I first read Glen Cook’s The Black Company and its sequels about 15 years ago, but the first book was recently on sale as a Kindle book, so I picked it up to read again as my paperbacks are stored away in a tote somewhere and I didn’t want to dig around to find them.
As the name implies, the Black Company is a mercenary company made up of villains and black magicians who were simply looking for a place to put their skills to better use. Some of them joined up out of debts, some for brotherhood, and a few, of which the main character, Croaker, may be part, for atonement for past sins. The Company has sold its services to the side of dark overlords for a long time, partly because in this universe it’s the bad guys who won a war hundreds of years ago and established a ruling authority. Recently, a contingent of Rebels has begun to fight back, which is where the story starts.
It amazing how story points leave your head, and I really only remembered a vague overarching plot. Croaker is telling the story through his journals, which are the in-universe Annals one designated member of the Black Company has kept as its official record since the Company’s inception.
/start Digression: This novel firmly belongs in the genre of grimdark, a fantasy subset that tends to follow a sort of nihilistic philosophy, with no true good guys and simply choosing one faction from amongst all the bad players to follow and identify with. The most iconic property in current speculative fiction is perhaps Warhammer 40k, but in reality stories like The Black Company set the stage for WH40K, and, are responsible in large part for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (better known, and perhaps better titled, as “Game of Thrones” on HBO).
While grimdark didn’t really exist in the era of pulp fiction, it certainly traces its history to that time period. Inasmuch as Tolkien’s high fantasy was a continuance of themes popularized by Lord Dunsany, it was also reactionary imperialism as comment on the World Wars–and also a deliberate-seeming casting aside of the grimmer, darker fiction of the 30s and 40s, specifically pulp noir and sword and sorcery yarns. So in that light, the grimdark revolution, started in earnest in the 1980s (alongside cyberpunk, another genre of dark speculation), could be seen as recapturing an older essential mode of fiction. It’s cyclical, like most of history, and you can see the same trends in television and film genre popularity. /end Digression
As indicated above, Croaker’s main goal, even if he doesn’t quite realize it himself, in joining the Black Company is a sort of personal atonement for past sins. It’s part of why he has so dedicated himself to medicine. He’s the Company’s surgeon and seems to be particularly good at his job. And while he puts on a strong face, since we see the story from his point-of-view we recognize the tough demeanor as the facade it really is. Without spoiling the plot, when given the chance to embrace true evil (in both figurative and literal senses), he rejects it, and instead, in an act of both mercy and a burgeoning hope he might escape the seemingly unbeatable nihilistic existence of the Company, makes a decision astute readers have seen coming for hundreds of pages longer than Croaker himself is aware.
This, of course, sets up for sequels, of which there are eight. Two of those are direct sequels and those three are collectively referred to as “The Books of the North” indicating their location on the world where the novels take place. I’ll have to dig around for those two now as I’m once again hooked into Glen Cook’s fantastic writing. Maybe after I get through my nightstand TBR pile which never seems to shrink no matter how much I read.