Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Black Company is Excellent Military Fantasy



The Black Company by Glen Cook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Glen Cook's first entry in the Black Company series is an interesting combination of originality and trope that bridges the gap between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery. This volume tells the tale of the Black Company from the point of view of Croaker, the Company's surgeon/medic, as they begin their employment under a mysterious figure known as The Lady. While high magic abounds in the world of The Black Company, and happens in the vicinity of the Company, it is not the focus of the story. The main narrative focuses on the skirmishes, battles, and scouting and assassination missions that the Company engages in during a revolution against The Lady.

Descriptions of events are sparse and most character names are nicknames like The Lady, Croaker, One-Eye, Raven, The Captain, The Limper, Darling, Soulcatcher, etc. It is rare that an actual name is used, even in the case of locations in the book. This gives the reader a feeling that they are reading a translation of a text written in another language where the author has translated names into the new language, or a feeling of narrative distance that one gets when reading a history rather than a story.

Cook borrows strongly from existing fantasy literature, both high and low. The Lady can manifest "The Eye" in a manner that echoes Sauron in Tolkien. The grim and gritty battles echo the writings of Robert Howard and the first assassination mission echoes a Fritz Leiber tale of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. While the narrative tapestry borrows from a myriad of earlier literature, with Dark Lords and Prophesied Saviors and all, the end result is highly original. It's a fun read, and Croaker's voice comes through as experienced but not jaded. Some of the best details are focused on the "hurry up and wait" culture of the military, details that add greatly to the realism of the book.

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Back in the d20 era, Green Ronin published an excellent sourcebook for the series. I'd love to see an updated version for the AGE system...which I think might fit the setting better than d20 did. 
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