Review: The Black Company by Glen Cook

The Birth of Grimdark?

This year I decided to start writing novels and, of course, they’re Grimdark. I’ve been a Warhammer fan since I was a kid, what else could they be?

But I recently realised my knowledge of the Grimdark subgenre was pretty limited—consisting of just the Horus Heresy and Joe Abercrombie’s novels.

So I had a quick look around at what people recommended online, and Black Company by Glen Cook came up again and again as an important book in the formation of the subgenre.

For me, Grimdark is and always has been synonymous with Warhammer, so to read other people declaring Black Company to be the father of Grimdark was a bit jarring. I had to read it.

And now we’re here, and I’ve read Black Company, and I have thoughts!

Black Company by Glen Cook

The Black Company by Glen Cook Special Limited Edition book cover

I’ll be honest, my first impressions were awful! Haha. I’ll try not to spoil anything, so apologies if I get a little vague with details.

The story is told from the first-person perspective of Croaker, the Black Company’s physician and annalist, and reads something like a war diary.

First off, first-person is not really my thing. It’s rare that the viewpoint connects with me; third-person, and the stories that are typically told in third-person, just seem to fit me better.

It must be a personal thing, because there are plenty of first-person fantasy novels that are very highly regarded out there (Name of the Wind, anyone?), but alas, I feel how I feel.

No long loredumps in this book. Though perhaps there should have been at some points, as Black Company just throws you in and makes you figure out what’s going on by yourself.

The upside to that is there aren’t many long-winded internal monologues, which I find first-person novels can often fall into. Croaker writes his prose short, punchy and to the point, and there were some really nice, efficient little sentences here and there.

There's also a lack of the typical fantasy descriptiveness. No sleepy hamlet nestled in a peaceful valley, with the soft hum of harp and cheer from the local tavern, chimney smoke rising lazily against a backdrop of snow covered peaks.

Croaker keeps things more practical, and speaks to the reader directly quite often. He even makes comments alluding to the idea that what he’s written is not actually the truth—he’s changed events to protect someone's dignity etc. It helps sell that this is a real journal of real events.

A painting of Croaker in a battle

Now, I don’t think this book starts very strong. The introductory situation is hard to grasp fully, and I wasn't really sure I was going to like the rest of the book. At about the 10% mark I wondered if I should just put it down and read something else. My to-read list is big, big, big, and I’ll not run out of contenders for my attention any time soon.

Once the introduction was over though, the book started to pick up, when the Black Company enters the service of The Lady, and her powerful lackey sorcerers, the Ten Who Were Taken. They work against the Rebel armies, and another group of sorcerers, the Circle of Eighteen.

Somewhere between a quarter and halfway into the book, I was finally on-board.

Our protagonist Croaker is a decent enough guy. Not a hero—though with the characters he’s surrounded by, he sometimes feels like one in comparison. It’s not that everyone else is evil, but many of them are just childish, self-absorbed, or machiavellian.

And while there’s a lack of heroes, there’s also a lack of outright villains. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of antagonists, and the Circle of Eighteen are introduced to us as villains, but by the end I wasn’t even sure if they were the bad guys.

It sort of feels like everyone could be the bad guy.

By the end of the book, I was entertaining the idea that maybe the antagonists were actually the good guys after all, and our friendly Black Company had spent the whole book helping to maintain a terrible, oppressive empire.

Many of the sorcerers were very hard to figure out. They were deliberately mysterious, but there was always the question: whose side are they on? Are they on anyone’s side? This wasn’t helped by some twists in the plot that threw further doubts into the equation, but even before then many of the sorcerers came across as having ambiguous loyalties.

The book achieved this without being heavy handed though. It didn’t do anything to try to force me to notice its grey, ambiguous morality, which I was grateful for. Nothing quite ruins Grimdark like a novel getting all self-conscious on me, and yelling ‘Look how Grimdark I am! Right?!’ in my face.

It also never went into an overly emotional place, which I also appreciated. I think some authors try to signal to their reader ‘This part of the book is sad.’ by having their protagonist repeatedly state how sad they are, think sad thoughts, etc. and Black Company doesn’t do that at all. It lets the reader decide which parts are sad.

A portrait of Croaker and The Lady

Speaking of which, Croaker does take part in some pretty bad stuff. He’s rarely the one pushing it forward, but he also rarely objects. He’s as mercenary as the rest of his company, and he’s loyal to them over anyone else, even if that loyalty might seem unheroic.

The sorcerers were undoubtedly the most interesting of the characters. From the humourous escapades of Goblin and One-Eye, the minor wizards of the Black Company, to the inhumanity of the members of the Taken. All of them feel different from one another, with completely unique abilities that lend an almost superhero quality to them, though without all the heroism.

Not all of the characters fell into place for me though. Even at the end of the book, there were characters being referenced that I knew I’d been told about for a long time, but still didn't fully grasp who they were, if they were important to something or other, or if I was confusing them for someone else.

The names didn’t help. They were useful in evoking their character—when a guy is called ‘Goblin’, you can’t help but gift him a particular personality straight away; same with ‘Soulcatcher’, and ‘Limper’. But when everyone has a name like that, some of the less frequently mentioned ones seemed to all blend together.

I think there were just too many characters, and on top of that, old characters cycled out and new ones in as the book went on. By the end of the book, the roster of characters felt to be 80% different than it was at the start. Not all of them were fleshed out, in fact a lot weren’t fleshed out enough.

The Black Company by Glen Cook full wraparound of the Special Limited Edition cover

Something that I did struggle with occasionally was following all of the narrative threads. A character would go off to do one thing, another would start talking about something else, Croaker would be wondering about a third thing, and they all talk about/execute their tasks over the top of each other. It was hard to keep track.

Is The Black Company Grimdark?

Ohhh yes. The heroes and the villains are hard to tell apart, there’s a distinct lack of hope by the end, the whole book is centred around war, and there’s perhaps a single ‘heroic’ event as far as I can recall. Black Company is grim, and it’s dark.

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