Monday, April 18, 2016

How Glen Cook Breaks the Rules

I wasn't very far into this book when I realized Glen Cook does not care for rules.

It seems like there are rules when it comes to writing medieval-inspired fantasy. Even those writers that "break" the rules like George RR Martin or R. Scott Bakker or Andy Remic or Stan Nicholls or Richard K. Morgan or any other author you've heard described as a writer who "breaks the rules" of writing fantasy...well, they don't break the rules like this.

Cook breaks the rules of narrative. And it seems like he's doing so on purpose. The world of the Black Company is introduced to us via the Company's resident medic and annalist, a man named Croaker, who tells us everything that's going on, entirely from his point of view. Now, like I said, Croaker is just the medic and annalist, or record-keeper. He's older, he's not much of a fighter and this means he doesn't see much of the real action firsthand. It's very odd. He'll tell us, almost in an
offhand way, that a regiment of the company just got back from riding out looking for an enemy, but he didn't tell us they'd gone. It's just another mission to him. What was likely a great battle that writers usually take us along for, sword stroke for sword stroke, we're just told that it happened because Croaker wasn't there to witness it. In fact, a lot of Croaker's time is spent waiting at camp, playing cards and arguing with the company's officers and wizards. It should be boring's not.

Through Croaker, Cook makes the everyday mundanity of war more real. Croaker isn't an officer, he's not often privy to the information his Captain receives. As already mentioned, he doesn't even see a lot of action. But then, this is likely true for the average soldier in an actual war. Much of his time is spent waiting for something to happen, and not knowing what that something is, only that it scares him.

Now, I'm probably making this sound like a story wherein nothing happens, or it all happens off-page, but this isn't true. As many times as Croaker is left out of the action, he's included in it about half the time. He'll be brought along on a mission, sometimes to be an active part of it, and several fairly important scenes he does witness. But he witnesses it from his perspective, and Cook never forgets that this is Croaker writing, not him, and thus, he will report his own take on events, whatever they are. If he doesn't understand what's happening, he'll simply write "I don't understand what happened next, so I won't try to describe it" or something like that. The company wizards,
Goblin and One-Eye
One-Eye and Goblin, frequently work magic in front of him, and it sounds like they're doing amazing things. But Croaker has seen them do this sort of thing before, and he definitely doesn't know how they're doing it, so he literally describes it as "Goblin moved his hands and mumbled some words" and then tells us about the magic he just worked in this sort of "ho-hum" tone that implies it's so run-of-the-mill that it doesn't bear much comment, or explanation. Yes, in a genre where readers often demand an explanation of how something happened, no explanation is ever given. Croaker doesn't know the answer and doesn't care to know. And we will only ever know what Croaker knows, at least in this volume. I haven't gotten to the others yet.

It's just odd how an epic story is unfolding in these pages, and yet the eyes we're seeing it all through belong to an old, war-weary soldier who often can't be bothered to give us much detail about what he's seeing. This is what I mean by I think Cook narrates this way on purpose. It's not that he can't paint a vivid word picture telling us about the epic battle that's being waged over the next hill. It's not that he can't make us see the blood spraying and steel flying before us. It's that he won't, because Croaker wouldn't. Croaker isn't a poet by trade, he's just keeping records. If anything, sometimes he's more detailed than any record keeper would be.

But that's not the only way Cook breaks rules. His dialogue is very, very modern, and I don't just mean the use of modern-day profanity (the word shit shows up a few times, but not even all that often). I mean, it's almost like an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or Xena: Warrior Princess. These characters, who live and work in a setting very similar to A Song of Ice and Fire (that's the novel series Game of Thrones is based on, if you didn't know), say things like "get your butt back here" or "you guys aren't supposed to be doing that" or even "cut the crap". The pseudo-British accent I always imagine period fantasy characters speaking in often sounded just plain odd having to say "don't mess with him" or "hell no!"

Other ways Cook plays around with the narrative; Croaker rarely describes what another person looks like, unless it's the first time he's seeing this person. Many in the company, men he's been serving alongside for years, hardly get a note of description. The nameless Captain is described as being an older man, and that's all the info we get about him. Elmo, a sergeant who's close friends with Croaker, is described as being a big man roughly halfway through the story. Up until then I'd pictured him as
How I pictured Silent
smaller. He does like to describe the company wizards, which also include a creepy guy named Silent, who, as his name implies, never speaks, and apparently has a pretty evil smile and a look that makes one uncomfortable. Croaker describes him as probably the most evil man in the camp, but again, does so with his signature "but I don't really care" style.

The Black Company is, ultimately, a very interesting, quick-moving story about a mercenary company that prides itself on honoring their contract. At the start of the story they're contracted to be the personal protection for the "Syndic" or ruler of a small city-state where rule feels more like mafia clans warring over territory. The Syndic has umpteen enemies that wish to see him fall, and the Company is getting tired of their food being poisoned and being knifed in their sleep by the Syndic's foes. Death in battle they can handle, but they never signed up to be murdered while sleeping off a hangover or having lunch.

So when a powerful-seeming legate comes into port on a giant ship and offers them a new contract, everyone in the company is eager to take it. But they can't just break their current contract, or their reputation will be ruined. So instead...they allow the Syndic to be killed by a mysterious werebeast and presto, no contract. So they sign up with the legate, who turns out to be a powerful wizard named Soulcatcher. Soulcatcher is one of the Ten Who were Taken, wizards of incredible strength whose wills were enslaved by a demonic being called the Dominator and his wife, known only as the Lady. Soulcatcher serves the Lady, who is basically this story's answer to Sauron or Voldemort. That's right, our "heroes" spend the bulk of this book in the service of the bad guy. They are, essentially, minions of the Dark Lord, the Orcs of this story, if Orcs existed in this world.

And, like I said, this is all related to us in a somewhat blase, unremarkable manner by a guy who isn't all that impressed with what's going on. Or at least, wants you to think he isn't. There's one scene
The Limper
(one of my favorites) where another of the Taken, one of the more frightening among them, known as the Limper, just walks into the inn they're staying in and sits down. The palpable fear in this scene is somehow all the worse due to how the members of the Company present pretend not to be scared, Croaker even serving him tea and the others asking if he wants to be dealt into their card game, all while they're secretly pissing themselves at their proximity to him.

Now, the question I'm still asking myself is, do I respect Cook for sticking to this bored, simplistic narrative style even when it probably would have helped to give us more, or am I irritated at him? I can't even tell. I was continually surprised by it, maybe even a bit annoyed by it, but I kept reading.

I plan on reading the sequels, too. Oh, we're not done with the Black Company by any stretch. This is a ten-volume series that will continue in the volumes Shadows Linger, The White Rose, The Silver Spike, Shadow Games, Dreams of Steel, Bleak Seasons, She is the Darkness, Water Sleeps and Soldiers Live. None of them are very long; their omnibus versions are even a bit shorter than the average fantasy novel, but something tells me I'll have a lot to say about them. These books are neo-classics, but also are somewhat underground. They didn't get the hype of, say, the Shanarra books or the works of Feist and Eddings. Which is understandable; these books owe more to the (at the time considered) dead genre of sword-and-sorcery, and they've inspired quite a bit of the "grimdark" authors of today (don't worry, I have lots to say about the "grimdark movenemt",  but that's for much later). One can even see where Steven Erikson was inspired to give his soldiers nicknames like Antsy and Fiddler instead of "fantasy names" like Aragorn.

As I read, I'm thinking I'll be doing a post exploring the characters of this series, and I might even share with you my ideas for casting a film or possibly television version of this (which I think would work well but only if it showed us the stuff Croaker doesn't like to talk about).

Stay tuned for more on this epic dark fantasy series.

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