The Black Company is an elite mercenary force whose history goes back centuries. Last of the Free Companies of Khatovar, the Black Company fights for coin, but is also a proud army that is its own master. Accepting the commission of the Northern Empire and its ruler, the ruthless Lady, the Company soon finds itself fighting a war against an oppressed populace struggling to be free...but the leaders of the rebellion seem every bit as ruthless and amoral as the Lady and her senior sorcerer-warriors - the Taken - are. Evil battles evil, a continent bleeds and through it all the Black Company struggles to survive.
Glen Cook's Black Company books are widely regarded as being amongst the most influential and important epic fantasy novels ever written. Steven Erikson cites them as the primary influence on his Malazan series, whilst George R.R. Martin is a fan. A dozen years before Martin made 'grimdark' cool, Cook was already writing adult stories about wars, soldiers and the causes they fight and die for, with no elves in sight and no punches pulled.
Published in 1984, The Black Company is an object lesson in how to write a large-scale epic fantasy and execute it with razor-sharp focus and nuanced characterisation, and to do so in a relatively modest page count. More happens in The Black Company's 300-odd pages than in many entire trilogies. Empires rise and fall, battles that make the Pelennor look like a playground scrap are fought and all is seen from the point of view of a single medic and historian, who is all to often drawn in to become part of the events he is trying to dispassionately record.
The book is episodic, with each (very long) chapter relating a different incident during the war. As the Lady's empire battles the Rebel, so the different Taken feud amongst themselves and the Black Company are caught up in one of the exchanges (but don't exactly get much gratitude for taking sides), giving the conflict an air of complexity and extremely conflicted morals. This is emphasised by the addition to the Company of its first native northern soldier, Raven, who has his own agenda. Given that we are with the POV of Croaker, the medic, for the entire novel, Cook achieves an impressive depth of characterisation of the other principals. Other well-developed characters include the old, feuding mages One-Eye and Goblin, Raven and his mute ward, Darling, and the Taken Soulcatcher, who may be a servant of darkness but even he needs to unwind and chew the fat from time to time.
The prose is clipped and efficient, though some criticise it for being blunt. Cook skips descriptors in some sentences, or uses a soldier-style shorthand designed to transmit information with maximum efficiency and conciseness on the battlefield. It can be a little odd at first, but once you get into the author's headspace it becomes second nature, and a marvellously effective way of telling a large, epic story in a constrained space.
Problems? The absence of a map makes the geography of the war (which is critical to the plot) sometimes a little confusing. With one exception, we really don't get to know anyone on the side of the Rebel, making them a somewhat faceless and uninteresting foe. Cook also prefers to avoid exposition, starting in media res and pausing for explanations only rarely. However, unlike Erikson (who employs a similar device at the start of the Malazan sequence) Cook's story is actually pretty straightforward, and by the end of the novel the reader should have pieced together everything pretty nicely.
The Black Company (****½) is a novel brimming with verve, confidence and attitude. As fresh and readable today as when it was published a quarter-century ago, it's a stellar opening to the Black Company series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Chronicles of the Black Company omnibus (along with its immediate sequels, Shadows Linger and The White Rose).