Way back when I was still a kid (alright, MORE of a kid) I would read fantasy novels with an obsession worthy of religious zealot. Nothing else really tickled me fancy so I rarely diverged from my literary beaten path. Eventually my tastes changed, I became a bit uptight and moved to different genres. Now as I feel growing sentiment to the days of old I began to return to my once only and true love. And I had a perfect opportunity to do so since I have won in a raffle a book strongly recommended by my friend.
The titular Black Company is a group of mercenaries, the last free company in a constantly war-torn world. They are hired to serve and enforce the will of the Lady, an ancient evil empress that was awoken along with her servants from an eternal slumber.They travel the land fighting against rebels, being used as pawns in the games of Lady’s servants, the Taken and playing cards during their down time. In what might seem like an average fantasy story in a toned down yet cliché world (the semi-medieval setting lacks elves, dwarves and dragons so I have to appreciate it), Cook manages to mix things up and defy genre in few ways:
- The narrative. The events are told to us though the Croaker, the Black Company’s doctor and historian. As a matter of fact the book is written as a chronicle of the company. The book and the chapters start abruptly and in confusing places, as if pages between them have been torn out. The readers are thrown into the world the life of the Company without any introduction or explanation and the sentence structure is very abrupt and jumpy, the narrative rushing from one place to another introducing dozens of characters on few pages. As the story continues it becomes clear who is important and what is happening but at the beginning it is very confusing. Also the fact that the story follows events that Croaker has witnessed and described it does not always give us the full-scale of the events and the brotherly love he feels to his fellow companions makes him present them as better people than they are in reality.
- The Black Company. It was refreshing to read a story which does not focus on the chosen one, child from a prophecy or another world saviour. The Black Company is just a band of mercenaries; granted, they are good at what they do, but it is caused simply by their desire to survive and make profit. As a matter of fact, Croaker makes it clear that they avoid fighting unless it is necessary, the prefer to be cunning.They are working for powerful people, but they are not almighty themselves, they are just ordinary soldiers. I have read that this book was extremely popular among soldiers deployed During the Gulf War; and I can see why. When there are no fights and schemes readers can witness regular life at the military camp with party banter, pranks, gambling, bets and friendly rivalries. It is very easy to believe in this honour bound family of rouges and their interactions.
- The morality. Probably the most intriguing attribute. The story tells of times when the Black Company served the Lady and from the first chapter it is made clear that she is evil and it is impossible to doubt that at any point in the story. We follow the protagonists as they continue to serve the forces of evil and as they proceed both the protagonist and the readers start to question what is right and what is wrong. When will it be enough, how many evil deeds does it take to draw a line, what is more important morality or honour of the company and most importantly is the Company evil because of for whom they work?
Overall it is a pleasant yet not perfect read which auspiciously diverges from some of worn out clichés. I will most probably follow the series or at least couple next volumes.
Three out of five evil empresses.