Book Review: The Black Company Series by Glen Cook

Like everyone else, I’d heard of “The Black Company” series by Glen Cook and how it was the definitive military fantasy work. I had picked it up a while ago and wasn’t sure what to make of the first person narrative style. But I came at it with an open mind and found I really liked it. For one, it didn’t split up the storyline into several pieces that switch just when the action is starting to get interesting. Like The Dark Tower¬†stories, they stayed on track without deviating here and there much. And I appreciated that.

The Black Company by Glen Cook

The Black Company by Glen Cook

It follows a legendary mercenary unit for the span of around 40 years. It’s realistic and gritty. But not gratuitously so unlike the awful Sword of Truth series or Martin’s Game of Thrones. And it was very personalized. Many have commented that Steven Erikson drew a lot of inspiration from The Black Company for the superb¬†Malazan Book of the Fallen works and I can see where that comes from. The Bridgeburners are very much like the Black Company right up to the habit of giving new names for the soldiers. The Bridgeburners had more women in the rank and file than the Black Company though.

The series essentially falls into two major sections – one up north and one south. The first establishes the main characters as well as the tension between the two primary ones- Croaker and Lady. To me, they are the heart and soul of the books. It starts off almost as a game between them and slowly becomes more serious. A more unusual couple I cannot imagine! We’re used to seeing situations where the roles are reversed – where the male is all powerful and the woman charms him. I like this little turn around of roles.

The problems started when they took away the narrative from Croaker and Lady. The first one to do this was the book called Bleak Seasons which has Murgen as the new Annalist. It was boring, repetitive, and you can skip it completely without missing much. I almost did so then guilted myself into swallowing it. The problem is that Croaker and to some extent Lady were the heart and soul of the books. I just didn’t care enough for Murgen or for his successor – Sleepy. Missed the personal connection.

It’s pretty true to form though. Hardly anyone from the original books are left alive at the end including two of the most colorful characters – One Eye and Goblin. These two wizards who were forever squabbling with each other were excellent comedic distraction. Actually Croaker himself always managed to inject a bit of light heartedness into his narrative. Something that was missing even with Lady.

As far as plot holes go, the company misses many many chances to rid themselves of their enemies once and for all. Hardly a believable move from a gang of manipulative, hard boiled, cut throat killers. But in the interests of story telling license, I can forgive those missteps since without the villains, the story just couldn’t go on. I wish it were more elegantly done though.

The last book wrapping things up returns to Croaker as the narrator and we’re treated to the old magic once more. I think Glen Cook underused Lady considerably in the later books. She’s just relegated to another foot soldier almost without making use of her centuries worth of military and tactical experience. She also behaves rather uncharacteristically for a woman who had the entire world at her feet for good reason.

I liked the way things were wrapped up at the end. A new company with an entirely new population having nothing of the gang who first came south. The way it should be. And with the narrative passing along to two delightfully charming girls captured from another realm, it was a very neat and bittersweet way to end a sprawling military fantasy work.

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