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The Black Company

Not the bodice-ripper that the cover art implies

Rating: C+ (overall), C- (The Black Company) / C+ (Shadows Linger) / C+ (The White Rose) Length: 704 pages, slightly larger than standard paperback page size, standard paperback font size

Before I say anything about this collection, I feel compelled to point out that I got tipped off to the series from Matt Colville's frequent mentions of it in his YouTube videos. I hadn't realized just how much he borrowed ideas from it for MCDM's Chain of Acheron D&D game. As a result, I had picked up some spoilers inadvertently. I don't feel like this had a significant impact on my reactions to the books, but in the interests of transparency and disclosure, there you go.

The series follows the trials and tribulations of the titular mercenary group, as told in-universe by the Company's Annalist. For this particular collection, the Annalist is the same in all three books; the field medic Croaker; though I've heard that later books in the series change who fills that role. Regardless, it's a fairly minor distinction within the scope of this review since I don't think there's really anything in these books which raises questions about whether Croaker is an Unreliable Narrator. It's a cute framing device, but it carries little impact beyond that.

Getting back to the point, it's a fairly gritty world, presenting a swords-and-sorcery dark fantasy story about mercenaries who're willing to do their best in service to an empire ruled over by a group of nigh-immortal and unambiguously evil sorcerers. The Company is bound to do bloody work regardless of their employers, after all, and as far as their leadership is concerned, most of history's moralizing will be done through the perspective of the victors. It's a far more realistic take on the usual Black and Gray Morality of these sorts of stories, I think, compared to works like the Conan or Elric stories. In fairness, those were genre trailblazers, while this is an entry trying to make its own space in an extant niche, but ultimately, those protagonists were clearly heroic despite claims of moral aloofness whereas the Black Company's members are clearly selfish jerks who're more interested in themselves than in any greater cause or moral imperative.

If it seems like I'm being vague about who's actually in the Black Company aside from Croaker, despite how I usually do an overview of the protagonists in these team-focused stories, it's because there's a lot of turnover in the actual members of the Company over the course of the books, and I'm trying to avoid giving any spoilers about that. This is very much a work where Anyone Can Die, and Cook plays off that with some fake character deaths as well, so I think it's only considerate to err on the side of caution.

Well, there's also another side to that, which is that most of the characters just didn't leave much of an impression on me. Throughout the first novel (The Black Company, which makes it awkward to call out by name here), I found myself questioning why I was supposed to care about anything that was going on. In keeping with the framing device, Cook jumps into presenting the story with minimal preamble or As You Know explanations, which is something that I like. I will never complain about an author having too much faith in my intelligence. However, that doesn't relieve the burden from the author to make the reader care about the story. The first novel didn't manage to do that at all. Shadows Linger did start to get me a little bit, and The White Rose built slightly on top of that, but even then, it was amazing how that I read through over 700 pages of writing and still came away from it without feeling more than the barest bit of attachment to anyone or anything in them.

Part of my issue was that Cook throws out lots of names and proper nouns (the distinction between the two categories is often blurred, with names like The Lady or The Hanged Man or Kingpin) without any follow-up to them. For example, as mentioned, the premise for the series is that the Company is working for an empire ruled by a group of sorcerers. There are eleven of them in total. Only about half of them spend any significant time in focus. A few of them don't really do anything aside from get mentioned a few times before being removed in background events. It's a reasonable thing to do from the perspective of verisimilitude, but after the first time or two that that happens, it just increases the burden that the author has to overcome to build that emotional investment, and Cook didn't do himself any favors by having a very unsympathetic opening before establishing that trend.

In terms of the plots, they're difficult to judge. Stuff certainly happens. There are unexpected developments to keep them from feeling predictable or cliched. There's effective use of dramatic irony, foreshadowing, and other such techniques that add to the meta-level reading experience. However, a lot of that happens away from Croaker's perspective, so it often ends up dropped on the reader in a single line that undermines the previous handful of chapters. I understand that Cook is a US Navy veteran himself and so was likely influenced by his actual experiences in military service. However, I think this is one area where he would've benefited from sacrificing a little bit of verisimilitude in favor of featuring more meaningful dramatic events in the direct perspective of the narrative.

Thus, taken in a wide view or retrospective summary, the plots are good, but taken in the moment as the novels are read, they feel insignificant if not like outright boring wastes of time. I honestly can't think of another book where I had to force myself to read it because I'd end up liking it more while thinking about it afterwards.

Between that and the complete lack of investment in anything written in the pages of the books, I can't bring myself to recommend them. Those good points did bring them up to somewhat about average on the whole, but I would've much rather spent my time reading something that was actually enjoyable throughout the process. As it stands, I doubt I'll read further novels in the series, and certainly not anytime in the immediate future.

Rating: C+ (overall), C- (The Black Company) / C+ (Shadows Linger) / C+ (The White Rose) Length: 704 pages, slightly larger than standard paperback page size, standard paperback font size

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