I’ve been in a book bottleneck lately. My willingness to ‘get involved’ has resulted in numerous one-on-one book clubs with people I’ve finally met who read the same genre as I, and even better, who read even more than me and have a plethora of suggestions.
This is all a good thing. This past month I’ve had this childlike glee when engaging in the reading community that has suddenly sprung up around me. I have a book exchange going on with my friend from New York. I randomly met my boyfriend’s cousin, who enthusiastically let me borrow a book he loved while telling me all about this girl at his school who reads way more than him and would be livid if he even dog-eared a page or bent the spine (ah, the good old days, I remember being that girl!). Then, I decided to engage in #savetheculture trend (which, if you take a step back, looks alarmingly like a pyramid scheme), and thirty-three dollars later, I’m packaging up a used copy of one of my favorite books and sending it to Scotland, addressed to a girl I’ve never met before. To top it all off, I recently found this mini library next to the brewery by my work that I walk by every day. It looks like a birdhouse, but for books! You can take books as you please, and I’ve been amazed at how often the book selection rotates. I ended up donating Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshelf out there when I took a book about maps that I think I’m going to keep for a while.
So, long roundabout story short, I ended up meeting my boyfriend’s boss who bought the first two Dark Tower books based on my fan-girling and who, in exchange, let me borrow one of his favorite books: The Black Company by Glen Cook.
Now, I haven’t read much military fiction, but according to the handy dandy Wikipedia page, The Black Company laid the foundation for the Grimdark genre, and more importantly, gave way to a new fantasy style in general by letting the evil side in the war versus good and evil tell the tale.
The Black Company are not good men. They’re mercenaries paid to fight with the Lady, a crazy powerful woman who has been released from her age-long prison and now hopes to rule the world, and her Taken against the Rebel forces. Croaker is our medic, Annalist, and protagonist. He’s a Black Company veteran who I envision in his forties, balding, short, and not so handsome like the bold dashing lads we’ve all seen in such fantasies as The Lord of the Rings. The Black Company are stuck in a detrimental contract with the city of Beryl and through sabotage and subterfuge end their contract to take up one with Soulcatcher, one of the Taken. Soulcatcher leads the Company through various battles against squabbling Taken and the Rebel cause, finally ending in a battle with a quarter million slain and a twist as to the purpose of the war in the first place. Croaker introduces us to wizards, Goblin and One-Eye (who have a comical brotherly rivalry), the Captain (the Company’s leader), Silent, Elmo, Raven and the mute girl Raven saved from being raped, Darling. Croaker has a crush on the Lady, which does him no favors especially when she takes note of his fantasies, and as the War between the Lady (the bad side) and the Rebels (essentially the good side) comes to a head, we learn about the prophecy of the White Rose who will be born under the light of a comet and slay the Lady, ridding evil from the world for good.
The Black Company isn’t full of extraordinary feats of strength where the reader may wonder how one mere mortal can still stand on his feet. Herculean abilities are ruled out as being just that. Myths. The Black Company talk and act how soldiers would in war—and a little digging showed that Cook based a lot of his writing on his personal experiences in Vietnam. The writing style follows these ideas. It’s brutal and to the point. Any hint of description beyond what’s necessary has been cut and a lot of things end up happening within a page and a half. Plot isn’t spelled out for the reader. Any backstabbing, tactics, and/or politics are implied through action and veiled dialogue that’s characteristic of how you would talk with people you’re close to.
I won’t say I loved the novel and I won’t say I hated it. I felt very neutral about it. I had a difficult time getting pulled into it due to the writing. I had little curiosity toward Croaker’s past and in general, didn’t have much interest in learning where any of the Black Company had come from, which is a big problem for me, since I’m so invested in things like Favorite Character. I like to have more description to my tales and I’m not sure if I’ll take the time to read the other eight or nine novels (unless they’re given to me). Hey, my friend didn’t like The Dark Tower either, so I think we’re even. Still, it did open me up to a new genre that I might dabble in given time.
Beyond my own personal disinterest in the tale, I did find some of the overall themes fascinating. As I said before, quick internet searches revealed Cook had fought in Vietnam, and this influence constantly stayed in the back of mind while reading. The Black Company are bad guys. They rape, pillage, and get rich from the spoils of war, engaging in thievery and black market trades which makes Croaker have moments of introspection on morality throughout the novel. His heart knows he calls these people family and brother, and honestly, you have to wonder what Croaker did to enlist with the Company in the first place and believe he belonged there. His head knows otherwise.
When I reflect on my companions’ inner natures, I usually wish I controlled one small talent. I wish I could look inside them and unmask the darks and brights that move them. Then I take a quick look into the jungle of my own soul and thank heaven that I cannot. Any man who barely sustains an armistice with himself has no business poking around in an alien soul.
I understand on an academic level that war is horrible—I’ve read stories, heard accounts, been to memorials—but that in no way can translate to actually being in the field. I do believe you develop a kind of apathy toward those that aren’t your brothers, but seeing that kind of apathy mixed with these detached musings truly fascinated me. You hear it all the time, about how apathy is the true destroyer of the world, and I think it’s particularly true in the Black Company. Not apathy for their cause or their people, but apathy as to what they do to affect the overall world and to the victims, direct and indirect, of their war campaigns.
Croaker is one of the kinder mercenaries, and does not seek redemption for himself or his Company. To him, people become things. Battles are records for his Annals. He understands that he is only one mechanic in the whole working machine of the Company and that while his loss might be mourned, it would in no way halt the machine completely. If a new part is brought in, he could easily be replaced. If he died, the Company would still continue. The Company takes care of itself in the most basic of ways: can it eat, sleep, have a roof, make money, have a little bit of fun, and still maintain their brand of honor.
Here’s a perfect example that occurs after a successful battle where the Company take advantage of what pleasure they can:
‘Croaker! Lookee here!’ Whitey came charging toward where I sat with the Captain and Silent and one or two others. He had a naked woman draped over his shoulder. She might have been attractive had she not been so thoroughly abused.
‘Not bad, Whitey. Not bad,” I said and went back to my journal. Behind Whitey the whooping and screaming continued. The men were harvesting the fruits of victory.
‘They’re barbarians,’ the Captain observed without rancor.
‘Got to let them cut loose sometimes,’ I reminded him. ‘Better here than with the people of Lords.’
The Captain agreed reluctantly. He just does not have much stomach for plunder and rape, much as they are part of our business. I think he is a secret romantic, at least when females are involved.
I tried to soften his mood. ‘They asked for it, taking up arms.’
Yet, less than a page later, Croaker reflects on his apathy, understanding the direct evil of the Company he supports, records, and loves.
I’ve been with the company a long time. And it does bother me less than it used to. I have hung armor plate over my moral soft spots. But I still try to avoid looking at the worst.
You who come after me, scribbling these Annals, by now realize that I shy off portraying the whole truth about our band of blackguards. You know they are vicious, violent, and ignorant. They are complete barbarians, living out their cruelest fantasies, their behavior tempered only by the presence of a few decent men. I do not often show that side because these men are my brethren, my family, and I was taught young not to speak ill of kin. The old lessons die the hardest.
While brutal scenes like the one above are tempered by Croaker’s acknowledgment of them, this one below came with no acknowledgment. I think you’ll see what I mean.
This time I was playing around with her [the Lady’s] childhood. That is something I like to look at with any villain. What twists and knots went into the thread tying the creature at Charm to the little girl who was? Consider little children. There are not many of them not cute and lovable and precious, sweet as whipped honey and butter. So where do all the wicked people come from? I walk through our barracks and wonder how a giggling, inquisitive toddler could have become a Three Fingers, a Jolly, or a Silent.
Little girls are twice as precious and innocent as little boys. I do not know a culture that does not make them that way.
Uhh, didn’t we just see how someone could become twisted not even a hundred pages before? Remember the girl getting raped by the Company? How Darling was saved from rape by the Company and now has become the Company’s daughter? Croaker, you’re making heroes and villains everyday.