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  1. #1
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    The Black Company series by Glen Cook

    The Black Company

    The Black Company is an elite mercenary force whose history goes back centuries. Last of the Free Companies of Khatovar, the Black Company fights for coin, but is also a proud army that is its own master. Accepting the commission of the Northern Empire and its ruler, the ruthless Lady, the Company soon finds itself fighting a war against an oppressed populace struggling to be free...but the leaders of the rebellion seem every bit as ruthless and amoral as the Lady and her senior sorcerer-warriors - the Taken - are. Evil battles evil, a continent bleeds and through it all the Black Company struggles to survive.

    Glen Cook's Black Company books are widely regarded as being amongst the most influential and important epic fantasy novels ever written. Steven Erikson cites them as the primary influence on his Malazan series, whilst George R.R. Martin is a fan. A dozen years before Martin made 'grimdark' cool, Cook was already writing adult stories about wars, soldiers and the causes they fight and die for, with no elves in sight and no punches pulled.

    Published in 1984, The Black Company is an object lesson in how to write a large-scale epic fantasy and execute it with razor-sharp focus and nuanced characterisation, and to do so in a relatively modest page count. More happens in The Black Company's 300-odd pages than in many entire trilogies. Empires rise and fall, battles that make the Pelennor look like a playground scrap are fought and all is seen from the point of view of a single medic and historian, who is all to often drawn in to become part of the events he is trying to dispassionately record.

    The book is episodic, with each (very long) chapter relating a different incident during the war. As the Lady's empire battles the Rebel, so the different Taken feud amongst themselves and the Black Company are caught up in one of the exchanges (but don't exactly get much gratitude for taking sides), giving the conflict an air of complexity and extremely conflicted morals. This is emphasised by the addition to the Company of its first native northern soldier, Raven, who has his own agenda. Given that we are with the POV of Croaker, the medic, for the entire novel, Cook achieves an impressive depth of characterisation of the other principals. Other well-developed characters include the old, feuding mages One-Eye and Goblin, Raven and his mute ward, Darling, and the Taken Soulcatcher, who may be a servant of darkness but even he needs to unwind and chew the fat from time to time.

    The prose is clipped and efficient, though some criticise it for being blunt. Cook skips descriptors in some sentences, or uses a soldier-style shorthand designed to transmit information with maximum efficiency and conciseness on the battlefield. It can be a little odd at first, but once you get into the author's headspace it becomes second nature, and a marvellously effective way of telling a large, epic story in a constrained space.

    Problems? The absence of a map makes the geography of the war (which is critical to the plot) sometimes a little confusing. With one exception, we really don't get to know anyone on the side of the Rebel, making them a somewhat faceless and uninteresting foe. Cook also prefers to avoid exposition, starting in media res and pausing for explanations only rarely. However, unlike Erikson (who employs a similar device at the start of the Malazan sequence) Cook's story is actually pretty straightforward, and by the end of the novel the reader should have pieced together everything pretty nicely.

    The Black Company (****) is a novel brimming with verve, confidence and attitude. As fresh and readable today as when it was published a quarter-century ago, it's a stellar opening to the Black Company series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Chronicles of the Black Company omnibus (along with its immediate sequels, Shadows Linger and The White Rose).

  2. #2
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    Glad to see you enjoyed this Adam, I've been interested to see your take on the series that is almost a proto-Erikson series.

  3. #3
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    With one exception, we really don't get to know anyone on the side of the Rebel,
    Keep reading.

    But this isn't a new review for you, is it? I can't imagine you hadn't read this earlier.

  4. #4
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KatG View Post
    Keep reading.

    But this isn't a new review for you, is it? I can't imagine you hadn't read this earlier.
    Not to speak for Adam, but I think I recall him mentioning the books were never available in the UK.

  5. #5
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Oh that's right, I keep forgetting. Mark and others have said they are hard to get ahold of in the U.K.

  6. #6
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    I've had the second and third omnibuses for a couple of years now. I really need to catch up with them, since I enjoyed the first one so much.

    It was actually the second time I read the first three books and I think I appreciated Cook's writing much more the second time around.

  7. #7
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    The first omnibus was published in the UK 3 years ago or so. The rest never followed, so I assume it was not a success. Some of the original books were published in the UK by Roc 20+ years ago, but have long been out of print. So yes, this is my first read-through of the series

  8. #8
    Webmaster, Great SF&F owlcroft's Avatar
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    Whoa.

    I like Glen Cook, but--
    . . . amongst the most influential and important epic fantasy novels ever written . . . .
    Holy moly.

    The Black Company is may or may not be Cook's best work (personally, I think that would be the Garrett series), but one thing about it for sure is that it is quite uneven in quality. Worse, the unevenness is not sporadic, but follows a fairly steady downtrend.

    The first tale, which was broken up into the three physical volumes apparently now called "The Annals of the Black Company", was self-contained and pretty good; it wasn't without its limitations, especially Cook's famously wooden prose, but it was an interesting story with vivid characters and something to say about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

    After that, each successive round--"The Books of the South" trio, then "The Glittering Stone" quartet--more and more left the impression (at least on me) that the author was turning the crank on a successful cottage industry. The grand wrap-up was neither grand nor much of a wrap-up.

    All in all, the whole thing, and certainly the parts past the first round, could as easily have been any real war's buddy tale, the gritty vererans slogging through &c &c &c, color inside the lines. OK, Glen, I got the idea, but General Sherman beat you to it: War Is Hell.

    Mind, I still find the books enjoyable enough reading, but "most important fantasy novels ever written"? Whew.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by owlcroft View Post
    Mind, I still find the books enjoyable enough reading, but "most important fantasy novels ever written"? Whew.
    This has nothing to do with how good it is, but how much it influenced current authors. George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson, two of the biggest epic fantasy authors today, were influenced by the Black Company.

  10. #10
    Webmaster, Great SF&F owlcroft's Avatar
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    Ah.

    I see. For certain values of "important".

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Werthead View Post
    The first omnibus was published in the UK 3 years ago or so. The rest never followed, so I assume it was not a success. Some of the original books were published in the UK by Roc 20+ years ago, but have long been out of print. So yes, this is my first read-through of the series
    All the omnibus are available in the UK, in physical and digital editions.

  12. #12
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rulkez View Post
    All the omnibus are available in the UK, in physical and digital editions.
    The American Tor editions are available on imports, yes, but for UK-centric editions for bookshelves, only the first omnibus has been released.

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by Werthead View Post
    The American Tor editions are available on imports, yes, but for UK-centric editions for bookshelves, only the first omnibus has been released.
    I don't know what you mean when you say UK-centric. As far as I can see Chronicles shares the same cover in the US and UK, cannot see why buying the Tor editions from Amazon would have been problematic.

    Is it still importing if they are stocked ans shipped from the UK , and were available to buy here on the date they were published ?

  14. #14
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rulkez View Post
    I don't know what you mean when you say UK-centric. As far as I can see Chronicles shares the same cover in the US and UK, cannot see why buying the Tor editions from Amazon would have been problematic.

    Is it still importing if they are stocked ans shipped from the UK , and were available to buy here on the date they were published ?
    Usually, imported copies from say the U.S. to the U.K. cost more in the U.K. and are not as widely available in the U.K. because they are essentially a small batch of copies shipped over from the U.S. Sometimes they aren't shipped by the U.S. publisher, but vendors will have the copies and import them, which can sometimes be quite expensive with large shipping charges for print. Whereas an edition put out by a U.K. publisher is likely to be cheaper in the U.K., be more widely available and you'll be able to find better price deals with it in the U.K. Plus, some people prefer to buy an edition from U.K. publishers to support the U.K. publishing industry.

  15. #15
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    I don't know what you mean when you say UK-centric. As far as I can see Chronicles shares the same cover in the US and UK, cannot see why buying the Tor editions from Amazon would have been problematic.
    Tor publish the Black Company omnibuses in the USA, whilst Gollancz have the rights in the UK. However, whilst Tor have published four omnibuses collecting the entire series, Gollancz have only reprinted the first omnibus and not any more.

    Amazon UK stock the Tor editions (and not for an unreasonable price), so it's not a major issue. The Internet is eroding distinctions between UK and US editions of the same books.

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