The Chronicles of the Black Company (and More Rogue One)

In the Rogue One thread (where, BTW, douglas has now weighed in) I brought up a series of military fantasy novels that I think many at the Hall would enjoy, Glen Cook's The Chronicles of the Black Company. (Ignore the cover art on that edition. Please.)

Cook himself, I believe, was a corpsman for a Marine Recon unit and fought in Vietnam, and the books read that way, although the Black Company is a medieval-style free company and instead of all the high-tech support Marine Recon gets the Company has their own section of sorcerers.

If you've ever wondered what a Vietnam-style counter-insurgency would look like in a sword & sorcery world, here it is. In the first novel, the Company is hired by the sorceress queen of an empire to root out and destroy a troublesome insurgency that seems to keep growing despite her own army's victories. Prophesies of the White Rose, a messianic figure, give many of the queen's subjects a religious fervor for the insurgency, and so the Company is tasked not only with fighting the insurgents but disproving the prophesies. There is some good military cloak-and-dagger work in that. Of course, the queen's own generals grow to hate the Company as she increasingly relies on it to do the job her  native regiments don't seem to be able to accomplish, so the Company is always watching its back as well. It's a great story.

Now, back in the Rogue One thread we had a good discussion of heroes, anti-heroes, and the value of "ethical risk" in a story, to borrow MikeD's term. The Black Company begins on the other side of things: villains, anti-villains, and the imperative to maintain a reputation as an organization no one ever wants to go against. So what's the attraction? How can the reader sympathize with this band of  knaves?

First, I have to say it's been years since I've read these books, so I'm just relating the impression they have left on me after all this time.

I think in part the reader can sympathize because Cook's world is morally ambiguous; there are no clear-cut good guys. In part, it is also because Cook has that magical power to make you believe his characters are real people. Sure, they work for whomever pays them, but the men of the Company fight and die for each other, they are courageous and cunning, and as I read their story I was proud of their victories and grieved for their losses.

They are all deeply flawed, but in their own way they are doing their best. To join the Company is to forsake everything else; enlistment is for life. You go where the Company goes, and the Company goes where the contracts are. Imagine the backgrounds of men who would willingly sign on that dotted line. No one has anything or anyone waiting for them back home, except maybe the sheriff. They have no family but each other, and they are fiercely loyal.

One of the things Cook does well is show the reader what it means to fight for the man next to you, even when the man next to you is a pain in the butt and a moral reprobate. There is also the pride of being the best, and of consistently taking on the toughest jobs and pulling them off, even when you might end up on the losing side of the war.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there are a couple of redemption stories. If anti-heroes run the edge and have to fear crossing over to become villains, some of the Company are anti-villains who run the other side of that edge and fear becoming heroes (something they don't believe in), but the light calls to them.


Tom said...

Now I'd better sneak off and re-read them to make sure I still agree with myself from 15 years ago ...

Eric Blair said...

I have, and I have thought that Cook leaves GRR Martin in the dust. If you read all 10 of them, the story does not end up where you think it will go and is a real trip. What an imagination.

douglas said...

The kids have been reading books lately that made me think of an old series I never finished, but had read a couple of the books in elementary school- "The Dark is Rising" by Susan Cooper. Decided to get them the books for Christmas. Flip open the first book to check it out, and in the intro you find out that Cooper got started as a journalist, but got to the books on the side- starting by entering a contest, and not winning, but continuing regardless. Then I get to this part:
"I went on happily writing my story. it didn't qualify for the E. Nesbit prize, and it wasn't published by Ernest Benn, but it put me inside a world of fantasy that I've never left. Maybe I'd been there all my life already, as a small girl soaked in fairy tale and myth, and as an undergraduate listening to J.R.R. Tolkien recite Beowulf and "The Battle of Maldon".

Well, heck- no wonder I liked the books.

This was pretty good too:
"I knew about the Dark and the Light as well. Until I was ten years old, my family and I had spent a lot of time in the air-raid shelter in the backyard, listening to the bombs of World War II. My brother and I used to go to school with a school bag across one shoulder and a gas mask across the other. My imagination and I grew up in a world where nobody was safe."

Ironic, isn't it that if you manage to make a world where your children en masse don't face any kind of existential threat, they have to fill their anxiety quotient with silly things, and forget how to identify evil at all...

Tom said...

OK, I re-read the first one and it's as good as I remember. My description in the original post could probably use a touch-up, but it gets the idea across.

douglas, thanks for recommending Cooper. I've added the series to my reading list (though I probably won't get to them for a long, long time).

I think you're right about filling the anxiety quotient. We all live in a dangerous world, and it can be "out there" or "in here." There's no way around it.

douglas said...

"I think you're right about filling the anxiety quotient. We all live in a dangerous world, and it can be "out there" or "in here." There's no way around it."

I may have been right, but you just said it so much better. I'll have to remember that- it's good.

Oh, and no promises about the Cooper books. I haven't read them again yet, they might be not so good as I recalled...but I'm hopeful.

douglas said...

just checking the email follow-up box