One of the frequent criticisms of looking to Appendix N for inspiration is that all of its books were written before 1979, most of them by a decade or more. I've never seen this as a damning critique, given my contention that Dungeons & Dragons was written to broadly emulate the characters, themes, and situations of pre-mass market pulp fantasy literature. Nevertheless, in the 30 years since the first appearance of the famed appendix, a lot of fantasy stories have been written. Surely some of them must have been written whose characters, themes, and situations were consonant with those that inspired Gygax and Arneson, right?
This was a question frequently put to Gary Gygax in numerous online forums and his response was generally the same: there are only a handful of post-1979 authors whose works he admired and considered in the same vein as he saw D&D -- and Glen Cook was among that august company. Cook's first novel, 1984's The Black Company, was one that Gygax recommended in a contemporaneous "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" column. Alas, I can no longer find the specific reference, but I nevertheless recall Gary's effusive praise for the novel. That intrigued me at the time and I tried to find the book to see what all the fuss was about.
I never managed to do so and it wasn't until comparatively recently that I actually read The Black Company. The book takes its name from a mercenary company that's been in existence for several hundred years prior to its start. With such a long history, the company has an official annalist, the current one being named Croaker, and the novel is told from his perspective, as he records the events that befall him and his brothers in arms. The story begins in a faction-riddled city, where the Black Company is employed by its current ruler, whose position is rapidly deteriorating, costing the Company many men and much materiel. When a better offer comes along -- heading north to serve a mysterious patron known only as the Lady -- the mercenaries assassinate their current employer in order to void the contract and thus be in a position to accept the new one, as the sanctity of contracts is very important to the Black Company's ability to stay together and continue to attract work.
The Lady, it turns out, is a powerful wizard and the wife of an even more powerful one named the Dominator, who together once ruled a great empire with the assistance of former enemies turned allies known as the Ten Who Were Taken. Until recently, the Lady had been magically imprisoned, along with her husband and the Taken. She is awakened by a power-hungry wizard, who sought to use her to win an empire for himself, but his plan went awry and now the Lady is awake and keen to resume her rule alone. Unfortunately for her, things have not gone as planned, with various rebel factions arising to oppose her, not to mention rivalries within the Taken, some of whom seek to supplant her as well.
This is where the Black Company comes in and becomes involved. Caught between a variety of dangerous factions and standing by the terms of their contract, they must find a way to survive and fulfill their duties to the Lady. The result is a gritty, occasionally remorseless swords-and-sorcery tale told in the form of a first person military chronicle. I can certainly see what attracted Gygax to the book, although its applicability to D&D is less obvious to me. I myself found the book fairly slow going and, while I appreciated it for its ideas, I wasn't won over by Cook's writing, which felt very flat to me. That disappointed me greatly, as I wanted to like this book and its sequels more than I did. Still, there's no question that they're well worth reading and that they are good examples of contemporary pulp fantasy. My own disappointments to the contrary, The Black Company at least should be read by anyone with an interest in the genre.