This year I am all about discovering science fiction and fantasy as genres, because I am a complete noob when it comes to that. Lord of the Rings is pretty much all there is in my mind’s picture dictionary under “fantasy”, and when people use a phrase “space opera”, I think of Gaston Leroux characters floating in vacuum. I’m just that clueless. So far my venture into the unknown has been a bit underwhelming, and you will know why once I get around posting about Nine Princes of Amber and On A Pale Horse. If there ever was a fertile ground for some self-indulgent Gary Stu-ness, then ’70s and ’80 were it! The Black Company is no exception.
I first heard of the series when researching the next good fantasy to read in vein of A Song of Ice and Fire, and it was at that point that I was recommended Glen Cook. Many fans claim these books to be gritty and dark, while the characters are described as multifaceted and morally-ambiguous, which might explain the connection to George R. R. Martin. But after I finished the first installment, I had to really think hard to find any comparisons justifiable.
The story concerns a group of mercenaries that get hired by omnipotent Lady – a very powerful ruler, who wages war on Rebels that dare to oppose her. The company’s physician – Croaker, – is also an annalist and the story’s narrator. He tells a tale of the company’s campaign across the mythical lands, all while fighting strange creatures, surviving assassinations, witnessing incredible magic, and playing cards against a chronic cheater. Honestly, it sounds more exciting than it actually is. The book failed to grip me. Oftentimes I would find myself wondering about something else, while my eyes kept on reading. I frequently got confused about the storyline and lost the thread altogether on more than one occasion. There was a lot of walking from point A to point B, to point C, and so on, without any incentive for the reader to follow. What I think the story needed, was a good build-up. A good book should be like a mountain, when it starts out slow and steady, but soon gains head-spinning height, so you can suddenly find yourself racing to the top eager to see what’s out there. The Black Company is more like an endless field, featureless until in hits horizon. Each action scene is no more exciting then the previous one. I actually thought that the fight with a were-leopard in the beginning was more exciting than the final battle with the *gasp* arch-villain. So why should I continue reading?
Cook did create an interesting concept of the Taken – the chosen ten warriors close to Lady. The twist is that Taken used to be Lady’s great enemies that were turned into allies by magic after a defeat. I enjoyed both Soulcatcher’s and Shapeshifter’s characters, even though they weren’t overly detailed. Catcher had multiple voices, each for the soul captured, and Shifter possessed the power to turn into any human or animal in order to infiltrate the enemy’s troops. Another great piece of lore within the Black Company were the forvalaka, who were vampiric lycanthrops sealed by a magical spell under the Necropolitan Hill in Beryl city. Their release in the very beginning by a powerful lightning that broke the seal was a very effective plot device, in my opinion. What I would have liked more, is their story of origin and capture. Unfortunately, there is not much back-story for anybody in this book.
Seriously, after reading over three hundred pages I still don’t know who Croaker is besides that he is a field doctor who likes to daydream about pretty women. I have no idea where the Black Company men came from and what brought them to be mercenaries. After being teased for an entire chapter about Raven’s fascinating past (hello! the guy had a major beef with his wife!), it was conveniently wrapped up and never even explained. That’s just lazy writing.
My major concern with this book is justification of violence from the hands of the so-called heroes against civilians, and especially women. Croaker even admits that the company is fighting on the side of evil and yet he does nothing about. Okay, Cook wanted to write a realistic narrative where the protagonists are not necessarily purely good people, I get it. But there are two ways of writing out bad guys: you can make them despicable, or you can make them flawed. Cook spends the entire book writing how these (admittedly likable) persons march across the land slaughtering villagers and plundering for any spoils without a reason. At one point, during a minor battle, Croaker was approached by his companion with a unconscious naked woman over his shoulder. Croaker knew what the guy intended to do, but he shrugged it off as a natural result of warfare. Suddenly rape was okay. At another instance Croaker was seen kicking a woman in the head repeatedly until she passed out, because she was an enemy general. Was I the only one who felt uncomfortable? And I sometimes read some sick-sick things that would make your eyeballs shrivel…
I don’t know, the book is just not for me. I applaud to those who rave about it, because I envy them. I wish I loved this garbage too, instead of wasting so many hours reading bad fiction. I couldn’t care less about the characters, the plot never engaged me (I never had such a hard time concentrating on a page before), and the moral ambiguity was just distastefully done. I might never give the sequel a shot, but I want to take some time cleansing my palate and calming down before I give a final no.