Monday, February 15, 2010

Readings — The Books of the South, the Return of the Black Company, and the Many Deaths of the Black Company

The Books of the South
The Return of the Black Company
The Many Deaths of the Black Company
by Glen Cook

The second through fourth collection of Cook’s Black Company novels features the titular hard-bitten mercenary company heading into the south of their world in a search for their origins — which we find are darker than even they might have suspected. Cook broadens his storytelling techniques here, playing with new perspectives and voices; he also introduces a host of new cultures into his world. These things help keep the momentum of the series going, preventing the sag that often afflicts long fantasy epics, until quite near the end of the fourth collection.

And it’s questionable even then whether that sag isn’t deliberate. Cook catches a kind of entropic feel in the story — it grinds on, through battle after battle, death after death, until almost without realising it the Company (or what’s left of it) has run out of enemies. But they still have promises to keep, and, indeed, miles to go before they sleep. It does feel like it captures something of the weariness of the surviving company members after a long and brutal campaign. Still, the relative laxness of the plot, with groups of characters making unusually bad tactical choices, makes it seem like the series is ending at just the right point — on the brink of a potential decline.

(Incidentally, the last book in the second collection, The Silver Spike, is a one-off that shows what happens in the north after the Company heads south. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t pretty. The story's a good exercise in balancing story threads and multiple tones, though. The odd thing is that despite the extravagant and often sudden plot developments, the most difficult bit to swallow is that one of the characters, notable for being particularly adept at violence even among the Company, twice gets his ass handed to him by a character with no particular military or martial training.)

All that said, in general Cook seems to expand his aims and techniques throughout the series. For example, for first two or three omnibuses, the world of the Black Company is a world of louts. That’s what gives it its charm, though it also comes to seem a limitation. You can say that there’s a kind of blue-collar ethos to most of the characters, sure, but the books never present a credible picture of somebody who lives for the intellect — not even when a wizard’s the POV character. The closest you get to something like that are scheming politicians. After a while, you do start to notice the absence; granted that the Company is pretty much the exact opposite of anything civilised or intellectual, you begin to wonder whether there’s something missing here, some alternative unexplored. Something that might cast the Company into starker relief. So when some scholars are introduced as minor characters in the first book of the last omnibus, it’s refreshing. Of course the Company doesn’t know what to make of them, and manipulates and uses them as they do everything else around them — but they’re there, and credible, and help broaden the world.

But the most notable way Cook plays about with his world is through point-of-view. Different books in the series are narrated, or compiled, by different annalists in the company; the story works itself out in ways such that we come to understand how the annalists can gather the information that makes it into the books. Now, the annalists don’t have voices that are tremendously different one from another — a few minor differences in vocabulary, most notably. But that works, because it reinforces the idea of the brotherhood of the Company, of a group mentality that shapes the individual perspective and personality. The annalists also compare notes with each other, and critique each other’s work, which helps bring out the individual differences while also bringing a charming self-awareness.

At any rate, Cook’s writing is terse, and moves like a shot. The overall darkness of the work is leavened by an appropriate black humour. This is the kind of writing that’s good enough that you think it understates things somehow to say it’s a great adventure story. But that’s what this is: some of the best adventure writing I’ve read.

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