The Black Company are viewed. Croaker is by no means objective or even aware of everything that is going on at all times but his subjective view is everything Cook offers us and we ought to be content.

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----The story begins in Beryl, where The Company, cornered by the ever increasing demands of their contract which binds them to the role of taming the seething populace for its governor, is half forced and half glad to change allegiance. They leave the city to its fate and enter the service of the Lady under the patronage of one of her highest servants, the Taken named Soulcatcher. The Lady is an ancient evil, a once ruler of a vast empire together with her husband Dominator. She and her jackals, the Ten Who Were Taken, were freed from their entombment and now vie for the submission of the World once again. The Ten Who Were Taken or simply The Taken, grand wizards all, were willed into the service of the Lady and Dominator cenutries ago. The story starts to unfold when The Company crosses the North Sea to help battle The Rebels, a group opposed to the Lady and her plans to rule the World.

--*Minor spoilers follow*
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--The Black Company (1984)
----The first book follows The Black Company’s trial years in the Lady’s service and shows us just how hardy and capable these men are. Croker and some six thousand odd members of The Company battle The Rebel, who are in fact almost as corrupt as the other side and also as riven with internal bickering. The Rebel is a force to be reckoned with and a most worthy foe. The Lady and her forces are on a constant losing streak, and only the final battle fought at the feet of The Tower of the Lady will decide the future of the Empire and with it the future of The Black Company.
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--Shadows Linger (1984)
----The Black Company has proved its worth while battling The Rebel and now becomes the Lady’s most reliable enforcer sent to deal with the toughest missions…and one such awaits them at the eastern edges of the known world – at the city called Juniper, where a mysterious black fortress rises seemingly out of nowhere and there is also a shady problem with the disappearing of bodies during the nights. Identity of The White Rose, who is prophesied to emerge and crumble the Empire of Evil, is a carefully hidden secret held by Croker and some other trustworthy men of The Company; if The Taken or the Lady should suspect anything, The Company would be as good as dead. The Company is playing a dangerous game of high risk, desperately trying to juggle avoiding the Lady’s suspicion as well as doing her bidding.
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--The White rose (1985)
----The cover is blown; Croaker and the remnants of The Company have changed sides and now try to protect The White Rose from the Lady and her superior minions. But as it turns out, there is an even bigger evil lurking out of the shadows - the Lady’s husband Dominator feels left out and now plots to escape the imprisonment in The Barrows as the Lady has done before him. Now, the only chance seems to lie in an unlikely alliance…
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--*End of spoilers*

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I understand that I’ve written a lengthy summary, but which is in the end still undeserving of the story as a whole (=a special strength of the novel in itself). Well, I’ve seen tighter plotting and flashier prose, but the sum of all the elements is what makes this novel(s) so spectacular and not the nitpicking at its specific parts. It is just that Cook managed to conjure a tasty concoction.
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Steven Erikson’s blurb on the backside of The Chronicles of The Black Company (as I’ve copied it above) states Cook as one of his main influences - "a true forefather of the gritty down-to-earth fantasy where princes and benevolent sorcerers exist only in fairy tales and only the grimmest shade of gray has a shot at survival". There is a lot of truth in these words – it is definitely an above average fantasy (and I’m being modest here), but the blurb itself has to be taken with a bit of reserve, since the aggressive sales pitch techniques demand dramatization and overblown aggrandizement.
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Nevertheless, from now on, whenever I’ll be asked what I think of Glen Cook or The Black Company books I won’t hesitate to put him (them) up with the genres best. The subjective Croaker’s point of view may be considered spartan and resembling a journal, but that is what Cook has been aiming for all the time – for us to be reading the Annals of The Black Company as they have been written by the hands of the Annalist, and I found this approach refreshing and enjoyed reading the books tremendously.
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I am not talking about a flawless work of fiction. All I’m saying is that if you buy the style that Glen Cook is trying to sell, than you are in for a real treat. I can understand why some people dislike Cook’s writing or The Black Company books in particular, because this series is really particular in many ways. One piece of honest advice then: if you don’t find The Black Company to your liking 30 and some pages into the book it would probably be for the best if you put it down, because no major changes occur later on which would drastically sway your mind. I for one though found the book worth every penny and from now consider myself as joined to the ranks of the huge legion of Black Company fans.

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(4 out of five)

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~ Thrinidir ~

3 Comments:

argon said...

this one has been on my wish list for some time now, but I couldn't decide. your review makes it easier now. thx!

ben1xy said...

Great review! Like you, i really enjoyed this book. And yes, the coverart is awesome!

ThRiNiDiR said...

thanks for the the thumbs up guys.

 

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