I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed books so much that I have so many problems with. I’ve rarely been so lost as to what was going on with the plot as I was initially with these books. At the same time, it didn’t phase me as the characters and the pace of action more than made up for it. It’s not a combination that’ll work for everyone, but it did for me. Cook has a great reputation as a fantasy writer, so this style must work for a lot of people.
In the Black Company series, Glen Cook shuns almost all of the common themes and tropes of fantasy novels. There are no intricate histories read as if from a text book, no detailed descriptions of what people look like, no pages of descriptions of meals, nor involved descriptions of what the world looks like. There’s nothing other than what you glean from the dialogue of the characters and the occasional observation from Croaker, the POV character. While I love this in concept, at times it’s problematic. Honestly, I had no idea what was going on with the plot for most of the first 80 pages of THE BLACK COMPANY; the author’s throwing out names like Limper and Soulcatcher and titles like Taken and eras like The Domination, and I had no idea what any of it meant. Honestly, at first, with the nicknames of the men in the Black Company being Croaker and Goblin and the like, I wasn’t entirely sure that the characters I was reading about were even human. Then, around page 80, it all clicked, somehow, and I then was along for the ride.
Cook writes from the perspective of low-level officers and enlisted men of a mercenary military organization, The Black Company. As I was enlisted myself while in the Navy, and I write from that same perspective, this viewpoint of the “common” soldier really worked for me. The limited use of magic in the first book is really well done, utilizing wizards sparingly and viewed as, I would assume, a grunt would view the use of air power. In the third book the parallels between magic and air power got a little too on the nose, with flying carpets outfitted with ballista weapons and fire bombs, but otherwise the analogy worked.
As the books go on and you figure out what’s happening, and what has happened over the previous centuries, the world really comes alive and became quite relatable. The concept of a not-quite-dead evil trying to break the confines of the grave to return, and the revelation that one of the main characters, the Lady, actually DID do that at one point, really built the world for me. All of the characters are richly drawn with a minimum of dialogue and almost no description. Everything we know is based upon what these characters do and little else, and it’s extremely effective.
As I said, the first 80 pages of THE BLACK COMPANY lost me, and I very nearly walked away from the books, but I’m glad I stuck with it. The second book, SHADOWS LINGER was easier to follow with all of the work of establishing the world already taken care of. The third book, THE WHITE ROSE, lost me again for a while. The story jumps between the first person account of the main character, a third person account of a wizard set a century in the past, and another third person account of a person who’s actually a character from the other two books but in disguise. It got really confusing for a while, but then, again, around 80 pages in, I figured out what was going on and really enjoyed it.
If you need to be spoon-fed your world building and characterization, then these books will frustrate the hell out of you. But if you want to read about the day-to-day of grunt-level soldiers who just happen to be serving in a company that’s first helping stop the apocalypse, then maybe helping it happen, and then trying again to stop it, then these books are just the thing.