“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 🙂

“Control Point” Myke Cole

I’m torn about how to sum up my feelings about this book – is it flawed and doesn’t work for me? Or is it ambitious but doesn’t work for me? This post will have spoilers because I don’t think I can discuss it without.

The basic premise of the book is that some event has happened in the relatively recent past of the story and now people are developing magic powers – they manifest in some particular power (controlling fire, say, or opening gates) and it can happen to anyone at any time. And the US (the world?) has reacted by categorising them, prohibiting some sorts, and (I think) conscripting them all into the army. Oh and by invading another dimension, with its own indigenous population that are called “goblins” by the humans.

The excerpt I read set me up for a story that I ultimately didn’t get. This is actually the same sort of problem as I had with the film Avatar, and is definitely on me and not on the book (or film, in the case of Avatar). The opening scenes of Control Point read like the protagonist, Oscar Britton, was going to be part of a majority of “good guys” in the military working against loose cannons like Harlequin. The opening scenes of the sequel, Fortress Frontier, read the same way with a new view point character – and I read that excerpt before this book turned up in the library. So I thought what would happen was Britton would manifest, then would go on the run (I read a review, so I knew that was on the cards) but then return to the military and work within the system to both do the necessary job and to help change things so kids weren’t being killed by a military supposed to protect them. And that’s not what I got at all. Part of my lack of enjoyment of the book is that I thought it was going in one direction, and then it wasn’t.

So that’s some of the “didn’t work for me” part of my opinion. If that had been all – if the story was just a different sort of story to my expectation – I might’ve still enjoyed it overall. I liked Avatar, after all, even if I’d still like to see the film I thought I was getting! 🙂

But I also didn’t like where this story went. The whole of the military and by implication the government that are in charge of them seemed to me to be deeply immoral, and it felt like it a caricature written by someone philosophically opposed to the military (which doesn’t appear to be the case from reading Cole’s bio on his website). For instance – they’re invading this new dimension that the world has access to since the event that caused magic to happen. Not for a reason that’s ever mentioned, and in the story it’s a covert invasion and the population at large (even a lot of the military) don’t even know there’s a dimension there to invade. It’s never shown as a reaction to a threat, it’s just “ooh it’s there, let’s conquer it”. They’re brutalising and killing the indigenous population in a way that makes one think of the way the white settlers and the young US dealt with the Native American population. And that parallel is emphasised by a group of antagonists in our dimension who are Native American terrorists using the new magic to try & secede violently from the US.

Everyone who manifests is conscripted into the military, initial training involves brainwashing as well as teaching them control. And either the brainwashing takes and they “voluntarily” join the military proper or it doesn’t take and they hang about being trainees until it does (or forever). Even if you manifest in a non-prohibited school of magic you’re not allowed to be a civilian once you’ve learnt control – nope, you need to “volunteer” or stay to rot. If it’s a prohibited school of magic and/or you go on the run when you manifest coz you don’t fancy vanishing into the military then as far as the outside world is concerned you either die or are locked up forever – but the reality is that you “join the military as a contractor” with the threat of actual death always hanging over you and none of the rights of a real soldier. Britton has a bomb inside his chest, coz that’s the sort of brutal thing this army does when they don’t think the brainwashing will take.

It is more than probable that this is intended as a dystopic view of a potential future – a “what if” about how a totalitarian leaning US government would react to people gaining superpowers. An extrapolation from the sort of regime that runs Guantanamo Bay. But to me it felt shallowly caricatured rather than interestingly dystopic.

And then we have Britton who goes through the entire story fucking things up via not thinking more than one step ahead in his “good intentions”. Again, I suspect this is deliberate – and this is the bit that makes me tip my opinion towards “ambitious but doesn’t work for me”. It’s a working out of the proverb that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Britton tries to save the kids at the start, but his actions actually cause more people to get hurt. Britton goes on the run, but he can’t control his powers & people die because of it. In trying to protect himself & get the bomb removed from his chest Britton gets people killed, rather than try the option that might have a higher risk for him but a lower risk for everyone else (this one in particular is signposted as a bad idea so strongly that I really can’t imagine why Britton ever thought it was a good idea). And that’s just a few examples – the whole book is full of them.

As I was reading it, I was thinking it’s a flawed story of an evil army doing evil things because it’s evil, with a hero who we are told is smart but who can’t seem to ever engage his brain before acting. But after finishing, and thinking about what to put in this post I started to think it’s an ambitious story about what would happen if the military machine that runs Guantanamo Bay & Abu Ghraib had to deal with American citizens manifesting dangerous superpowers, and how even the best of intentions don’t matter when you don’t think about the consequences of your actions. But nonetheless, it didn’t work for me – on the whole I’m more optimistic about human nature (perhaps that’s naivety, I have a feeling that’s what Cole would say). And I prefer reading stories that share some of that optimism, or at least have a protagonist that I like rather than want to shake and tell him to “think first, damnit!”.