Everyone 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.
After 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.
For 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.
That 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.
The 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