I discovered Glen Cook as I was browsing through the local library when I was just a teenager. I read one of the blurbs on the back of his first novel of the series of The Black Company and was sold. That was my very first encounter with Military Fantasy. Glen Cook remains one of my favorite writers I’ve read so far, and will probably stay on that list forever. Here’s my review of the Chronicles of The Black Company omnibus, which contains the novels The Black Company, Shadows Linger and The White Rose.
The Black Company, mercenary unit of Khatovar, finds itself in the service of the Empire of The Lady. She’s an ancient evil who enslaved ten wizards thousands of years ago, the Ten Who Are Taken, with her husband the Dominator. But in the past they were defeated by the White Rose and put to sleep. Unfortunately, The Lady is back with the Taken, keeping the Dominator – the bigger evil – in the ground.
The members of The Black Company get enlisted by Soulcatcher, one of the Taken, who orders them to fight the Rebel movement now that the comet is back in the sky. The comet which signals the ancient war between good and evil. Croaker, historian, physician and Annalist is right in the middle of it, as he attracts the eye and attention of The Lady herself.
Once he finds out that one of their members, Raven, has been harboring the new White Rose, he helps them get away. Because he’s seen the evil that surrounds The Lady but he also knows she’s the lesser of two evils. The Dominator must not rise.
The Black Company gets to foil one of the Dominator’s attempts to break free in Juniper, where they also get all of the original members of the unit to go AWOL. They shift alliances and ally themselves with the deaf and mute child they once knew as Darling, who is now the White Rose. The war between the Rebel and the Empire continues for years, before a horrible truth comes to light. The Dominator’s resting place is slowly being destroyed, by nature itself.
Now, the White Rose and The Lady must fight together to stop the Dominator and his creatures from getting out and unleashing a new era of Domination upon the world.
Glen Cook used a very interesting writing technique for his novels. One of the main characters, Croaker, is the physician, historian and Annalist for The Black Company. We see much of the events through his eyes; the books are written as if they were his Annals. Therefore it’s written in the first person point of view and you as the reader will be surprised by many things you didn’t see coming. It’s much like a book consisting of chronological diary entries. (This changes in Shadows Linger and The White Rose, for plot and continuity reasons)
I think Glen Cook writes very realistic characters and his books deal with the lives of common soldiers, not kings and queens. The three stories are intertwined even though between the second and the third novel some years have passed. He manages to make the war still relevant, after many years and many battles. The Black Company members tire of it all, but it’s still an important matter. I disagree with the some reviewer whose name I forgot, who says The White Rose doesn’t live up to the reputations of its predecessors. It does, but in a different way. The world the characters live in is different now. They are different. And therefore it fits.
What I especially like about this omnibus is the fact that there don’t seem to be any good guys. The main characters are mercenaries serving a great evil, The Lady, but the Rebels don’t shy away from using the same vile methods as the ones they perceive as evil. And The Lady is trying to prevent the rise of the Dominator – her husband – and an even more evil wizard. So you could say that there are anti-heroes and evil people in these novels, but not actual heroes. One could argue that main characters are always the heroes, but I disagree.
Even though the members of The Black Company aren’t the typical run-of-the-mill heroes (or even anti-heroes for that matter) I did grow fond of them within the first few chapters of the first book. Especially of the narrator Croaker, the wizards Goblin, Silent and One Eye and cold-hearted killer Raven. It might seem strange to be endeared by these kinds of characters, but they are very much the heart of the books. The characters make the story.
I also liked the fact that the stories were so dark and gritty. I’m more used to Epic or High Fantasy, which can be dark, but not in the same way. I guess that’s what makes it different from Military Fantasy. The military life can’t be compared to the life of warriors and princes.
When The Black Company first came out, Epic Fantasy was all the rage. So it was very refreshing to see a book that headed in another direction. In fact, Cook’s books were the inspiration for Steven Erikson’s Malazan novels, which has gotten a lot of critical acclaim. If you’ve ever read Erikson, the similarities will stand out quite a bit. Both writers focus less on the epic stuff and more on the human side of Fantasy.
Dark and gritty Fantasy has become more and more popular over the years. James Barclay, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson; they’ve all taken a few pointers from Glen Cook. And I’d say Glen Cook has taken some pointers from David Gemmell, when it comes to creating understandable and relatable characters, who don’t fit the typical hero or villain stereotype. You need to think when reading his novels and your perception of things will be changed – if ever so slightly. That is what Glen Cook has taught the next generation of writers.