Glen Cook,
The Black Company
(Tor, 1984)
Shadows Linger
(Tor, 1984)
The White Rose
(Tor, 1985)

Modern fantasy has had, almost since its appearance, two main threads. With the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, the path was set for the romantic, heroic stories that most people think of when they think "fantasy." At about the same time, however, writers such as Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock were creating another brand of story, what we may call "anti-heroic fantasy" (some have called it "postmodern fantasy," which to my mind suits just as well): stories much darker in mood, with heroes not quite so noble, although equally heroic.

One of the foremost writers in this vein has been Glen Cook, and his most popular and influential series has been The Black Company. The first three volumes, The Black Company, Shadows Linger and The White Rose, are the story of the Company's involvement in wars that result from the Imperial ambitions of the Lady, a powerful sorceress reawakened after centuries. She is aided by the Ten Who Were Taken, wizards all, who were buried with her and her husband, the Dominator, after their defeat by the White Rose. She has escaped, brought the Taken with her and left her husband in his tomb. It seems the goal now is not so much conquest as the destruction of the Dominator. The story is told by Croaker, the Company's physician and annalist.

Many people claim that the first three volumes of this series are the best and that the remainder fall off in quality. I have not found this to be the case at all. What I think may be operating here is something that Cook himself remarked on: the protagonist in these stories is not Croaker or any other individual character, it is the Company itself. Croaker makes a number of comments about the importance of the Black Company's history and traditions, its stature as the last of the Free Companies of Khatovar (in a time when no one is quite sure what that means) and its constantly changing personnel, as old troopers are killed and new ones join, which points up to me the importance of the idea of the Company as the continuity, the ongoing "person," in the story. Readers get involved in particular personalities and don't like to see them retire from the tale, which I think leads to most of the disappointment with later installments. It's not justified.

Croaker, like Moorcock's various avatars of the Eternal Champion, meets moral quandaries. He says point blank that he doesn't believe there exists an absolute good or evil, merely the least distasteful choice that meets the necessity of the moment. Thus, it takes no great rearrangement of sympathies for the Company to desert the Lady and turn to the new White Rose when the Taken decide to destroy the Company; the Lady won't allow them to be neutral, but they can't trust their former allies any longer. The priority is clear: the preservation of the Company. The contrast with The Lord of the Rings and its successors and imitators is so obvious as not to need stating. The Company doesn't survive by being good but, like David Drake's Hammer's Slammers, by being faster, smarter, meaner and trickier than its enemies. (It's interesting to examine the science fiction and fantasy by writers of the Vietnam War generation, whether they served in the war or not; writers such as Drake and Cook have produced fiction that is mordant, often graphically violent, takes a somewhat jaundiced view of hard-and-fast moral absolutes and is strongly anti-war.)

Although I have been reading Cook's work for a number of years, it never occurred to me until recently to read him for his style. He is a superb stylist. His narrative seems to meld perfectly with other elements so that the very rhythms of the language are carrying part of the story. It's never exactly the same -- the terse quality of The Black Company is not the same as the feel of the diction in Water Sleeps (told by a different narrator in a different setting) and very different from the broken-gaited narrative in The Tyranny of the Night, his most recent novel and the beginning of a new series.

This started out to be a review of the first Black Company trilogy, but the more I think about it, the series is more important than that. Steven Erickson, whose own series The Malazan Book of the Fallen bears strong marks of Cook's influence, has said that Cook single-handedly changed the course of fantasy. I'm not sure that's true -- I think he had help and is, in fact, building on an existing tradition (Cook admits to Leiber as an influence, along with American noir detective fiction) -- but he is certainly one of the most influential writers in the field, and The Black Company is a prime candidate for one of the most influential works.

by Robert M. Tilendis
25 March 2006

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