I’ve read a lot of fantasy. It is my favourite genre. This will be no surprise to anyone. It is also a genre that is filled with some pretty terrible books: formulaic, bland and boring. I love it, though, because it is a treasure trove of rich and rewarding stories. You simply need to sort the good from the bad. Some of the very best fantasy writers spurn the formula and create something new. I’m going to talk about one such author today. Glen Cook, and his Chronicles of the Black Company.
Glen Cook gave me with something that I didn’t know I wanted: A world beneath the gaze of the super powers. Books that champion a different kind of heroism. A group whose simple continued existence is heroic. The Black Company’s struggle to live, fight and survive in a world of striding giants becomes extraordinarily compelling in Glen Cook’s very capable hands. Anyone that has read a few of my previous posts will be familiar with how I feel about this series. But I feel this topic deserves a post of its own, rather than something I mention in reference to other things.
The series became a cult hit following the release of The Black Company in May 1984 by Tor Fantasy. The books became especially popular amongst veterans and soldiers. There is a good reason for this and it is the key to the unique feel of the books. Glen Cook writes these characters with real soldiers in mind. A quote from an interview with Strange Horizons on 17/1/05, sums it up perfectly:
“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. That’s why service guys like it.”
This is where the grit and realism that separates Glen Cook’s fantasy books from the rest of the pack emerges. These books are character driven, dark and often engender a sense of hopelessness. The characters are survivors – they are ruthlessly pragmatic and there isn’t much room for ideals or moral grandstanding. I can’t think of many other fantasy books that have such a unique complexity, and any subsequent stories that do were most likely written by authors who count Glen Cook as an influence and inspiration.
Croaker, the Chronicler of the Black Company, is an immensely sympathetic character. Worn, weary and observant, he is our window into the Black Company. The rest of the members are in much the same condition as Croaker with their own sardonic and brutal worldviews. I love the brevity and restraint Glen Cook employs in his character construction – especially his tendencies in naming. Everyone the book goes by a handle. Not much in the way of names or background is discussed. It provides fragility to the men and women in the company and the group composition is transitory. We get the sense that it won’t last. It’s a group of worn and battered mercenaries getting on with it. It’s about the Black Company. You wonder about these characters, their history and their story, you are curious but they remain circumspect. They have a job to do. They live and die to achieve it.
For Glen Cook, the Black Company itself is a character and it shows. The books span decades, and the Black Company is more than the sum of its parts. To quote Glen Cook again, from the same interview:
“The Company itself is the character. People go; they fall by the wayside, and other people join the Company and become important. The Company itself is the main character of the book. There’re always more people; there’s always a Black Company.”
These changes were so refreshing and new and unexpected when I found them that I was stunned. It really helped me to realise the power of a focused and pared down narrative. If there is one fault in fantasy it is getting lost in exposition and world building. Don’t get me wrong, world building is a virtue of fantasy, but the absence of a lengthy explanation of a world and its culture and simply plonking us in was striking in its simplicity and helped create the unique atmosphere of the books.
The drained and drawn quality of a world in conflict fosters a pervading sense of doom and risk for the Black Company. This posits an interesting perspective for the group and their values (Again the theme of getting on with the job). The Black Company is distinguished in its uncertain moral ground. The series is a narrative of greys. Given that they are a group of mercenaries pinned between warring powers it becomes expedient to offer their services to either side of a conflict. This isn’t a group of ideologues out to extinguish evil. This is a group that will campaign and kill for an employer no matter where they stand on the moral gradient, as long as they have power and as long as they can pay. It allows the Black Company to exist, to continue, and to ensure a purpose.
I’m really simplifying it too much. There are camps of good and evil in the upper echelons of power in the Black Company’s world, but their intentions and actions are complex. There is an equal risk of being murdered and extinguished by the ‘good’ powers, as there is on the part of the ‘evil’. In fact, there are moments where the actions of the named powers that identify evil are strangely noble by comparison. There is an insanely interesting melange of purpose and motivation swirling around them.
I’m delving far too deeply into the content of the story, but do know that there are ten books in the series, and what we’ve explored so far really extends to the first book, The Black Company. I can’t really do it credit without over sharing, and I won’t do that. This series is best read fresh, just like all of the best stories. Know that Glen Cook has crafted something utterly unique, a series of fantasy books that even today feel fresh and imaginative. Once you’ve read this you’ll start to see how many authors have been influenced and directed by these stories. It puts me in mind of the old quote about the Velvet Underground:
“The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.”
Glen Cook is a superstar of the fantasy genre and while he is loved, and the series is considered a cult classic, he deserves every possible reader. I think he is as responsible for motivating new fantasy novelists as Lou Reed was for inspiring fledgling musicians, poets and artists. Read Glen Cook’s books and you might just find yourself inspired and writing something of your own.
The full interview with Glen Cook by Strange Horizons can be found here.