Review – A fantasy most different: Glenn Cook’s The Black Company

As an avid fantasy reader and genre-enthusiast, I have come to devour my fair share of stories set in strange worlds and intoxicating settings. And more than a few of these stories have struck me with the sort of depth and tone and intricate world-building I wanted my own story to have.

The first and foremost, when it comes to tone, is the Black Company by Glen Cook. A series of stories, collected in four novels, about a mercenary company with little to no morals, fighting for whoever pays (or threatens to kill them if they seek other employment). The men of the Black Company are all outsiders, runaways and homeless men, come together under the banner of Black, the company their only home, their brothers-in-arms their only family.

Sounds romantic, noble, maybe a bit sappy, even. But here’s the thing: Cook imbues each and everyone of the Company’s soldiers, from protagonist Croaker, the crew’s physician and annalist, to ever-feuding-and-bickering wizards One-Eye and Goblin, to mysterious Raven and silent Darling, with a modicum of flaws and vice and banality that makes them far more humane than your average epic, sword-wielding fantasy hero. There is Evil in the world Cook conjures up, sure, but the closest thing to Good is still a far cry from Tolkien’s noble people. First thing our main characters, our so-called heroes do, is back stab their employer in favour of a better-paid gig, only to find out they’re now on the payroll of the Dominator, a terrible force of darkness threatening to destroy mankind’s hopes at freedom. But, hey, it pays the bills.

There are evil overlords, mythical creatures, epic battles and giant fortresses, but the way the main characters talk about, and experience these fantastical elements, makes the whole so mundane and matter-of-fact you really start to feel like one of the Black Company grunts, bitching and whining about another long day – filled with blood, guts and inevitable death – at the proverbial office.

Add in the gritty, dark, sarcastic humour, and you’ve got a book that transcends the run-of-the-mill fantasy clichés. Cook’s masterful approach at making the fantastical accessible, and the wizards and warriors men both fierce and fallible, is something that greatly inspired my take on the Wanderers’ main characters. So if you ever come across a novel of the Black Company series, my serious suggestion would be to pick it up, read it, and enjoy marching with the men of the Black banner.

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