J.R.R. Tolkien holds an odd position on the landscape of genre fiction. On one flank amasses a pantheon of admirers so dedicated to the Oxford don that their devotion appears almost religious. "Don't you hate it when people go straight to a section from The Lord of the Rings to explain something important in their lives?" jokes author S.D. Smith. "It reminds me of the part where the army of Gondor is overrun, hopeless, on the edge of defeat." On the other border, detractors such as China Miéville savage his work as "the wen on the arse of fantasy literature." Few simultaneously recognize Tolkien's genius while admitting that The Lord of the Rings had shortcomings, and those who acknowledge him in fiction tend to produce narrative hagiographies or crass revisionist critiques. Then there's Glen Cook, whose The Black Company both embraces and reassesses the conventions Tolkien birthed.
Some military units have storied histories; others make history. The Black Company is one of the latter. No wonder it always selects someone in its ranks to serve as official historian. At this point in the its long life, Croaker (an ironically nicknamed physician) keeps the annals, trying to stay true to what happens while not painting his brothers in arms in too poor a light. It isn't always an easy job. The cadre of elite mercenaries might seem overly pragmatic, willing to work for whoever forks over pay, but it holds onto a single ethical maxim with deathlike rigor: It keeps its end of any contract as long as the employer continues to pay and breathe. That's proving a problem during their latest stint in the corrupt city of Beryl. The cowardly Syndic wants the Company to hold off the numerous factions seeking to depose him, never mind the extent of their casualties. The Company's captain doesn't hold with that bloody arithmetic, no matter that he signed on the dotted line. That leads him to strike a dicey deal with a northern emissary known as Soulcatcher, a deal that will draw the Company into the service of the Lady, a cruel despot possessing such vast magical powers that her military commanders are all once-executed loyalists raised from the grave.
Simply put, The Black Company wouldn't exist without Tolkien. The scent of high fantasy wafts off it in waves. Sword-wielding warriors. Mysterious sorcerers. An intricate backstory that eschews handholding. But Cook also fits out a fair number of genre elements in new uniforms and forces them to march to a slightly syncopated beat. Instead of surfing the peaks and troughs of high drama, he keeps the tone curt and businesslike. Instead of embarking on a noble quest, the mercenaries simply strive to survive on the battlefield. Instead of envisioning everything sad coming untrue in the end, the novel ends ambiguously, stretching out the thinnest thread of hope for future generations. The Black Company also contains something that seemed far from Tolkien's fertile mind -- humor. Cook finds time for a few laughs amongst accounts of infantrymen dying of peritonitis, undead warlocks clashing in eldritch confrontations, and political scheming intricate as the old Gordian knot. A pair of the Company's forever-feuding sorcerers never failed to make me smile whenever they showed up on the page. Best of all, the book consistently thrills. Have the least bit of interest in high fantasy? Sign The Black Company up.
(Picture: CC 2009 by Christopher Octa)