Glen Cook’s The Black Company was a milestone work that had an outsized influence on the fantasy genre. Which is probably why Tor decided to reissue it (as a handsome trade paperback with a bland cover) for their “Tor Essentials” line this past Tuesday. That reissue got me to finally read it. I had long since owned The Black Company in mass-market paperback, but I finally cracked it open after Tor sent me a review copy of their new edition, complete with new introduction by Malazan author Steven Erikson.
First published in 1984, The Black Company technically falls after my arbitrary cutoff for Vintage SF. But it isn’t like I was reading much adult fantasy at my tender age in 1984, so it and its peers are as new to me as a book from 1964 or 1944. Also I was lazy and didn’t post a review on Tuesday when the book was released like I should have.
The Black Company follows the titular Black Company, more commonly referred to and otherwise referred to here as the Company. The Company is a free mercenary company with a history dating back hundreds of years. And POV character Croaker should know; when he isn’t serving as the Company medic, he serves as its annalist, both maintaining records of that long history and writing new history as it happens (the book is ostensibly excerpted from those annals, although Cook doesn’t lean into that conceit).
The Company starts the book in the southern continent on Beryl under an existing contract, but they quickly find themselves headed to the northern continent in the service of the Lady. They start out fighting rebel forces in the north but find themselves fighting backwards, mostly, across a good chunk of the continent. The Black Company is the sort of book where it is handy to have a map ready at hand. Unfortunately, neither the new trade paperback nor the old mass-market paperback include maps. Cook was evidently not a fan. A map was issued with an RPG adaptation, though.
After an early encounter with a were-leopard/vampire, The Black Company doesn’t have monsters, just monstrous men. There is plenty of magic, though. The Black Company keeps multiple sorcerers on staff. The Lady herself is an immortal sorcerer who is effectively a demigod. Her primary lieutenants are the Taken, ten immortal sorcerers of slightly less immense power, one of whom, Soulcatcher, hires the Company and is there primary point of contact. (There are substantial parallels with the Forsaken from The Wheel of Time, but that is a discussion for another day.)
The Black Company is both an epic fantasy and an anti-epic fantasy. It is the latter because it flouts many of the conventions of the sub-genre. In a world of doorstoppers, it is a relatively slender volume, with my trade paperback clocking in at 274 pages and my mass-market paperback at 319. The worldbuilding and exposition are scant and entire battles skipped, helping keep down the page count. The story is told from the perspective of the bad guys. The Company and Croaker are not only on the wrong side but bit players (at least at first). But for all that, it is still an epic fantasy. The stakes are epic. There is an evil Dark Lord (albeit a Lady). There is even a Chosen One. But The Black Company is much more than just an epic fantasy.
The Black Company is also a major work in the military fantasy sub-genre. Steven Erikson’s introduction draws parallels with the novel that was adapted into Full Metal Jacket. I have seen other references to Catch 22. The Black Company is a mercenary company, and the novel follows its soldiers. It follows them as they fight battles, yes, but also as they squabble and play cards (so much time spent on them playing cards). There is a verisimilitude to it. Cook served in the Navy (although he just missed going to Vietnam). Cook himself said that “the characters act like [soldiers] actually behave . . . they’re not soldiers as imagined by people who’ve never been in the service.” There are other, little things, like consistently referring to the rebels as “the Rebel” as if they were a single person, much like American soldiers referred to the Viet Cong as “Charlie” in Vietnam.
Perhaps most importantly for the genre, The Black Company is a landmark and sub-genre-defining work of Grimdark. It was this aspect that was most interesting to me, changing some of my conceptions of Grimdark by omitting tropes I thought key to the sub-genre. It is not gratuitous. Which isn’t to say that the soldiers of the Company are nice men. Croaker openly admits that he shies “of portraying the whole truth about our band of blackguards. . . . They are complete barbarians, living out their cruelest fantasies, their behavior tempered only by the presence of a few decent men,” but they are also his brethren, his family. It isn’t nihilistic. Late in the book, Croaker admits that his comrades are “morally dead.” But they are his brothers, his friends, his family, and they “acted moral within that context.” Nor is it morally relativistic. Croaker starts the novel disbelieving in “evil as an active force, only as a matter of viewpoint,” but by the end of the book he has seen something that, if “not evil incarnate,” is “as close as made no difference.”
Through much of The Black Company, I expected to give the book a mediocre-to-good rating and set the series aside without a second thought. The ending, though, which is a classic epic fantasy first-book ending that is both satisfying in its own right and sets up the rest of the series, flipped my evaluation. It still didn’t floor me. It could have benefited from more worldbuilding and exposition, and I’ve read too many books influenced by it for the military fantasy and Grimdark aspects to be revelatory. But it is very good, and the next two books in the original sub-series will go on my list of books to look for every time I am in a used bookstore.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
 I own a copy of Catch 22 and have been meaning to read it forever. The comparison with The Black Company doesn’t exactly rush that process. Catch 22 is supposed to be a very funny satirical work, and The Black Company, for all its virtues, is not that.