It is no surprise that it is Gollancz who are publishing this omnibus of Glen Cook's first three Black Company novels—The Black Company (1984), Shadows Linger (1984) and The White Rose (1985)—in the U.K. (This omnibus first appeared last year from Tor in the U.S.) In the past few years, Gollancz have published Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, and Robert V. S. Redick and, most recently, presided over Richard Morgan's switch from science fiction to fantasy. They have established themselves as the new school fantasy imprint of choice. Steven Erikson—not part of their stable but part of that cohort—provides a cover quote on this edition of The Chronicles of the Black Company to the effect that Cook "single-handedly changed the face of fantasy" by moving the genre away from clichés like evil sorcerers. This is a bit puzzling considering that the plot of all three of these novels hinges heavily on the existence of, er, an evil sorcerer, but his wider point seems right.
I’m not particularly familiar with the history of fantasy, but it does seem that Cook was going against the grain when he produced these novels, writing something new and innovative. He blends the urban, intimate, slightly seedy tradition of sword & sorcery with the pastoral, epic, expansive tradition of heroic fantasy . He then infuses this with a pragmatism, modernity, and—most interestingly—a sort of cryptic oddness that is very much in keeping with the new wave of commercial fantasy writers.
The eponymous Black Company are a band of mercenaries. A sense of entropy hangs over them: they are the last of the great companies, their numbers are dwindling, new blood is rare, and they are none of them getting any younger. We meet them in The Black Company parked in a coastal city propping up the unloved ruler whilst strange creatures prowl the night. It synchs very nicely with the weird cities of the contemporary authors I mentioned earlier, but it doesn't last long. For reasons of expediency they tie their colours to a different mast and leave the city in the service of the Lady, a powerful sorceress, to put down a rebellion that threatens her rule. The rest of the book is one long slog of a campaign, covering hundreds of miles and dozens of battles before culminating in a gigantic siege that leaves a quarter of a million men dead.
Our narrator is Croaker, the physician and Annalist of the Black Company. He isn’t a grunt but he isn’t brass either; he provides us with the surprisingly rare perspective (in fantasy) of a professional soldier. As such he provides us with only a partial account, which is one of the most pleasing aspects of Cooks's novels. Croaker doesn’t know everything that is going on and so the complete picture is never revealed to the reader. The length of the campaign in both time and distance produces gaps of information, the motives of some characters can remain mysterious, and the true circumstances of certain events can remain clouded.
Equally, he does not record everything he does know:
You who come after me, scribbling these Annals, by now realize that I shy off portraying the whole truth about our band of blackguards. You know they are vicious, violent, and ignorant. They are complete barbarians, living out their cruellest fantasies, their behaviour tempered only by the presence of a few decent men. I do not often show that side because these men are my brethren, my family, and I was taught young not to speak ill of kin. The old habits die hardest. (p. 102)
It is at least as much Cook shying off as it is Croaker, and it is hard to imagine, for example, Richard Morgan doing the same. Croaker may chronicle a brutal world but the novels are never graphic, a fact that makes them seem slightly old fashioned these days. It is no criticism of Cook that he does not linger lovingly on every description of depravity, but it is interesting, given that this is the book that injected a shot of realism into the genre, and helped steer it on the course towards modern so-called "gritty" fantasy (a term that shouldn't be used these days without at least a twinkle of irony).
I now find myself compelled to return to Steven Erikson’s blurb. This is indulging in a habit which probably marks me out as a bad reviewer and which I know drives authors up the wall, but I can't help it. I agree that it would be nice if books arrived as text beamed directly from the writer's head but unfortunately they arrive as artifacts processed by the publishing industry, and this means they quite often have stupid things written on them. After the slight point-missing noted earlier, Erikson goes on to say that reading Cook is "like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote." Now, I can guarantee that if I handed Erikson a copy of, say, The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh and some peyote and asked him to ingest both, the resulting experience would bear no relation to Cook's work. That said, once again Erikson does—indirectly—raise interesting points about Cook’s writing.
To start with the minor point about psychotropic drugs, although reading Dispatches, Michael Herr’s extraordinary collection of Vietnam War reportage, is a far more hallucinatory experience than reading the Chronicles, there is a delicious, off-kilter oddness to Cook’s work. Croaker starts The White Rose hiding in the Plain of Fear—home of windwhales, mantas, and sentient menhirs—having switched allegiance from the Lady. In keeping with much in the books, the Plain and its Peoples are not easily explicable, either to Croaker or us. After one troubling conversation with a menhir he ponders: "What are they? Where did they come from? Why are they different from normal stones? For that matter, why is the Plain ridiculously different? Why so bellicose?" (pp. 504-5). Things do become clearer, but not much so.
More importantly, Cook served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. Obviously the technologies involved are vastly different and, as far as I can tell, it would be wrong to impose a reading of his fictional war as a Vietnam analogue but his experience does give a weight and veracity to his writing about combat that is often lacking in this bloodthirsty genre. As he put it in an interview for Strange Horizons in 2005
The characters act like the guys actually behave. It doesn't glorify war; it's just people getting on with the job. The characters are real soldiers. They're not soldiers as imagined by people who've never been in the service.
In other ways, though, the comparison to Vietnam War fiction is unflattering to Cook. That war produced an astonishing wealth of literature and Cook is no warrior-poet in the way that Tim O'Brien and Tobias Wolff turned out to be. This is not the fortuitous coincidence of a truly great writer in the making with an extreme, transformative experience that can then be deeply mined. He is more of a craftsman than an artist (and I don't think he would disagree with this).
Excessive prolificacy is a charge that is often levelled at Cook. In the same year as The Black Company he also published Shadows Linger and The Fire in his Hands, a novel in his Dread Empire series. Overall he published five novels over a three-year period. There is definitely a lack of polish here, and reading the three novels contained in The Chronicles of the Black Company back-to-back is a bit of a slog. Cook knows the importance of logistics and planning and so the act of reading itself becomes something of a campaign, a long march punctuated by bursts of action. His prose style is appropriately utilitarian but infuriatingly wavers between the subtle and the clumsy. For every beguiling gap and unexplained enigma, there is a numbing repetition. I lost count of the number of times Croaker described the folly of his romanticised conception of the Lady and his subsequent ridicule by his comrades. By the third book it is beyond a joke.
Cook’s prose does evolve over the course of the series, however. In Shadows Linger, the Black Company have trudged halfway across the world to enforce the Lady's will in the distant port of Juniper. This second book shows a much more adventurous grasp of technique as Cook moves away from just Croaker's voice to split the narrative between him and Shed, a local bartender. Shed is one of the most interesting characters in the novels: a coward who is also a killer, a liar who is easily gulled, a bad and inveterate gambler who is heedlessly profligate when he does buck the odds. Out of these unappealing traits Cook builds a fascinatingly complex man. Again, though, this is not sustained. We leave Shed at the close of the second book and although The White Rose brings three narrative viewpoints there is not a commensurate step up in ambition to create multiple characters as impressive as him but instead a backsliding to the comfort level of The Black Company.
It is perhaps the biggest backhanded compliment imaginable to say something is only of historical interest. The Chronicles of the Black Company is of greater interest than that, but it is certainly no masterpiece and does fit more comfortably into the role of fondly regarded but not often visited ancestor. If it truly did change the face of fantasy that may be its only lasting testament. It will be interesting to see how it is received by those raised solely on its fantasy offspring, and whether it is popular enough for Gollancz to publish The Books of the South, the next omnibus edition.
1. In The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy John Clute notes that "there may be a useful distinction between Heroic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery, but no one has yet made it," but that is a conversation for another time.