The Black Company (The Chronicle of the Black Company, #1)

The Black Company - Glen Cook

Excellent storytelling in a slightly insidious, unreliable narrator style that may not be for everyone.

The Black Company is something of a fantasy classic, but it's quite different from almost anything else out there. This is no black and white world, it's black and grey, and soaked red with blood. The heroes are not good or even nice, the righteous rebels are even worse, and the chief evil is neither the enemy nor the worst thing in the world. 

And it's all told in a sparse style, as if you are sitting by a fire in a smoky pub, listening to the annalist of the company tell you his story, knowing full well that he's no more reliable than the next narrator along. 

I can see why it's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's definitely mine. 

And I think its one of those rare books that is much, much better, on a re-read, once you've come to understand the point of view, and aren't spending the first few chapters floundering with it. 

Stylistically there is little exposition, which I confess is totally fine with me, I don't need it. There's enough, when it's needed, and put in context of us hearing the story from a self-admittedly unreliable narrator, in a company of mercenaries who necessarily have left their lives behind them, mean not only is there no way to know the details, but there are none to tell. Just guesses, and rumours, and stories. There's world building aplenty, if you care to read between the lines, but exposition is indeed rare. I prefer not to have everything spelled out for me, to build my own images. There are not pages and pages of description, and if you are a G.R.R. Martin fan, this is probably not a book you will enjoy much, but for me that makes the small descriptive passages shine even more when they do crop up. 

 

The land slowly became silvery green. Dawn scattered feathers of crimson upon the walled town. Golden flashes freckled its battlements where the sun touched dew. The mists began to slide into the hollows. Trumpets sounded the morning watch.


Such simple and clear imagery, not flowery purple prose, but I think quite evocative nonetheless. 

Our storyteller, Croaker, can sum up an entire battle in a sentence and sometimes does:

So we went and did it. We captured the fortress at Deal, in the dead of night, within howling distance of Oar.



Or when it suits him spend five pages detailing every detail of another. Because he's telling us about what matters, not what happened, and there's a difference. 

It reminds me of listening to my grandfather and his cronies on the rare occasions they talked about their war experiences, and indeed Glen Cook was a soldier. Like Elizabeth Moon (also career military, something I didn't know until long after starting to read her books) there is some sense of recognition for me having spent time around military types, both as a child and later: A certain wry black humour as a way of facing, or even avoiding, horror. It's subtle, but it's there. Odd, perhaps, that they both chose to write about mercenary companies, albeit in quite different ways.