The Black Company – review

81VEXHUdwTLThe Chronicles of The Black Company is a series of novels for those of us who like it dark and gritty. Written by american author Glen Cook, the series start of with the novel titled simply The Black Company. Published first in 1984 it starts off a string of 10 novels, that takes us inside the life and work of a mercenary company named…..you guessed it, The Black Company.

Written in the first-person narrative style, the story in the first four books are told by Croaker, the company’s doctor and annalist. These books are also without doubt the best in the series. Croaker is a brilliant character, cynical, fatalistic and soft as a pillow at heart. You may hate the series as a whole, but I bet my Steston hat that you will love Croaker.

“Every ounce of my cynicism is supported by historical precedent”  – Croaker –

The Plot

I will not bore you with a lengthy walk through of the plot and side plots in this extensive series. To make it short it is about this mercenary company (you remember the name?) that suddenly finds itself in the employ of Soulcatcher, a mysterious sorceress with even more mysterious motives. Soulcatcher hails from a land overseas which has a long history of being governed by despotic tyrants. The worst of these were the Dominator and his wife The Lady, both immensely powerfull wizards, who ruled with iron hands 400 years ago. During their reign they hunted down and enslaved other magic users and the ten most powerful of these were turned into a cabal called The Ten Who Were Taken. When the Dominator, The Lady and their pet mages finally got torn from power they turned out to be to powerful to be killed, instead they were entombed and imprisoned in a kind of stasis in a desolate area called The Barrowlands.
And so everyone lived happily ever after……………at least for 400 years.

When out story starts The Lady and The Ten Who Were Taken are freed, how this happened becomes important later out in the series but has little bearing in the start. Luckily The Dominator is still imprisoned and sleeping the sleep of the wicked, but he is starting to stir.
As you may have guessed Soulcatcher is one of the taken and still under the control of The Lady. The relationship between The Lady and her Taken are not one of love and cuddlyness, and there is heavy strife and powerplay among them. Into this hornet’s nest The Black Company now finds itself. There are many different plots and subplots here, but the main one in the first three books is the struggle to keep The Dominator asleep and entombed.

The novels

The whole 10-book series is often divided into three parts. The first one, The Books of the North, covers the theme described above. It consists of the following books:

  • The Black Company
  • Shadows Linger
  • The White Rose

The next part is known as The Books of the South and builds upon the company’s need to find out more about their roots and origins. All they know is that they are connected to something called Khatovar. They have no idea if this is a land, city or a person. Hints in their carefully kept annals suggest that they must travel south, hence the name of this part of the series which encompass the following books:

  • Shadow Games
  • Dreams of Steel

The last part consists of 4 books and are known as The Books of the Glittering Stones and deal with what happens when the company starts to find out who and what they actually are. The reasons for why they were founded 400 years ago may be a bitter history lesson for the company’s stalwart men and women. This last installment consists of the following books:

  • Bleak Seasons
  • She is the Darkness
  • Water Sleeps
  • Soldiers Live

Verdict

I have read the whole series two times. After the first one, many years ago, I promised myself that if I ever read it again I would only read the first 5 books. Unfortunately the older me disregarded the wisdom of younger me. Especially the three first books are some of my all time favorites in the fantasy genre. Not because they are superbly written, they aren’t, but because they are good stories with a very nice set of personas. The characters are diverse and mostly three dimensional. The aspects of good and evil blur and most of the characters have both endearing and disagreeable qualities. First among these is the narrator Croaker (I love Croaker), but there is also the two drunken wizards One-Eye and Goblin, The deadly killer Raven and the enigmatic Soulcatcher among many more.

From book four things starts to go south, literally. Both Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel is worth a read. Not purely on their own merit but mostly because they rap thing up a bit and they still center around Croaker and the old crew. But after three books it seems as Cook started run out of fresh ideas. The stories drag along and even though there are some really cool passages in these two books, the overall impression is that enough is enough. A lot of the old characters are gone and those that replaces them just can’t fill their shoes.

Then we come to the last part, The Glittering Stones books…….to make a long story short; I don’t like them. Croaker is still there but rather peripherally in most of the books. The company is run by characters that just doesn’t cut it. They are boring or irritating, often both. The narrative moves between different persons and the stories becomes confusing and not at all engaging. Cooks love for certain cliches now becomes to obvious and in the last books it seems like he just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.
The one redeeming factor is that the overall ending is acceptable.

So the verdict? Well book 1-3 is a must-read, book 4-5 is a should read, and books 6-9 is a if-you-want-to-be-disapointed-read. Of course, if you like me love the first 3-5 books you wont be able to keep from reading the rest, but then you can’t come crying and say I didn’t warn you!

NB: “Hey!? Didnt he say there were ten books?”
Yes I did. There is a spin-off book called The Silver Spike. Its ok, enough said.


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