“Hard science fiction” focuses on the science of the story, often at the cost of character and plot. “Hard-boiled fiction” often features a cynical, jaded protagonist steadily battling against the forces of evil, but making little overall progress. The Black Company books are often categorized as military or dark fantasy, but perhaps “hard fantasy” would be more accurate, as Glen Cook combines the hard-boiled voice with classic fantasy tropes that we might expect to see in a board game.
The setting could not be any more “sword and sorcery” if it tried. There are ancient emperors of evil struggling to return from the dead. Meanwhile, Croaker and his company are an elite mercenary unit constantly battling for… well, not for good. If anything, they are fighting for an evil sorceress. Humanity is little more than chess pieces in this epic war. So it should come as no surprise that Cook’s mercenaries are a jaded, cynical lot. Cook’s narrator, Croaker, has a tired voice that comes straight out of a hard-boiled detective novel. His companions have few qualms about torturing their enemies. Perhaps the darkest of all the soldiers is Raven, an especially dangerous man.
Unfortunately, Raven deserted the Black Company in The Black Company. Unbeknownst to his friends, underneath that thuggish exterior, Raven has a heart of gold. Now, he’s in Juniper, trying to survive the brutal winter and protecting his charge, the innocent barmaid in a world of suffering, Darling. Cook does a fine job of working with this premise. My favorite moment in Shadows Linger finds Raven collecting the frozen dead from Juniper’s snowy streets. He drags the bodies into his wagon and delivers them to a necromancer whose castle is slowly getting bigger. He may be strengthening the forces of evil, but who really has time to think about these things?
And that’s just the beginning. From Juniper, Cook zooms out and we learn that Croaker and his elite mercenaries have become entangled in a centuries old war. The Dominator of old is returning to life and before long, Croaker realizes that Raven and Darling have become caught in the conflict as well.
The Black Company series has become a classic work of fantasy, and of the original three books, my favorite entry is Shadows Linger. Here, Cook begins to invest in his characters without sacrificing the hard-boiled edge that made The Black Company so fun to read.