Friday, January 9, 2009

Readings 2K9: Chronicles of the Black Company

Chronicles of The Black Company
(Includes The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose)
by Glen Cook

I’ve been hearing good things about Glenn Cook’s Black Company series for quite some time now. But those good things never got past the high concept of the books: In a high-fantasy world torn by a war between Good and Evil, the Black Company is a company of mercenary soldiers hired by the side of Evil. That’s a nice enough idea (and it turns out there’s a little bit more to it, notably a competing force for Evil), but high concepts alone don’t make a story work. Still, when I saw that Tor had reprinted the first three books in the series in a one-volume anthology, I decided to give it a whirl. Turns out that the good word about the series was justified. 

The high concept is developed thoughtfully; in Cook’s hands, questions of good and evil, of personal honour against larger issues of morality, come alive and are developed into major themes. Croaker, the historian and doctor of the Black Company, has — like the rest of the Company — always lived by a certain code of behaviour. Which basically boils down to: live and die for the Company, fulfill your contracts, and don’t rape kids. But the Company’s latest master makes him start to wonder whether there’s something more; the experiences that befall him and his mates lead him to question whether there might, in fact, be broader issues of good and evil. 

So Croaker begins to change; and as the books go on, other characters (not just the ones in the Company) find themselves struggling with similar issues. In fact, as the books go on, they grow more structurally complex, contrasting Croaker and his experience with the perceptions of other characters. Impressively, Cook manages to integrate these other sections into Croaker’s first-person narration. It’s understated, and quite clever. 

The cleverness of the books, the concern with thematic material, is almost always understated, and brought out without comment. This makes their overall cynicism much more convincing. The more you think about the world of the books, the darker it seems. For example, almost always, the really transformative events, the things that really start to get the characters thinking about their lives, comes from an encounter with evil, with wickedness. Not from goodness, which is often ignored. Only when characters find themselves facing with something which goes where they do not, do they then begin to think of being better than they are.

This sort of thematic depth is also brought out through the creation of a vivid character. Croaker’s voice is not a million miles away from Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, and that is no bad thing. The books convincingly evoke a soldier’s perspective (apparently the series has a strong following among the military). It should be noted that the books are not terribly concerned with the verisimilitude of medieval life and warfare, though. I found I didn’t mind that, which surprised me. But something rings true. It’s as though Cook has translated his story from a primary source, not only in terms of language, but in terms of attitudes as well; mentalities and outlooks are described in contemporary ways, but the sense of something timeless remains behind them (and questions of translation, of texts and of language, do have an influence on the series).

The books have an interesting tension between adhering to and subverting the fantasy genre. On the one hand, the Company is the kind of ultra-competent close-knit band which many genre stories feature; the kind of group into which the reader can easily project themselves. And Cook does cheat a bit in describing the blackness of the Black Company; he mentions that the men of the Company rape and murder, but refrains from foregrounding these kinds of incidents. More could have been done with this material.

But then on the other hand, the series is anti-romantic in many ways. There’s a close-mouthed stone-faced killer; but by the end of the series, the books conclude that this character’s emotional detachment is a flaw, not a strength. The gender politics are intriguing: There are two main female characters, one the leader of the forces of Good, the other one of the leaders of Evil. But both of them, in different ways, undercut these roles — that is, they are or become more than the roles into which history has placed them. Croaker’s romantic fantasies about the Lady, the evil queen, are relentlessly mocked, not least by Croaker himself; but one of the interesting aspects of the books is the movement from those fantasies to a deeper understanding of that character, the choices she makes, and why.

The books are fast and clever. The plot does threaten to get a bit out of control by the end of the third book — that is, threatens to distract from the theme and from the characters, rather than serving the theme and illustrating the characters — as mysteries and betrayals proliferate. But things ultimately dovetail in a satisfying way. I find myself looking forward to reading the other seven books in the series, as well as Cook’s other stories. I find there’s more potential in these characters, in this world. I want to know where the characters go from here. I want to know what any avid reader wants to know: what happens next?

No comments: