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Glen Cook - Chronicles of the Black Company
With any genre in any medium, there are traits that define the genre. Action movies involve fight scenes and chases. Role playing video games involve leveling a character or characters. Science fiction is set in the future and involves technology that we don't have today. In addition to the defining traits, though, there are also conventions that inevitably come to define the genre. In action movies, the main characters is likable, and he gets the girl. In role playing video games, combat is turn based. In science fiction, space ships travel faster than the speed of light. Whenever conventions develop, though, someone decides to throw them aside, and often with great effect. Antiheroes in action movies, real-time combat in RPGs, and space travel that leaves its passengers far younger than those they left behind. Sometimes the genre changes in reaction to a work that reassesses it. Other times, it doesn't.

I'm not sure how much of an impact Glen Cook has made in the fantasy genre by subverting a rather enormous quantity of its norms, but whatever it is, it's not enough. Fantasy is, I imagine, defined by a level of technology that predates guns and electricity, by magic, by mythical creatures. But the genre has come to be about the epic struggle between good and evil. It has somehow come to revolve around young, unlikely heroes thrown out of peaceful lives and into conflict. It has come to involve handsome men falling in love with beautiful women, and vice versa. It has as much to do with the world in which the story takes place as it does the story itself. It is full of flowery names that are punctuated by apostrophes and dashes, with a generous helping of odd consonants jammed together uncomfortably.

Some of those things I enjoy. Some I tolerate. Some I detest. None of them, however, are really necessary in a fantasy novel. In Chronicles of the Black Company, Glen Cook tosses them all aside. He actively flaunts several. And by and large, it is to great effect.

The Chronicles of the Black Company are told from the first person perspective of Croaker, a physician and annalist working with the Black Company, a band of mercenaries. No, not mercenaries with a heart of gold, who only work for the cause of justice. Mercenaries. They fight for pay. It's not a philosophical thing; it's their job. Croaker makes it clear that some of their members do some pretty heinous things. The character himself makes a point not to whitewash, and notes that he often glances over some of the darker aspects of his profession. He muses often about the lack of black and white, about the reality of us and them; that there are good people under each banner, and bad ones, too. But the characters in the book are not without ethics and morals. There are lines which they will not cross, and some acts that they will not simply turn a blind eye to. The effect of it all is that the Black Company feels real. It feels like a group of paid soldiers who kill for a living and who have become used to some of the ugliness that entails, but who are still human at the heart of it.

Glen Cook's writing here is sparse and direct. Characters are introduced without a mention of their physical characteristics. After three books and eight hundred pages, I have virtually no idea what Croaker looks like. I don't know what color his hair or eyes are, how tall he stands, the kind of clothes he wears, or the color of his skin. Only truly remarkable characteristics get pointed out, and only a few times in the whole of the books. Characters are their names and their actions. And their names and their actions are unique and memorable: One-Eye. Goblin. Elmo. The Captain. Raven. The names are simple and emblematic in part because recruits in the Black Company are usually given new names on entering, often because they're running from a past they want to forget, and part because in the world of the Black Company, knowing someone's true name is a form of power.

That same paucity of detail extends to world building, as well. Cities are simply named - Beryl, Oar, Charm - and only described in the simplest terms. There are no essays on the histories, culture, food, or architecture of the lands Croaker passes through. The world is there, and it's a dark, gritty one, without being oppressively so. Cook does not dwell on the details of the evils of war, as Terry Goodkind and George R. R. Martin have a tendency to do. For certain, this is no Robert Jordan or Goodkind or Martin. The writing is taut, without a word wasted, with the focus all on the plot, the characters, their actions, and the action.

Magic, too, is a force in the world - and a very powerful one - but it's a vague one, not truly understood by Croaker, since he's not a magic user himself. I could tell you all about the inner workings of the magic of The Wheel of Time, and of The Sword of Truth, but all I know about magic in the Black Company is what Croaker knows. I know what it can do, but I'm not sure where the limits are, or how things work. And that's fine. It's sort of beside the point.

The characters are not typical of fantasy, either. Croaker, as previously mentioned, is a decent guy, but he's also a mercenary. He's not a prophesied hero or a young rebel. By the end of the Chronicles of the Black Company, which collects the first three books of the series into one large tome that forms a complete story arc, he's actually rather old. There's not a traditional, sweeping fantasy romance present, either. The world is not a place without love, but there's not exactly a grand romance between two beautiful young heroes pulling the reader through the pages.

Chronicles of the Black Company is really fantasy boiled down to its essential elements, with many of its norms twisted around. All that the books aren't leaves far more room for what they are. It's a story that moves quickly, with a focus on action and dialog and plot. The first person aspect makes it immediate, compelling, and at times urgent. It's witty, sarcastic, and direct. It takes the sweeping, chess-board feel of modern fantasy and pulls it back to an intimate, direct, personal level.

I liked it from the first page, but I don't think I really grew to love it until the third book of Chronicles of the Black Company. By that point I had really come to love virtually all of the characters, particularly ones I had not been so sure about at first, and I honestly had no idea what would happen to them. I didn't know who would die - but I knew that some most certainly would - and I didn't know who would win, and I didn't even know how the relationships between some characters would pan out. But I wanted to know all of it, right away, and when I finally put down the book, way, way late at night, after hours and hours of continuous reading, I was more than satisfied with how things ended. I wanted more, though, too, and thankfully, Glen Cook wrote more than three books about the Black Company.


 
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