A Review of The Black Company by Glen Cook

The Black Company on the move.

Glen Cook is currently one of my favorite authors.  I have to admit that I haven’t yet read any of his Urban Fantasy series (mostly because I have a reasonably low tolerance for Urban Fantasy in the first place – I like it, but only in small doses), but I’ve found that his fantasy is always worth my time to read.  I’ve read through the entire Black Company series, and am currently working my way through The Dread Empire series (along with 5 or 6 other books, so it’s taking some time), and I love both his stories and his style.  Many critics have commented on Cook’s no-nonsense writing style, and his focus on the front-line, usually minor characters.  Cook’s protagonists are not princes, or heroes, or powerful wizards, but the mercenaries, bodyguards, and soldiers that populate the background of most fantasy novels.  In many of his novels Cook doesn’t tell you the story of a man who changed the world, but the story of a man as the world changed around him.  This focus on the down-to-earth characters lends Cook’s writing a gravity, and a realism that many fantasy novels lack, and Cook’s work is the inspiration for some of the same qualities in another of my favorite authors, Steven Erikson.

Overall: 10/10

The Black Company is by no means a new novel.  Published in 1984, it has been around for a while, and I’m sure that many other readers have enjoyed it, and many other reviewers have said yay or nay to it.  However, this review will begin with the assumption that you have never heard of the novel, or read Cook before.  The book takes its name from the primary protagonists, a band of mercenaries known as The Black Company.  The reader is quickly introduced to the fact that the Black Company has a long history, over four hundred years, and is one of the most notorious and feared armies in the world.  The first chapter of the book also sets the tone for the rest of the series.  The Black Company are mercenaries by trade, and have their own code of ethics.  This is not a book about heroes, or even a book about good men trying to save the world.  This is a book about soldiers trying to survive a war.  That being said, it is an excellent story and in this book, and the rest of the series, Cook deals masterfully with themes of morality, necessity, redemption, personal character, integrity, etc.

You can pick up the first three books in the series in one bound edition here.

Writing: 10/10

Unlike many writers Cook’s writing is very stark.  He does not provide flowery exposition, or even much in the way of adjectives.  While his writing is excellent in its form, structure, and clarity, it is not beautiful.  To my mind, Cook seems to be a lover of stories, and of the power that they have, instead of a lover of words for their own sake.  I actually find this very refreshing,

Characters: 10/10

I will say this one more time.  This is not a story about heroes, about good men, or about trying to save the world.  In fact, many readers will probably say that in this first book the main characters are the bad guys.  The story is told from the point of view of Croaker, the analyst (historian) and medic of the company.  Other central characters are Raven, One-Eye, Goblin, Silent, The Captain, Soulcatcher, and The Limper.  My favorite thing about Cook’s characters is that they feel entirely real.  The main characters are mercenaries, fighting a war, and rarely have time to concern themselves with the morality of their actions because they are more worried about surviving.  Cook’s work has a  lot to say about morality, the nature of good and evil, and of personal integrity and growth, but he addresses the topics not through obtuse, and often unbelievable examples (why do super-heroes never kill super-villains?), but with a subtlety that allows the reader to come to his/her own conclusion.  While I don’t always agree with Cook’s points, I love the way that he makes them.  Cook’s social commentary is so intricately interwoven with the depth of personality and growth in his characters that it is often difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.  Again, this is one of the things that I love about Cook’s writing.

World: 6/10
As I said before, Cook’s writing is very stark, and stark writing does not lend itself to deeply developed worlds.  While his world is more deeply developed in some of the later books, the reader is given very little detail about the world in The Black Company.  While normally this would bother me, the depth and reality of the characters more than makes up for the lack of depth in the world itself.

Plot: 8.5/10

In the majority of this book the Black Company is under contract to a sorcerer named Soulcatcher (who’s gender is completely unidentifiable), who is one of the generals of a mighty empire under the implacable rule of The Lady.  The plot of the book centers around a war between the Lady’s empire and rebel forces seeking to overthrow it, as well as a lesser battle between Soulcatcher and one of her fellow generals, The Limper.  The plot of the book is driven forward primarily by the character’s themselves, and the place of the Black Company in this ongoing war.

In general, this is a book about the bad guys.

Pacing: 9/10

I love the Black Company, but there are a few places in which it could move more smoothly.  All in all the story moves along at a good pace, not too fast, but not so slow as to be boring.  However, the story often jumps over long time periods or important battles.  I don’t generally think that this is a problem, much of my own writing does the same, but it won’t appeal to some readers.

Commentary: 10/10

As I said above, I love the way that Cook’s commentative points come out through the depth of growth in his characters.  Cook’s commentary in this book focuses on the nature of war, and of morality in war.  What is right and wrong when the primary goal is to make it through the night alive.  He also deals extensively with the nature of mercenary work, the problems it poses to normative morality, and the solutions that can be sought.

Conclusion:

Needless to say, not everyone will enjoy The Black Company, and if you are looking for a story about paragons of right standing up for morality and saving the world, then this is not the book for you.  If you are looking for a story about very real people trying to deal with very difficult situations, then this book will probably appeal to you, and I hope that you give it a chance.

Write What You… Part 3: Write What You Write

It's true, don't fight criticism - it's good for you.

So, we’ve talked about writing what you know (because, you know…you know it – 😉 I love bad puns), and writing what you are. The last step in finding your voice that I can help you with in making sure that what you write is yours.  One of the worst pieces of criticism that I have ever received was contained in the phrase, ‘I don’t like it, it’s not the way I would write the story.’ This was a reply that I got on a story I wrote a few years ago and sent out to several friends.  Don’t get me wrong, the story was not incredible, and will not see the light of publication without some significant revisions, so this is not me saying ‘my story was perfect, blah, blah, blah.’ However, you can only successfully write the way you write.  It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you will never be able to write like anyone but you.  You can grow your writing, expand the scope and breadth of the way you write, but what you write is still going to be written the way you write it.  This really should be obvious, but for some reason most new authors (including myself) miss it – some for longer than others.  The reviewer who gave me this criticism did not provide anything that could help me to improve the story or improve my writing.  Instead the reviewer just said ‘you write the wrong way’ (for you editors and reviewers out there this is one of the worst things that you can say to an author.  Be critical, but keep your criticism constructive.  Remember that you’re job is to help the author make the story better.)

I use this example to say that the way you write is the way you write.  If you have a dry, sardonic style then don’t try to write something that is all fluffy bunnies…you’ll fail.  If you have a fluffy bunny style, then don’t try to write something that is dry and sardonic…again, you’ll fail.  This is not to say that an author can only write one style – some authors can only write one style, some authors can write many styles – but that you shouldn’t let someone else tell you that the way you write is wrong.  Authors have many different styles, and they all have readers that appreciate that style.  J.R.R. Tolkien was very straightforward in his writing, Steven Erikson is much more verbose.  Glen Cook’s writing is simple, gritty, and…I think chewy is a good word to describe it, but don’t ask me exactly what I mean by that because I’m not sure that I can explain.  David Eddings, on the other hand, is much more complicated.

Hehehehe...your shoes are mine..hehehe.

There is no wrong style of writing (however you might need to develop more skill in the mechanics of your writing), you can be dry, wet, short, circular, verbose, gritty, happy, sarcastic, etc.  The key is that it is yours.  Remember that you can’t write like anyone else.  For the longest time I wanted to be able to write like H.P. Lovecraft, or like Stephen King, or even like my friend Melissa (who writes for Lantern Hollow Press), because they are writers that I admire, and they can all do things with their writing that I can’t. However, I can’t write like them any more than they can write like me.  Any one of them might be a better writer than I am, but none of them writes in a better style than I do.  This is because style is not better or worse, just different.

Listen to your reviewers, your friends, and your editors.  They can give you some great advice that will really improve your writing.  Let them help you grow and develop the way you write, but don’t let them convince you that the way you write is bad.  Don’t let them change the way you write.  It’s a fine line, and sometimes it’s hard for people on both sides to tell the difference, but you need to figure out where this line is for you, and then you need to live on it.  Take as much criticism as you can, it will make you better, but you have to know when to accept something, and when to shove it off to the side.