Glen Cook’s The Black Company was first published in 1984. It is the first in the series of books about the “Black Company.” The cover art was done by Keith Berdak and was taken from a description within the text. The art is also some of the coolest, most gripping art of the 1980’s novels. Let’s face it; how do you see this cover in 1984 and pass it by?
The Black Company is a very odd and difficult read. For the first 150 pages of the novel, I was generously going to give it no more than three-stars as a rating, and I spent the whole time marveling at the fact that so many readers have given it four or five-star ratings. This novel is the epitome of “character-driven” and “no detail.” In fact, the plot itself is a bit challenging to discern until the reader is somewhere over page 220.
The difference, I think, between this character-driven novel and others, is that The Black Company is almost episodic in its structure and the characters do not really develop or change or move the storyline forward. Things happen to the characters. The characters are perpetually caught in the current of the river that is the plot – but, that very same river is unnamed and unfamiliar to the reader, too. The first 100 pages are easy to breeze through – except I found them aggravating and frustrating because I had no idea what was happening. Literally, no idea because it all seemed completely disconnected, random, and confused.
Yes, for the most part of this novel, the novel itself seems confused. Not that it is confusing, but that it itself is confused. Disjointed and disconnected. Okay, we all like mysterious plotlines once in awhile, but in the first 200 pages it definitely seems like there are some really basic, necessary points that the author has left out. It’s like he is writing a story without writing a story at all. It does seem mad and confused.
Which is why if you are going to tackle reading this one – you have to force yourself to remain calm and keep reading. At least until page 200. Everything after page 200 (a mere 114 pages more) makes everything before it more sensible, reasonable, and palatable. But can readers push themselves to read nearly 200 pages of randomized confused – HEY, I think the author LEFT SOME STUFF OUT – sort of reading?
This novel is told in the first person by the main character, Croaker. He is a veteran medic and soldier in the mercenary troops of the Black Company. Croaker also has the additional duty of being the Company’s Annalist. This means he is their historian – so he is frequently called upon to witness and record events, battles, moments within the Company. However, the novel itself is not the annals that Croaker writes. It’s more like his in media res commentary of life within the Company – which is always punctuated by the antics of the other soldiers, the battles the Company is dispatched to fight, and the incidents that happen to the Company.
It needs to be mentioned, unlike most military/fantasy military novels, we are never ever given descriptions of anything. I mean, you won’t learn what their uniforms look like or what gear they carry. Readers do not discover what sorts of weapons are used or which character is most proficient in particular arms. The end fifty pages of the novel actually depict a location under siege, which is done very well and the author deserves praise for this intense writing. However, nowhere in the novel are there lines like: “… and then he punched him, while swooping his sword arm; but his opponent ducked and thrust his dagger forward. The clang of the dagger on his shield distracted him, so that he failed to counter with a blow from his war-anvil.” This is decidedly not the standard “military-fantasy” that can be seen in sections of Brandon Sanderson or Steven Erikson novels.
And there are wizards and magic carpets and people get killed, brought back from the dead – trained as zombie-wizards and get to be patrons of battalions. Yes. Indeed.
So, I am giving this novel four stars because it started off as in media res randomized nothing and then got me addicted. And it aggravated me and was confusing. And then all of a sudden, I really was interested in what was happening and how the characters fared – although I really wasn’t entirely sure how the story had gotten to where it had. And after finishing it, I really miss the characters and the story and, though I have no solid idea about the setting whatsoever, I really want to read the next in the series. This writing style is very odd and unique. The whole thing – whatever it may be – thoroughly grew on me, so to speak, by the end of the novel. And now, I totally understand why so many readers rated it so highly. Getting readers past those first 150 pages before they give up is gonna be tough!