Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The Black Company

As part of my Black Company read-through, I'm going to be offering reviews of each book as I finish them. This means we'll be spending a lot of time with them, as there are ten books in all, and I also plan to do some more "thoughts on" posts like the first one.

I'm adopting the "good, bad and ugly" style of reviewing for this blog. It helps me to really sum up how I feel about it, and what I liked and didn't. This post will cover book one, simply known as The Black Company.

So, without further ado:

The Good
If what you're looking for is gritty fantasy, you've found it. Glen Cook really knows how to make a person feel what the average soldier in the field likely feels more often than not. I love Joe Abercrombie, but comparing his one major war story, The Heroes,  with this one when it comes to letting us feel the bewildering day-to-day going where you're told to go without the slightest idea what's going to happen when you get there, the mind-numbing hours that pass as nothing happens and you're not sure if you'll survive once it starts happening, but you still just want to get it over with, well, there's no book better than this one. That he manages to do so merely by conveying one man's impressions of the entire war is a great tribute to his ability to suck you into the story, and the fact that it doesn't get boring even though the characters are bored is amazing.

In less than 350 pages, Cook manages to squeeze in a ton of epic fantasy without making it feel squeezed in. Part of that is managed by simply cutting out page upon page of backstory and info-dumping, something most other fantasy writers can't seem to stop doing. We get glimpses of characters that sound awesome, scary, weird, mysterious, but our narrator Croaker isn't privy to what's going on with these characters, and thus, neither are we. It's a very utilitarian style of narration that has things moving very quickly, forcing you to pay attention and keep up. This is the kind of narration that bothered me when I read Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber, but there I got the impression that Zelazny wanted us to feel the awe, the sense of "wow" that comes with a lot of fantasy, and that he wanted us to empathize with his lead character. Here, it's clear that Cook doesn't want to wow us. He's not interested in creating a sense of awe. He wants us to feel oppressed, worn out, done for. He wants us to feel mud in our boots, get sore feet from days of marching, get weird itchy places where moisture leaked through your armor, or just go out of your mind because you're sitting around waiting to find out if you'll see sunrise. He shows us an epic fantasy through the eyes of a man who's seen it all and just wants to live through it. And mostly, it works.

I also enjoyed the layers of mystery built into the narrative. Some were revealed in this novel, and some I don't doubt will be revealed in later novels, but Cook knows how to set up a good mystery and see it through.

There was a substantial amount of moral relativism in this book, and while other authors might have had the main character agonizing over it for pages upon pages, or just be an evil bastard who doesn't care, and repeatedly tells you this, Croaker and his brothers are just tired, hungry, cold, sore and their moral compass seems to point at the path of least resistance more often than not. This is illustrated in the first chapter, where the Captain of the Company manages to get them out of the contract they're in by simply allowing the man who they signed with to die. This puts them into the service of this universe's answer to Sauron, or Voldemort, and not one of them wastes time wondering how they'll break this contract or if serving an evil overlord makes them evil. They're fighting for the bad guy, and yet still make us care what happens to them.

In a lot of ways, this book is the anti-Tolkien, and it is so without seeming to want to be, nor does it seem in any way to be some sort of slam against the type of literature Tolkien wrote. However, if you want a book that will prove that absolutely not all fantasy writers since Tolkien are merely copying him or writing in his shadow, as I hear so often, this is the book that will prove it. If you know someone who likes to complain that they'd like to read more fantasy but so much of it is derivative of Tolkien, thrust this book into their hands. It's so un-Tolkien it almost doesn't feel like fantasy. It's got far more in common with, say, The Thin Red Line.

The Bad
Oh dear. This is gonna hurt.

Some of the very things that make this novel stand out are also things that bugged me. I liked Croaker as a character, and as a narrator, but after a while it did bother me how much we were missing because Croaker didn't feel like going into detail. Yeah, I'm actually asking for more detail here, and how often can you say that after finishing a fantasy novel?

But unlike Robert Jordan, who couldn't seem to set a scene without describing what everyone in the
room is wearing and what the decor looks like, right down to the moldings, Cook's narrator is very taciturn, telling us little to nothing about anything or anybody. Several characters on whom the plot hinges don't even get a line of dialogue because Croaker doesn't feel like recounting their conversation whole. Remember the mysteries I mentioned earlier? Well, one character in particular, Raven, is deeply mysterious and has a lot of issues, and is clearly hiding something. But what's really going on with him? Not a whole lot that Croaker wants to tell us. Sure, we're not done, and Raven is still part of the action in Book 2, but many times it's clear that Cook wants us to care what happens to Raven, but gives us little incentive to. Croaker frequently describes how much he likes or is close to a certain member of the Company, but that member is rarely in the same room with him, and has little dialogue, or if he does, it doesn't seem immediately obvious that Croaker thinks of him as a good friend, even as we're told he does.

The Captain
Few characters warrant description, from Croaker's standpoint, or if they do, it doesn't happen until late in the story. I spent a majority of the reading time picturing the Company's Captain entirely wrong, because it wasn't until over halfway through that he was physically described at all. Croaker repeatedly calls these men his brothers, and yet many of them he hardly ever talks to, nor acts like he cares about. At one point, he describes how one character "always seemed so indestructible" and therefore it hurt more to have to treat his wounds, but until that moment we've been given no reason to think of this character as "indestructible". Heck, we've hardly seen this character do anything.

After a while, even knowing Cook was writing this way on purpose doesn't excuse it. The battle scenes, and there are many, are described in such blase tones that you find yourself longing for the blow-by-blow descriptions and complicated fighting formations that always used to bother you when other authors overdo them. As much as I admire Cook for showing us the nihilism of soldiers in the trenches, I would have preferred moving the narrative away from just Croaker's viewpoint so that we could really get a feel for this world, the other characters in it and just what in Holy Hell was going on. There's a difference between avoiding an infodump and simply not giving us info we need to understand the story.

We're told about the Ten Who Were Taken, who I mentioned in the last post. They're built up as objects of fear and legend. Then about half of them are killed in increasingly mundane ways. One would think if they were this easy to kill, there would have been no need to bury them alive and bind their graves. A simple sword through the throat is apparently all that was required.

There's also a few times when I felt the consistency just wasn't there. The Limper was introduced in a scene that made me think he'd turned against the Lady and was actually the Company's target, but we later learn that in fact he had not openly turned traitor. So why were they targeting him? Also, it turns out Raven has a personal vendetta against the Limper, but in an earlier scene, Croaker tells us that the Limper "didn't matter" to Raven. Which is it?

The Ugly
I hate PC. I hate quotas. And nonetheless, I must ask...


Oy, I feel dirty now. Usually when I see a fantasy critic bemoaning the lack of female characters, what they mean is that the only female characters are love interests or women who are happy not being heroic and kicking ass. Many times I've read a book with some pretty solid female roles, and then read a review wondering why there was a lack of female characters.

But in this case, I am being quite literal. Want to know how many female characters there are in this story that really get anything resembling face time? Three. One's the major baddy the Company is fighting for (and she doesn't really become a part of the action until the book is nearly over), another is a deaf nine-year-old girl and the third, well, this is something of a spoiler, despite the fact that just googling this book spoiled it for me before I began reading, spends a bulk of the story wearing a face-covering mask and letting people think she's a man. There are other women; a few of the Taken are female and two members of the Circle of Eighteen (the cadre of wizards fighting against the Taken) are also women, but as important as they are to events of the story, neither of them ever speak, and really only have one major scene they're a part of.

I know that Cook likely wanted the Company's members to be men, as it always feels a little off when women are allowed to fight alongside men in a medieval-esque setting, but come on, is there no such thing as a tavern winch or camp follower that we can get to know? I usually despise the term "sausage fest" but it absolutely applies here. The only characters that get fully sketched out for us, that we truly get to know, are all men.

Then there's the dialogue. Now, on the one hand, I enjoy it when a fantasy story can get away from the lofty "high speech" of Tolkien, because really, no one can do it like he did, and it always ends up sounding silly. But there's a difference between having the characters speak more "low speech" with realistic wording and profanity, and literally having them speak like 20th-Century construction workers. So much of the dialogue sounded alien to the setting, especially when characters would say something like "you guys" or "gotcha" or "don't give me that crap." I can even accept someone saying "yeah" in a fantasy setting. But Cook definitely goes too far.

So, final thoughts and ranking:

Ultimately I do recommend this book, but only if you are the kind of person who can accept a book at face value and enjoy the story without expecting it to conform to your preconceived expectations. Cook is having none of your rules. In fact, he ignores the "rules" of fantasy so completely one almost expects he's never actually read a fantasy novel before. But the story is strong, the major characters likeable even if it takes time to get a handle on them and as I said, it's very fast-paced and gripping. I covered great ground in this book practically in just a few hours of sitting. There's a reason this one is a classic, but it is absolutely an acquired taste.

Story: A
Writing Style: C
Characters: B-
World-Building: B
Readability: A-
Accessability: C
Consistency: C

Final Ranking: B-.

There's definitely a foundation built here that I want to keep exploring, but Cook seems to be actively trying to keep us shut out.

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