“Chronicles of the Black Company” Glen Cook

Chronicles of the Black Company is an omnibus edition of the first three novels in the Black Company series. I’ve seen these books recommended several times over the last few years and I’ve finally got round to reading them. This book is a secondary world fantasy, of a fairly medieval flavour, where magic exists. Our protagonist is Croaker, the medic and records keeper for the Black Company – a band of mercenaries that have existed for the last few hundred years. As we start the first book they are contracted to protect the ruler of and enforce law and order on a city. This rather less than satisfactory contract is coming to a close and they take on a new contract in a certain amount of haste – this turns out to be working for the Lady, as part of her army putting down a rebellion in her lands in the north.

The Lady is … not nice. In fact she’s on the evil side of the good/evil divide. Once long ago she, her husband (the Dominator) and their chosen/magically bound servants (the Taken) were imprisoned and buried by the forces of the White Rose. The Lady and the Taken were released (some time ago when the story starts) and now rule almost uncontested over the north. They’re not immortal, in that they can die if you stick a sword or an arrow in them, but they aren’t going to die of old age. The only “good” thing about their release, is that the Dominator is still bound … And this is who the Black Company has contracted with.

There is, of course, a prophecy. The White Rose will be reborn, and when the comet returns (as it does every 29 years) fortune will favour her, and presumably she can defeat the Lady and the Taken again. This is what the rebellion is all about – the rebels don’t know who or where the reborn White Rose is, but it’s the year of the comet and they are determined to find her and overthrow the Lady. But things aren’t that simple, this is not that sort of story.

This is a story where everything is shades of grey, the question is just how grey they are. The Dominator and the White Rose do represent the two ends of the spectrum – he’s pretty close to black, she’s pretty close to white. But for the people on the ground – Croaker and the rest of the Black Company, the inhabitants of the land they’re in, the rebels, even the Lady and the Taken – nothing’s black and white. The rebels are, frankly, as bad as the regime they’re fighting against – war’s a dirty business, civil war particularly so. It’s not really a war of pitched battles, either – skirmishes and ambushes and sieges instead. With all the messiness of civilians getting caught up in it too. The Black Company’s honour and pride is bound up in honouring their contract, and so having taken service with the Lady they must fight for her (tho later in these three books that does change). And the Lady herself isn’t wholly evil – through Croaker’s fascination with her we see glimpses of humanity, increasing through the three books. It’s never quite clear, however, how much of that is her manipulating him (and through him the others). She’s also not as bad as the Dominator – her marriage was not a love match, and as well as ruling the north and fighting the rebels she is also making sure that he doesn’t escape his bindings.

Croaker and the others aren’t particularly saint like, either. There are the occasional offhand references by Croaker to the Company troops being let off the leash for a bit of looting, pillaging and raping every now and then when they win a victory. The officers (like Croaker) will step in when it goes too far – they’re an honourable Company – but there’s a certain matter of factness about the brutalities of war. And they do work for the Lady for rather a long time – and it’s self-preservation that drives them over to the other side in the end. Most of the mercenaries probably have a past they’re escaping. We never find out what this is, for any of them, not even Croaker. The slate is wiped clean when you join. Pretty much everyone uses a nickname not their real name. Of course some of this is because the magic of this world has a concept of one’s true name carrying power, but that’s not the whole story.

The quote on the back of the edition I read is from Steven Erikson (who wrote the Malazan books) and he says (among other stuff) “[it’s] like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote”. And it does feel very much like modern warfare – this is not a book about a glorious medievaloid battle of Good vs. Evil. This is a mundane and grubby war, where you hope you’re not on the wrong side even though you know you probably are. Where most of the people involved are doing their job – some of that job involves killing people, most of it is tedious and there are occasional moments of sheer terror. It’s epic fantasy as seen from the point of view of mid-ranking characters – not in charge, but a step above pawns. But it’s still an optimistic trilogy overall – there’s no happily-ever-after with Good reigning transcendent (and anyway, there are more books so the story isn’t over) but the arc is a positive arc. And even if our characters weren’t princes and lords they still had agency and could make a difference when it mattered enough.

There were other things I wanted to talk about (like how much I liked the various supporting characters) but I think I’ll wrap up here coz this post is long enough. I’m glad I finally got round to reading this – it was as good as I’d heard it was 🙂