Monday, October 12, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Black Company

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.


  1. Awhile ago you wrote about silly character names, this novel is filled with almost every character having names like One Eye, The Captain, Tom-Tom, Howler, even a guy named Pawnbroker. If only Fighter Two had survived to 3rd level he could have joined the Black Company.

  2. While I'm not a huge fan of Cook's writing style either, he really won me over eventually with his strong plot and stronger characters. The Black Company (as a series, not necessarily just that novel) is really a milestone in fantasy fiction.

    I don't know that Gary Gygax liking the book is necessarily a reason to recommend it. A lot of the writers in Appendix N don't really ring my bell anymore, for that matter, and some of them, in fact I quite dislike.

  3. Cook is an interesting writer (I agree his writing style takes some getting used to) and the series goes on far, far too long, but there are some spectacular scenes in the Black Company series.

  4. Cook is one of my favorite authors, I follow and re-read both the Black Company and Garrett series faithfully. As with some of my other favorite authors, it was only on repeat readings of the work that it really took hold. Cook's style of writing is very concise, and you can miss a lot the first time around.

    As far as gaming inspiration goes, I've borrowed a great many elements and moods from his stuff. The Barrowlands and Ten who were Taken were especially compelling to me, and the idea of buried evil powers sleeping restlessly just beneath the surface has been a frequent theme in my campaigns, especially my "Forsaken Halls" Megadungeon.

    Cook's version of sorcery as dark, powerful, and ultimately corrupting is a wonderful counterpoint to traditional "high magic" traditions in most fantasy novels, as well as Cook's assertion that it can all be brought tumbling down by someone clever enough, or by a well-placed dagger in the dark! If you appreciate Mr. Raggi's idea of D&D as a "Fantasy F'ing Vietnam", then you'll probably enjoy Cook. :)

  5. I like Cook's writing. He's the one author my gaming group agree on. That second book, such a change of pace - innkeepers and graverobbing - inspired.

    Also The Black Company were an inspiration to Steven Erikson's Malazan novels - to my little mind the best fantasy epic in decades.

  6. I agree that Cook is a writer that really benefits from multiple reads. His style, even today, can take some getting used to, as it's very modern in contrast with its traditionally medieval or Renaiassance setting.

    For me, the original trilogy is synonymous with AD&D, though that may have more to do with the timing of my first readthrough than the content. However, I can see the content also really relating: spells with material and somatic components, mercenary wizards and magic being uncommon but not unheard of or rare, and artifacts and history heavily influencing the course of the heroes' path.

    I find the description of the books as "slow" baffling (though of course James is entitled to his take), as none of the books are that long (especially by today's standards), with a lot of short chapters and quite a bit of action and movement.

  7. Loved the fist book, but the series seemed to go downhill after the third one and pretty much stopped reading them halfway through th fourth. But for it's time it was quite refreshing to see someone bring a more grittier style of fantasy in the 80's when there wasn't much around.

  8. The Black Company (series) was a huge influence on my early D&D campaigns, both for specific story elements and for the military-adventure tone of the novels. I have to agree with some of the other comments that Cook's strength, however, is with his characters. He has quite a few memorable ones throughout the series (with The Lady being my personnel favorite, especially in the earlier works). The Black Company would certainly make my personal "Appendix N" for a great many reasons...

  9. I tried 'Black Company' but could not get around Cook's prose style, which IMHO comes off as awkward and somewhat staccato. He's the Hemmingway of fantasy.

  10. The Gygax recommendation is in issue #96 (April 1985), on page 9.

    As printed:

    A good “game” book
    If you haven’t read The Black Company by Glen Cook (Tor Books, Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1984), then you are missing a good book which relates closely to the AD&D® game. I can’t swear that the author plays FRP games, let alone any of TSR’s offerings, but somehow he has captured the essence of them, regardless. The Black Company reads as if it were a literary adaptation of actual adventuring, as it were, in a swords & sorcery milieu akin to that of a proper AD&D game campaign. The style of writing is neither heroic nor swashbuckling. There is none of Robert E. Howard in the book. It is a dark work. Nevertheless, it is one fine bit of fantasy authorship. I recommend it to all role-playing game enthusiasts for many reasons, not the least of which is that it will assist in proper fantasy role-playing. For $2.95 this book will provide both reading enjoyment and much support for your RPG activity. It is one you shouldn’t miss.

  11. I loved the series and it helped me develop the merc companies for my campaign as well as helped me see how magic would influence warfare. You also get to see some good fantasy politics in action as well.

  12. I breathe the Black Company, if cut, I would bleed Cook's quirky words and phrases.

    In contrast to what many people here see, I think that Cook's writing is fast paced and full of tension and real world situations and pains often overlooked in fantasy literature. I was at first put off by the first person writing, but shortly afterwards feel right in to the world.

    From the first book, the chapter/short story, "Raker", reads to me just like something out of a gritty urban D&D adventure. The powerful wizards are scary and treat the humans around them like we would ants, or sheep. I read and re-read these books all the time. I am not as fond of the second saga as the first books, but I find Cook to be a superb writer.

  13. Yeah, I'd say these books are 110% D&D. A couple of reasons:

    1. Every one of the Company are bastards through and through. They define "hard-bitten mercenaries" and while not "evil", they sure as hell aren't "good" either. Perfect comparison to your average "scoundrel" D&D party.

    2. The Company, while formidable as a whole, constantly goes up against enemies far more powerful than they are, but they prevail time and time again because of their wits, not their sword-arms. No one is described as some sort of combat-god, but they win through because they fight dirty and use their heads. A perfect example of your typical "challenge the player, not the character sheet" old-school D&D.

    3. At least the first four BC books are a great example of a campaign from start to finish (I include the fourth book because it is one big epilogue to the first three - I haven't finished #5 yet). The "party" acquires a patron they don't quite trust, gets embroiled in something they weren't prepared to deal with, and has to fight/cheat/connive their way out of by any means necessary.

    4. Goblin and One-Eye are great examples of D&D-style illusionists, and actually any player who wants to play an illusionist, should read the BC books with attention played to all of their antics. Goblin and One-Eye are certainly not powerful sorcerers - almost every magic-user they run into in the series is more powerful than these two - but they get by because they are clever as hell and know how to use what they have to the fullest.

    As for Cook's style, I like it. It's refreshingly modern, doesn't clutter up the prose with a lot of "prithee" speech, and if there's any awkwardness to it, I think that's because we the readers are too used to writers who abuse their dictionaries and thesauri(?), looking to be the next prosaic heir to Howard, Tolkien, or Lovecraft. If Cook was writing a modern action or war novel, I don't think any of us would blink at his writing style; that it's paired with a fantasy setting is what throws people off.

    Finally, one of the things I do like, paired with my comment #2 above, is that Cook doesn't bog down what's going on with a lot of blow-by-blow fight scenes. It's not Howardian action or Robert Jordan-esque four page long swordmaster duels, it's very practical "...and we cut our way through the lot of them and managed to get to the high ground before they sorted themselves out" kinds of fight scenes. Maybe not terribly evocative, but not a rehash of every other fantasy author who wants to write some kind of Achilles/Hector throwdown every time someone gets into a brawl.

    I was in an aborted followup campaign to a campaign that tried to emulate the Black Company novels. Sadly there were Real Life considerations for the GM and he couldn't finish it, but it was fun while it lasted. Too bad that I hadn't read the BC novels at that time, but looking back I can certainly see where the inspiration came from. By all accounts, the original campaign was much closer in spirit to the novels - I'm sorry I hadn't been in it because it sounded like a great campaign.

    I'd say anyone who is curious, please go right ahead and pick these books up. Cook's series' are coming out in new omnibus editions, so you can grab all six BC books for relatively few bucks in two very nicely done volumes.

  14. "As for Cook's style, I like it. It's refreshingly modern, doesn't clutter up the prose with a lot of "prithee" speech, and if there's any awkwardness to it, I think that's because we the readers are too used to writers who abuse their dictionaries and thesauri(?), looking to be the next prosaic heir to Howard, Tolkien, or Lovecraft."

    Hrm. I was under the impression that there was more variation within fantasy writing than "modern" vs "prithee". To me, Lovecraft and Howard are as different as two stylists can get. Certainly HPL is guilty of having an immense vocabulary. A lot of critics have objected to his perceived over-use of exotic adjectives -- it's all a matter of taste, I suppose. Howard's characters occasionally expressed themselves in pseudo-antiquated speech, but overall his writing is packed with concise descriptions and punchy plotting.

    But you're probably right, Cook's writing would seem less incongruous in a novel about, say, the Korean War. Which is fine for folks who are into both modern war fiction and fantasy. Different strokes.

    Also, you used Howard and Jordan in the same sentence AND it didn't look like "Jordan licks Howard's boot-heels." Harsh.

  15. I wasn't looking to boil everyone down to following three different authors. Just that Cook's writing is much different than that of the fantasy fare available out there even now, when I think a lot of authors have let up on it somewhat. It almost feels more like the writings of someone pounding out a noir-esque "private dick" novel than someone writing an "epic swords-and-sorcery trilogy".

    As for the Howard / Jordan thing, sorry - "Jordan licks Howard's boot heels". Actually, Jordan doesn't emulate Howard so much as he seems to want to turn Rand Al'Thor into some sort of Jedi Knight from the prequel movies, where every battle against a bad guy is a ten-minute long duel made up of hundreds of cuts, thrusts, parries, and ripostes. That's definitely the anti-thesis of most Cooksian battles.

    Also of note - I can't think of a single instance in one of the 4 1/2 novels I've read where a sword was described in the near-pornographic detail that most fantasy authors like to give these days. It's pretty much just "a sword". Refreshing, that.

  16. Im more of a fan of Cooks Garret series, they are bluntly amusing novels. Black Company really comes into its own the farther into the series you get - especially as Croaker takes more of a center stage with the Lady. The 3.x setting book for Black Company was pretty amazing the time I flipped through it, but I dont know how useful it would be to Old School gamers as a couple chapters are devoted to depowering aspects of 3.x to fit the setting descriptions.

    A little off topic but with the mention of modern war and fantasy I have to mention Grunts by Mary Gentle. If you haven't read it, and don't hold Tolkien as sacrosanct it is a great read. Just watch out for the shrapnel from Tolkien-esque sacred cows being blown apart! The other fun part is I know the author has been an RPG playtester so the scoundrel party idea shows through.

  17. @Badelaire: Your lambasting of Robert Jordan has pleased Crom.

    I'd like to point out that sword-fetishizing in fantasy fiction is (almost) entirely the fault of the aptly named Michael Moorcock.

    There's something to be said for the less-is-more approach to writing action sequences. Nuff said.

  18. Having just finished up The Black Company yesterday, I found it interesting. My personal take on Cook's writing style is that it's like the 45 degree shutter used in films like Gladiator or Saving Private Ryan during the battle scenes. You kind of know what's happening, but it doesn't have the smooth flow we've come to expect.

  19. Honestly, I think Cook's writing isn't so much "modern" as "lacking in style". I liked the plot and characterizations of The Black Company very much, but found the prose itself to be only slightly more acceptable than that of the average RPG tie-in novel. I took me two attempts get through the first book in the series.

    Great writing is all too rare in fantasy fiction, especially Swords & Sorcery tales. It's a shame, really, because a more artful approach would have made those books true classics of the S&S genre (admittedly, some already consider them so).

    On the other hand, pretty much every R.A. Salvatore and Jim Butcher book is a bestseller, and I find both authors' prose to be entirely unskilled, even juvenile. So I accept that my tastes may be far removed from those of the average fantasy reader (if such a thing exists).

    Re: Al,

    It's pedantic, but James Raggi isn't the originator of the Fantasy F'n Vietnam meme. That gem originated on in a post by a user named Muti Pass (whose real world identity is a mystery to me.

    "So D&D is different now. Good. I can actually walk around feeling like a badass wizard hero now instead of a 4hp mook trapped in some subterranean fantasy fucking Vietnam."


  20. On BC and gaming: I believe that Green Ronin released at least one supplement for d20 covering the BC. Don't know if it was any good, but clearly they felt a lot of people would be interested in BC for gaming.

  21. Note that The Black Company isn't Cook's 1st book, it's more like his 10th.

    And people really are confused if they consider the text of The Black Company to be "Cook's writing style." In this book, Cook takes on the persona of the grizzled mercenary, Croaker. Croaker isn't the best writer ever, and has only a modest education.

    Cook takes on other personas in later books in the series, and in other series such as his Garrett books. He also often writes in the 3rd person. Sure, all of his writing has similarities, but Lady in Dreams of Steal writes differently from Sleepy in Water Sleeps, and both are different from Garrett in the Garrett, P.I. series.

    I'm a big fan of Cook, as you might guess, and recommend almost all of his books.

  22. The black company surprised the heck out of me, I managed to not read it (and the next two books)until the past couple of years and the characters in that book and the actions that unfolded are about in line with how my regulars have been playing D&D for the past 20+ years.

    SPOLIER: As for the "names" of characters in the books...they are nicknames and aliases and attempts to keep people from learning truenames in some cases nt simply silly and unimaginative names. I myself also prefer something like "one eye" to Jhezerkerek any day of the week.

  23. I'm a big fan of Cook's Black Company series, but I can understand that they don't float everyone's boat.
    Re: Names - I think the names work in large part because they are consistent. With a few exceptions, people from the north either have nicknames/use-names (Croaker, Sleepy, One-Eye, Howler) or titles (Lady). Not every culture does this (Tobo & kin) They're also appropriate to the verisimilitude of the setting, given that true names have power over spellcasters.

    The first 4 books form a clear set, with the first trilogy and the 4th (Silver Spike) as a coda. The first books of the South "lock together" with the Silver Spike (characters in one book come across evidence of characters from the other book, or witness an epic battle from a distant vantage point), but there was some kind of break for Glen Cook and the Books of the South don't really end, instead merging into the Books of Glittering Stone - making it a run-on 6-book storyline. The middle is a bit of a slog, although it's a lot better to read them together in sequence than as they are released (as I did originally). Great books, though.

    I've only read the first of the Malazan books, and while I can see the inspiration, I also found though it needed its length cut by a third. Too many threads that went nowhere.

  24. I think reading the entire series reveals some things about the books that aren't clear from reading just the first three or four.

    First, the concept of an unreliable narrator. The series is told through a character, with the assumption that even those events that occur away from that character have been added in at a later date by the narrator. Croaker as much as says so in several cases, and the effect increases as other narrators take over (there are at least 5 in addition to Croaker).

    Second, what I call, "And then you die". Characters die in the Black Company. They don't die well, they don't die with honor and dignity, and in many cases, they don't even die "on camera". There will just be an aside that so-and-so died in the battle of such-and-such. There are exceptions, but for the most part, there's no favored status. It's about a bunch of people slogging through the mud and stabbing other people, hopefully in ways that mean they die and you don't.

    Which brings up the last point: the series is about the Black Company, not just Croaker or the White Rose. There is no farmboy-to-hero metamorphosis within the series as a whole. By the end of Glittering Stone, the entire first trilogy has become something out of the Black Company's past; something that happened to other people somewhere else. Even the events of the Books of the South are "done and gone", in a sense.

  25. (and yet another thought)...
    I adopted Cook's naming scheme for my own D&D games and found that simple, semi-descriptive names for villains (Whisper, Charm, The Black Sorcerers of Tuonela) and characters (my wizard Toad) really made them easier to remember and identify than meaningless "fantasy" names like Mazinkior Ezorvin.

  26. Akiva said...
    "On BC and gaming: I believe that Green Ronin released at least one supplement for d20 covering the BC. Don't know if it was any good, but clearly they felt a lot of people would be interested in BC for gaming."

    This is the "Black Company Campain Setting" and it is very good!
    Green Ronin take the D20 engine and mold it to fit Glen Cook's world. They re-do the Character Classes. Throwing out all "magic" for martial Classes (e.g. the ranger looses his spells but gains some mundane abilities like favored terrain).
    But the most changes occur to the magic system. GR created a free form magic system that emulates a) the ability of the Characters to create spells on the go and b) the enomous differences in power between various wizards.
    This magic system was later published on its own as "True Sorcery".

  27. I love Glen Cook's Black Company series. It is truly unique in a genre of near sameness. Anything close was someone influenced by him as far as I am aware. If you ever have a chance to hang with a bunch of semi-tough regular guys you see the reality of his writing style bleed through. They really do bash and gibe each other relentlessly while keeping outsiders at arms length. With these types, (think biker gang), everyone has a nick name which is often an slight or flaw in the persons character. Nobody I have ever met talks like Conan, Aragorn or Elric. Most, (but not all to be sure), fantasy novels draw stark lines between good and evil where reality and Cook presents point of view. The fact that Cook's writing style for the Black Company series changes dramatically is because the annals, from which the series derives, were written by six different authors in the time from the first to the last book in the series, albeit One Eye's portion was slim. Like all things your own likes and dislikes color everything and good and bad are in the mind of the reader. For myself Cook's style is very believable as characters go. I never once thought 'real people don't behave that way' or 'real people would never say that in this circumstance' while quite often I do when reading other authors. From my point of view this is a big win and I listen to the audio book series while driving about once a year because I love the characters that much.