The Black Company – The Grandfather Of Dark Fantasy

400924Everyone has a book that started them on the magical journey of reading fantasy. In fact, many people have two books; one when they were younger that got them into reading, and one when they were older that made them appreciate fantasy on a much higher level and start to take it seriously. Today, on the one year anniversary of the first post on The Quill to Live, I want to tell you about the book that brought fantasy back into my life as an adult and made me appreciate it as more than just entertainment. The grand reveal is slightly spoiled by the title, the book/series is The Black Company by Glen Cook. It got me back into reading, grew my appreciation for books in general, and sparked a voracious desire in me to tear through every book I could find in search of that same spark I felt when I read Glen Cook’s masterpiece. On this search I learned to describe what I felt made books great and experience all the different ways authors could weave an incredible tale. This knack for describing books helped me fill my friends lives with recommendations they loved, and they in turn encouraged me to start writing this blog. I don’t usually talk about my top tier books as I feel they almost always need no selling, but today let me tell you about the experience that is The Black Company.

the_black_companyAfter I graduated college, I decided that I had gone entirely too long without reading a book. I had read a lot in high school and remembered generally enjoying fantasy, so I headed to a Barnes and Noble to peruse the shelves. I remember being completely overwhelmed and deciding to just pick a book at random and stick with it no matter what, and I picked up The Black Company. I was not enthused with the cover art, and I thought about backing out and picking something else, but eventually I just decided to go with it. By the time I finished The Black Company, I had ordered the rest of the entire 10 book series online to expedite getting them faster. In short, I was enchanted with the quiet and sorrowful books about the tales of a mercenary company.

swanlandbookssouthFor those of you who do not know, The Black Company follows the story of a mercenary company on the “evil” side of a conflict. The protagonists are working for an evil overlord and slowly are realizing that they signed on for more than they bargained for. The series starts out with the company just trying to complete the job, but slowly builds outward as it transforms into a tale about learning the history and origin of the company. This might sound like a fairly simple and common story in fantasy, and it is, but the series’ power is in how the story is told. The books are told from a single point of view; the company’s historian. His job is to chronicle an unbiased  story of the company and preserve it for the future.  However, as the story is only told from one person’s point of view, you only get to experience events through a single lens. You see the plot unfold through his eyes, you know only what he knows, and you know nothing that he doesn’t. This may seem redundant and obvious, but I want to drive home the power of Cook’s narration in this series. This is a book about war, and the what it brings to soldiers; no glory, only terror. The Black Company is a combination of Vietnam war fiction and a hero’s quest, and the result is a slow lament to the tragedies of conflict. The narration of the stories do an incredible job at making you feel like you are actually on the battlefield: you knew the plan going in but it went to shit immediately, and now you can barely tell what’s happening. Somehow Cook makes a lack of information in the books informative, and while you are never explained every detail in the story it never keeps it from being completely fulfilling and enlightening. In addition, Glen Cook’s talents are even more clear when he starts changing narrators with new books. Each historian for the company has a completely different writing style, almost as if a different author was writing the series. They see the plot through different lenses and give their own perspective on past events previously recorded, making you really think about what actually happened.

6644111That is where my spark came from. The Black Company made me think, a lot. It was the first book I remember reading in a long time that not only I enjoyed and found entertaining, but also that made me think about bigger concepts like war, tragedy, perspective, and how history changes as time passes. It was certainly not the only book that has made me think about these things since I read it, and it is not even the book that has made me think the most deeply. However, Glen Cook’s narration of the story is one of the most powerful voices I have ever read from and author, even as it changes between books. The Black Company is quietly glorious in its own way and is a series I find myself coming back to a lot because I always find it has more to show me.

6666394The Black Company is often heralded as the grandfather of dark fantasy because it was the inspiration for many of the ‘grimdark’ fantasies of the current generation. In many ways I think this descriptor is incredibly accurate, as to me The Black Company reminds me of a grandfather in a family gathering. I imagine a gathering of fantasy books, where the new ones run around eager to tell their stories. People are excited to learn all the cool new plots and premises of the younger newer books, and no one gives much thought to The Black Company sitting quietly in the back like a forgotten relic. This is a shame, because if you were to go and read its timeless story you would find a harsh and sad tale of war and tragedy, but one that is an allegory for what life was like for those who had to fight in wars and live through combat. The series hides a deep complexity and experience under a simple premise of fighting for survival in a foreign land. It is a story that doesn’t lose its impact no matter how many times I read it, and one that I can always immerse myself in. Many people make the mistake of holding out on this wonderful classic, but I promise you it is worth your time. If you have not had a chance to read this classic series of war and magic, The Quill to Live unconditionally recommends The Black Company by Glen Cook.

Chronicles of the Black Company (Books 1-3) – 9.5/10
The Books of the South (Books 4-6) – 9.0/10
The Books of the Glittering Stone (Books 7-10) – 9.5/10

The Black Company Series – 10/10

 

Adding To The Pile – Even Movie Books Have A Place

DISCLAIMER

This is a guest post by Sean Burns, filling in for Andrew, due to Andrew being too lazy to get up and write a post himself.

Dear reader, I imagine that if you are anything like me, then you love reading books so much that you likely have a large pile of books waiting and tantalizing you from your bedside table. So you also likely have the same problem I do, the problem of occasionally seeing that pile grow to an intimidating size; however, that doesn’t stop us from coming to a blog like The Quill to Live to find fantastic new books that you want to add to that pile. Having Andrew as a friend has added so many books to my pile, it is beginning to resemble a tomb. It is, however, a glorious tomb of books that I cannot wait to read my way out of. Books of mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, non-fiction, and more fill my bed stand promising a cavalcade of eclectic adventures, but it wasn’t always so diverse. For a long while I read almost exclusively books from the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and it is all because I was sucked in by one man’s writing. Subsequently, following the theme of adding tomb-encasing levels of books, I present to you my guest post on the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn.

thrawn_trilogy

As I mentioned, this series takes place in the Star Wars Universe, but don’t let that throw you off if you have been burned by ‘movie books’ before. I know there are some terrible movie/game based books out there, but Timothy Zahn is a Hugo Award winning author and he brought his A-game to the table in this trilogy. Now I should mention there was a recent de-canonizing of all the Expanded Universe books after Disney acquired the franchise, so these books *officially* didn’t happen, but they will always have happened in my heart. Zahn is known as more of a military writer, and that comes through in new and exciting characters (as well as many from the original trilogy), an intriguing interwoven plot, and plenty of action. This series takes place five years after the end of Return of the Jedi, and deals with the remains of the Empire pulling itself together under a brilliant new military leader, with plans to overthrow the New Republic that has risen out of the Rebel movement after the Emperor’s demise. And how might he do this? He enlists the aid of a mad Jedi, conscripts a planet full of assassins, employs fascinating and varied forms of espionage, and matches his own cunning battle strategy against the best the New Republic has to offer.

Book One, Heir to the Empire, brings back the heroes of original trilogy while also introducing us to a whole new cast from the fallen Empire, including Grand Admiral Thrawn, the new supreme leader of the Empire and one of my favorite villains, a brilliant strategist who can hold his temper making things far more interesting. We also meet a brand new group of rogues; smugglers to be precise. These smugglers are led by a crafty, thoughtful, and generally honorable information broker named Talon Karrde who finds himself and his team dragged slowly but inexorably into the new galactic struggle. I don’t want to get too deep into the plot of the book, but there are harrowing escapes, a search for a long lost fleet of starships, deadly space battles, clandestine meetings, military maneuvers and out-maneuvers, love stories, hate stories, varied espionage and more.. The first book transports you straight into the story without preamble, and pulls you along with the characters as they face struggles and both sets of galactic forces try to outwit each other.

Zahn brings all these characters into a story that pulls you in quickly and rarely lacks for excitement. The story balances the load of characters and plots very well, and you are regularly left with a need to start the next chapter. Zahn does a very good job of following the heroic arc that the movies also follow, and if you are a Star Wars fan you will feel right at home. If you aren’t a Star Wars fan, the characters are still very well written, with the newly introduced characters holding greater depth and complexity than most of the original trilogy heroes, especially the likes of Luke ‘Pure Light Jedi’ Skywalker. One of the most interesting sub-plots of the series follows Mara Jade, one of Karrde’s Lieutenants who has a dark past as a spy and assassin working as the ‘Hand’ of the Emperor. She struggles under the weight of her past as she tries to move on with her life, and Zahn develops her character in a way that has made Mara Jade my favorite female ‘anti-hero’ of all time. I also found myself rooting for the Grand Admiral in some chapters, and hating him in others. Zahn does a fantastic job of continuing to engender these feelings throughout the series.

The second book, Dark Force Rising, brings you deeper into contact with the new characters of this series and you get to begin to unravel the mysteries of the mad Jedi and the former Hand of the Emperor. You also get a closer look at the home planet from which the Empire is pulling its assassins, and the political ambition threatening the developing New Republic. I feel like this book is the only place the trilogy lags a little, but I was easily able to power through some of the slower chapters about political rivalries to get back to the inner workings of the clans on the planet of assassins. Furthermore, this book does a fine job continuing the excitement and high-stakes sensations, while also bringing the first book’s character arcs closer together in preparation for the finale.

The final book, The Last Command, sees the many final confrontations that Zahn has masterfully built up. His story arcs are crafted to allow the whirlwind of events to come together in a coherent manner, never using “The Force” as a deus ex machina. The characters feel realistic and vivid despite its Sci-fi setting,  and come up with surprisingly clever ways to overcome the challenges the grapple with. As the book reveals the tantalizing mysteries it has been hoarding since book one, you are also treated to climactic battles in space and land, and some surprising turns as the series comes to an extremely satisfying end that left me looking for more in this universe.

In conclusion, even if you feel that books based on movies or within a movie’s universe are generally poor quality, this is a classic series that should appeal to any reader. Timothy Zahn introduces complex and interesting characters to the Star Wars universe and weaves together an impressive collection of story arcs in a satisfying finale. He introduces a multitude of new places, creatures, and ideas in an already exciting galaxy. I laughed, I raged, and I cheered throughout these books. It is frustrating that a story that shaped my early reading career is no longer canon in the Star Wars Universe, especially one that includes one of the most powerful and complex female characters in a galaxy far, far away, but the non-canon aspect doesn’t mean it is not worth a read. So if you look over at your growing stack of bedstand books with a hint of gnawing dread, what is the harm of adding another great series to the top of the pack? It might not bring you as deep into the Star Wars Expanded Universe as it did for me, but this series is definitely worth your time.

Heir to the Empire – 9

Dark Force Rising – 8

The Last Command – 10

The Thrawn Trilogy Overall – 9

Book Club Discussion: Tigana By Guy Gavriel Kay

104089Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay, generated by far the most conversation of any book we have read so far. As opposed to previous contested books we have had in book club, Tigana had less of a spectrum of different opinions, and more of a splitting into two camps: people who loved it and people who hated it. On a scale of 1-10, half of the group had scores of nine or above and the other half of the group had scores below 5. The final resulting average for the group was a solid seven, however it was the first instance where no one seemed happy with the score as all felt it should be higher or lower. I will attempt to dissect the various sides of the argument below, but before I begin I’ll add a small disclaimer: myself and all three editors for this blog all fell into the 9+ camp and are likely biased as we break down the discussion.

Tigana is a historical fantasy that takes place in a setting similar to medieval Italy, and follows the story of a country called The Palm. The Palm has been invaded and split by two great sorcerers from different empires, with all the land being occupied by one or another, barring a single province remaining contested between the two. However, the majority of the plot revolves around one of the already conquered provinces, Tigana, and we follow the point of views of a variety of Tigana citizens as they attempt to free their province from one (or both) of the sorcerers. The book reminded many of a Shakespearean tragedy that focuses on the question, “what is the price of culture”? The characters of the story are varied in background and personality, and we are treated to a diverse set of opinions on the value of life and culture. The execution of these ideas is where the group heavily disagreed.

Team Pro-Tigana: Those of us who loved Tigana found the book to be a work of art. Guy Gavriel Kay was on my masters of prose list for a reason, and the writing in Tigana was flowing, poetic, and emotionally impactful on a number of levels. The characters were extremely deep and represented a large number of perspectives for the reader to easily identify with and life through the various sides of the conflict. The various agents in the book felt like real people who we knew, or represented ourselves. The book has a cleverness that we loved, and uses every set of characters in a pair as foils for one another. The characters helped pull us into the book, and multiple people found themselves thinking about their own life and decisions as they read it. The story also just broke our heart over, and over. It is not a book for those looking for something happy and uplifting, and some of the characters in Tigana are among the most tragic we have ever read. Tigana is a magical piece of literature that transported us into its world, evoked deep thought and consideration on difficult topics, and created strong personal connections between the reader and the characters. We collectively cried enough to fill a bucket and highly recommend Tigana.

Team Anti-Tigana: Those of us who hated Tigana frustrate me deeply, but had the following complaints. Many considered the book to be first and foremost incredibly boring. Multiple people claimed they felt absolutely no connection with any of the characters, and found them unpleasant to follow through the story. Without the connection to the characters, the “con” group found the plot slow and incredibly dull. Some found the pacing jarring as the perspective often jumps from point-of-view to point-of-view to tell the story. It was said that this broke all momentum in the story and it felt like any building excitement was lost. A few of the “con” group also claimed that they found the writing pretentious and that they preferred more austere prose. While most finished the book, and understood conceptually why many of us liked it, the “con” group vehemently does not recommend Tigana.

Despite creating such a large disagreement, Tigana was for me an incredible study on how readers can read the same book and have such a vastly different experience. Where one sees a character that they can pour themselves into and sympathize with going through a tragic and moving trial, another sees a grating and unrelatable cut out who slogs through a boring story. Regardless of how much people enjoyed the book, I highly recommend Tigana as a book club book as it generated some of the best conversation we ever had.

Rating: Andrew – 9.5/10

Bookclub – 7.0/10

Morning Star – A Setting Sun

81jlih6bqclMy number one book of last year was Golden Son, by Pierce Brown. It was an impressive addition to the Red Rising series that took the successful formula from the first book, Red Rising, and grew it in inventive and exciting ways. Each book in a trilogy has its own goals, needs, and obstacles. The first book has to draw the reader in, establish the world, and familiarize you with the characters. The middle book needs to raise the stakes in a noticeable way from the first, expand on what has been established, and set up the story for the finale. The final book needs to bring the story together and leave the readers feeling satisfied. Today I will be talking about Morning Star, the sequel to Golden Son and the finale of the Red Rising trilogy, and how Pierce Brown did as his first trilogy comes to a close.

To begin, Morning Star was a good book, but different from its predecessors. Brown established a plot in the first two books about subterfuge in preparation for a third book about revolution, so it made a lot of sense that the tone and direction of the third book changed dramatically.  However, Morning Star still has a great deal of the things that made the previous installments great. For example, Brown has continued to build his world even in the third book, paving the way for future novels set in the same universe. The characters are still as vibrant and interesting as the were before, with perhaps one exception, and a cast of interesting newcomers liven things up. The plot of the final book is very enjoyable, though the number of surprises in the final installment are fewer than in books 1 and 2. One thing Morning Star does do better is grow its characters. Darrow shows much more depth and complexity than previously, and the side cast show signs of change as well. All in all it was a very enjoyable book, and spoilers; I am going to give it a pretty good rating at the end of this. On the other hand, is it as good or better than Golden Son? The short answer is no, and the long answer is below.

I did not expect Morning Star to reach Golden Son’s lofty heights for a variety of reasons, but I expected it to be slightly better than it was. The first problem that Morning Star suffers from is some rigidity. One of Brown’s greatest strengths in the previous two books was the nebulous nature of the story. Due to the fact that Darrow was more or less in the dark and didn’t really have a game plan other than a) not die and b) bring down society, it allowed for Brown to create these huge unexpected set pieces that could surprise and delight. In Morning Star, the path to victory is much clearer and it makes the story much more linear with clear objectives that the chaotic prequels. In addition, one of the biggest joys for me in the other two books was enjoying the Gold society and watching Darrow try and maintain his ruse. This is not a part of Morning Star by necessity as the revolution has begun, and Brown unfortunately strips himself of one of his strengths. Despite my comments, I completely forgave these “problems” as they had more to do with plot direction that anything else, but I was less forgiving of some other elements in the book. 

Morning Star is a much larger book that its siblings and suffers from some pacing issues. The book managed to both feel like it was sometimes not giving enough time to events as it rushed to the end, and also dragging on as it felt like there was entirely too much to do. However, my biggest problem with the book came with how Mustang’s character was treated. To me it felt as though her entire personality and role in the book was lobotomized for the sake of giving Darrow something to fight for and live up to. While I understand what Brown was going for, I feel he could have achieved this in other ways without erasing who Mustang was as a character.

Despite my complaints, please note that the book is still fantastic. The world is vivid, the characters lovable, the plot exciting, and the book has paved the way for a second trilogy that Brown is now working on. I feel that Morning Star could have been a tad bit stronger, but is nothing to be ashamed of. I recommend Morning Star, and highly recommend the Red Rising series as a whole.

Rating: Morning Star – 8.5/10

               Red Rising Trilogy: 9.0/10

Beyond Redemption – Insanely Interesting

beyondredemptionI tend to shy away from anything that self-identifies as “grimdark”. For those that are unfamiliar, grimdark stories often feature an anti-hero, generally unlikable characters, gritty dark writing, and a whole lot of tragedy. Grimdark books often tend to overreach for shock value in their writing and it can be a huge turn off when you are otherwise enjoying the story. In addition, I tend to shy away from the subject of mental illnesses as it is something I find uncomfortable to think about. Due to both these facts, when I ran into the heaps of praise for Beyond Redemption by Michael Fletcher, a grimdark book about the insane shaping reality around them, I decided to hold off for awhile. As is often the case with books I ignore, it was a mistake. Fletcher has written a story that celebrates the best that grimdark has to offer while also exploring the sensitive subject of mental illness in a vivid and creative manner.

Beyond Redemption is a German influenced fantasy that takes place in a world where the beliefs of the insane define reality. The stronger a person’s ability to manipulate the world around them, the crazier they become, and some have gotten so crazy and powerful that they have ascended to godhood. A person’s reality manipulation abilities always ties back to a specific mental illness/kind of insanity, and their powers revolve around the way their mind is unraveling. The story focuses around a variety of characters, starting with an egotistical priest who gains power through people’s faith in him. The priest attempts to make a god-by-design, attempting to control how a child goes insane and rises in power, but a number of other figures see the potential in influencing the fledgling god and also seek to influence him. In addition to this, we have a trio of travelers looking for their next score, each with their own form of crazy, who see an opportunity in ransoming this young god back to the church. The plot thus revolves around the control and influence of a deity in the making, and explores a variety of crazies as they battle to be the one who helps him ascend.

As I mentioned before, Beyond Redemption embodies the best of grimdark without going over the top. The world the story takes place in is terrible, ravaged by the insane as they bend everything around them to their demented will. However, there is order and clarity with how the powers work and the world building is well paced and exciting. All of our protagonists are deeply flawed individuals that are beyond redemption, and they stay true to their vile personalities as they progress the story along. At the same time, the protagonists are relatable and so entertaining to read about that, while they are terrible people, you are never pulled out of the story by their disdainful actions. There is trauma and tragedy aplenty in the story, but the grisly events that do occur in the book feel like they are used to flesh out and explain characters we are already attached to, and do not feel like they are simply there to shock the reader by being controversial. Additionally, many of the disturbing events of the story go a long way to expound the plethora of mental illnesses that make up the core of the story.

These mental illnesses manifest in tons of different ways. For example, a kleptomaniac who can’t help stealing everything, including things like the still beating hearts out of chests. Then there are people who are so afraid of dying that they become undead themselves. One of the scariest characters is a pyromaniac with a love of burning everything around her, and a large part of the story revolves around someone whose personality fractures into various versions of him that all seek to become the original in the Highlander sense. Beyond Redemption both pays tribute to a variety of mental illnesses as well as explores them in interesting ways. Fletcher manages to take a subject that makes me uncomfortable and instead make me eager to read more about it.

My complaints about the book are minor. I would have liked to have seen more of the world than the small corner that Beyond Redemption visits, and while satisfying, the ending felt slightly abrupt and left me wanting one more chapter of explanation or an epilogue. However, since my major complaints about the book are that “I wanted more of it” it is safe to say that it is a very good read. Listen to all the bloggers and reviewers out there and grab Beyond Redemption when you can.

Rating: 8.5/10