“Evil is relative…You can’t hang a sign on it. You can’t touch it or taste it or cut it with a sword. Evil depends on where you are standing, pointing your indicting finger.”
~ Black Company, Glen Cook
If being caught up in the mire (if swamps could ever be characterized as uplifting or positive) of catching up to obligatory ‘fun’ reading is any form of a valid excuse, then I’ve had a hell of an excused year.
2018 was the year I decided to put down the controller and take my reading/writing seriously, and I’ve had a lot to show for it. Ploughing through nearly the whole compendium of Wheel of Time, Malazan, a few Sword & Sorcery tossed in the mix, notwithstanding the serious dedication to near-unpalatable philosophy…well I committed if nothing else to Nietzsche. But the book that perhaps made me question writing altogether was not the acclaimed fantasy series by Robert Jordan (which I will critique on an extremely critical level in the extremely near future *tugs braid). It was not a vibrant, Tolkien-esque expose of breath-taking worldbuilding and color. It was quite the opposite, but the theft of air from my lungs at its end was quite succinct.
I am speaking of the book known as Black Company, by Glen Cook.
With an introduction that was far less like a steeped cocktail to soothe the night away and more a bucket of absynthe flung into your nostrils, the grim, fictional retelling of legal murderers-for-hire was not at all what I expected.
Black Company is and was not a story of the mere morally ambiguous and noble soldiers of heartwarming candor and character. They were mortal, human. They made mistakes. They killed people in the least noble of ways. They drank and spat. They cried in anguish at the horrors committed by their enemy, who were in every sense the ‘good guys’. They questioned their proprietors, who were in fact demonic and villainous, yet mortally fallible themselves.
Glen sets himself up with a close-knit cast of mercenaries that aren’t described in length, even the protagonist, a sort of combat medic named Croaker. You guess their appearance and begin to imagine yourself how they would look like, based on the dialogue and amusing actions they take to entertain themselves between battles. Scenes and surroundings are kept to a bare minimum, prompting the reader to craft their own imagined forests, bluffs and scum-ridden urban dwellings. You are prompted to dwell on quotes that scream nuance and complexity, even from the mouth of villains.
Black Company reads like soldiers cajoling over the grisly carnage they witnessed in war, replacing the fabled archetypes with dark gods that possessed beating hearts in a melody of melancholy that is a duality with our own world. It is not taking on the ‘edgy’ quality that plagues the modern fantasy tale, but rather a suitable outlook from ugly, hardened warriors who probably believed that becoming a mercenary would be glorious, drinking their nights away at taverns with girls dangling from either arm.
Black Company asks the reader to ponder on the subjectivity of evil with a level of seriouness that can only be achieved amidst a civil war and two squad-mages who toss the equivalent of psychedelic magical mind-f*cks at each other to stave off the boredom. Albeit not pleasant at times, entertaining, sombering, uplifting and rewarding to read, to say the least. It was thoroughly my favorite book of 2018. It’s not a terribly long read and I could not recommend it more, even to those who stray from the typical 10-lb, 1200 page fantasy novels.
Without saying too much, it has egged me onto an anthology project I’ve been working on -soon to be published as well- that I think everyone with a taste for historical fiction and fantasy will crave like the eggnog, not the beverage we deserved but the one we needed…this last holiday season. Until next time (and sooner, I sincerely promise!)
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