The Black Company: Fantastical, anti-heroic fog of war

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Glen Cook The Black CompanyThe Black Company by Glen Cook

The Black Company is an ancient mercenary brotherhood, its members as hard-bitten as skilled. As their ongoing commission in the city of Beryl disintegrates, they escape through the “trap-door” (in its fullest sense) of new employment by a mysterious northern sorcerer; and they soon find themselves the elite unit in the army of the Lady — a legendary figure who, in the eyes of the opposing Rebels, is the embodiment of evil.

The first of Glen Cook’s Black Company novels, this one is narrated by Croaker, the company’s chief medic and historian. His first-person, PG-13+ account is often vivid — though rarely with regard to settings — and moves quickly (though, due to his hard-boiled voice, not as quickly as one might expect from a paperback barely topping 300 pages); but at the same time, he makes few allowances for readers not familiar with his world. The lack of a map often exacerbates one’s sensation of being lost in a fog of war with the company; the reader can only know what Croaker relates, and sometimes even Croaker doesn’t know what’s happening. (Overall, the remark by author Steven Erikson, whose Malazan series apparently owes this one a huge debt, about this saga and Vietnam War fiction on peyote seems fitting.)

There are also sporadic grammatical errors, such as ‘height’ being spelled ‘heighth’ more than once, and one isn’t sure whether these really are errors or extra measures by the author to authenticate Croaker’s voice. (It did seem careless for a character to exclaim ‘Bingo!” early on, when the company’s favorite card game involves shouting “Tonk!”.)

Finally, the narration runs the gamut from utterly mundane to finely wrought, such as a description of whales “dancing in the iron sea” and the grand entrance of the Lady during the (long) climactic battle:

She was very stylish, in red and gold brocade, white scarves, gold and silver jewelry, a few black accents. Like a rich lady one might see in the streets of Opal. Her hair was darker than midnight, and hung long from beneath an elegant white and lace tricorner hat trailing white ostrich plumes. A net of pearls kept it constrained. She looked twenty at the oldest. Quiet islanded her as she passed. Men gaped. Nowhere did I see a hint of fear.

Overall, this may be a book that one either loves or hates — that either inspires one to re-read it and its sequels or else ditch it during the first chapter (which I followed much more easily on a second reading). (Because the enigmatic — and, at the least, Machiavellian — Lady is about the only woman featured, my guess is that female readers will be less likely to love it.)

Recommended as a paperback purchase for fans of military, dark, or anti-heroic fantasy or sword-and-sorcery. Recommended as a library loan for fans of fantasy in general. Not recommended for fans of literary, character-driven, or high fantasy.

~Rob Rhodes


Glen Cook review The Black Company Fantasy LiteratureIn The Black Company, Glen Cook introduces us to a cast of interesting characters and builds a realistic military organization that makes sense. What makes this a great series is that there is an excellent blend of both honor and pragmatism. It’s fun to read because the tempo moves quickly and doesn’t get hung up in unnecessary details and description.

I really enjoy Cook’s treatment of magic and the fact that the main characters know when to be afraid. These are not all-powerful heroes, but men — soldiers — who make sense doing what they do. As a soldier myself, I really appreciate that.

~John Hulet


book review Glen Cook The Black CompanyThe Black Company is not for the softhearted. They’re a hard-core mercenary unit and whatever honor they may have had in their long-history has been all but lost. (Put it this way: at least they draw the line at killing children). Now it’s all about getting a paycheck and — take it from a former soldier — the military jargon and attitude is down pat. Ya’ gotta love that.

It takes a few chapters to get used to, because you get most of what’s going on from the conversations. Croaker, the medic and the keeper of the companies’ annals, tells the whole story. There are a few writing flaws and a little too much sorcery going around for my taste, but there’s enough intrigue and plot twists to keep you hooked.

~Greg Hersom


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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

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JOHN HULET (on FanLit's staff July 2007 -- March 2015) is a member of the Utah Army National Guard. John’s experiences have often left a great void that has been filled by countless hours spent between the pages of a book lost in the words and images of the authors he admires. During a 12 month tour of Iraq, he spent well over $1000 on books and found sanity in the process. John lives in Utah and works slavishly to prepare soldiers to serve their country with the honor and distinction that Sturm Brightblade or Arithon s’Ffalenn would be proud of. John retired from FanLit in March 2015 after being with us for nearly 8 years.

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GREG HERSOM’S (on FanLit's staff January 2008 -- September 2012) addiction began with his first Superboy comic at age four. He moved on to the hard-stuff in his early teens after acquiring all of Burroughs’s Tarzan books and the controversial L. Sprague de Camp & Carter edited Conan series. His favorite all time author is Robert E. Howard. Greg also admits that he’s a sucker for a well-illustrated cover — the likes of a Frazetta or a Royo. Greg live with his wife, son, and daughter in a small house owned by a dog and two cats in a Charlotte, NC suburb. He retired from FanLit in Septermber 2012 after 4.5 years of faithful service but he still sends us a review every once in a while.

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One comment

  1. Brandon Ketchum /

    Aside from being solid fantasy, this series really hit on the military unit. The realism of how soldiers interact and what down time feels like is incredible.

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