I picked up this omnibus a while back and, though I’ve seen it recommended many times, it’s lingered in the ‘to be read’ pile too long. The Black Company gets bandied around a lot for being a precursor to the recent ‘grimdark’ movement in fantasy and it’s easy to make comparisons. Written in the 1980’s this isn’t your average tale of heroes and damsels in distress; it’s a morally ambiguous story of mercenaries told from the perspective of the boots on the ground.
Though there are still plot points regarding portents and sorcery, a chosen one and the battle of good versus evil, much of these tropes are flipped on their head. The main point being that the eponymous Black Company, a troop of sellswords, are potentially fighting for ‘evil’ in a conflict that has both huge consequences and, seemingly, no ‘good’ side.
Told by Croaker, the doctor and historian, and written as entries in the company’s Annals, we are introduced to an assortment of characters, giving flesh to the wider world as well as the battalion. After being forced to break a contract to a corrupt Lord, the company find themselves hired by a mysterious, leatherclad sorcerer called Soulcatcher, who, in turn, is one of the Taken, a group of powerful magical warriors controlled by the Lady (herself a kind of immortal wizard).
Battle after battle ensues; retreat after retreat eats away at the men of the Black Company. In all the slog and grunt the soldiers endure, Croaker is the perfect voice as he records and questions everyone, including the Taken. Written in clipped, terse tones, the scale of the plot becomes clearer as the war between the Lady and the Rebel escalates. Each chapter reads like a mini diorama in the larger campaign, drawing towards an inevitable and intense showdowns between the armies.
It’s an interesting format, created as a potted history of the Black Company, and (for the time it was written) a fresh perspective, taking the view of the soldier. Though the style is a little stilted, perhaps due to the voice of Croaker, this is a great introduction to a gang of mercenaries, each with a hidden past, all with nowhere else to go. As the start of the larger epic, it serves to set up a number of conflicts that I’ll explore very soon.
Published by Gollancz