Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Rereads: The Black Company

When I was a youth, 99% of what I read was fantasy and science fiction. We didn't have the most money, so any such book that came into the house, I'd read over and over for years. In this occasional series, I take up some of those old and treasured titles and give them a read after fifteen or twenty years to see how I feel about them now.
Wow. This was a hard one. Not because I had to force myself through it or anything. Glen Cook's book is a page turner still. But...well...it's not quite what I remember.

Let me explain. I really, really dug this book when I read it (must have been high school, 10th grade, maybe? 11th perhaps?) I mean, I thought it was the best thing ever. It's a book about a centuries old mercenary company (the titular group) getting tangled up in the high level politics of a magical empire (under the employ, specifically, of the black-clad baddie depicted on the cover above). Everyone has a short, often brutal sounding nickname; the action is quick and often summed up (as in: we fought a lot, some people died, then it was the next morning); the mystical powerhouses are incredibly powerful and thus the main character has to just scramble around under them hoping for the best. The book is funny, grim, clever and has been most influential.

So, why the hesitation? Why the problematic response?

Because it's not what I remember, mainly. I remember it being incredibly awesome, and instead it's just pretty darn good. I remember it being full of details and quirks and curiosities, and instead it just hints at most of that. I remember thinking these characters were wily and cunning and wicked, and they are, but so very sketchily described. Part of the problem is in reading just one book: there is a whole massive series. A first trilogy, a bonus book that occurs sometime during that trilogy, a duology, and then a quadrilogy. Ten total books, with some core of the same characters continuing on to become much better defined. I read just the one (that's what I try to do) and so I felt a little disappointed, I guess.

These books are still really good, though. Steven Erickson owes a truly huge debt to them (one he freely admits to): his Bridgeburners are a slightly more ethical version of the Black Company, and his scale of powers, from ordinary soldier on up to godlike mages, is taken direct from this series too; so too much of his naming tradition of both characters and locations. He built a grand edifice of his own that obviously expanded far beyond what he took from Cook, but still, the foundations are here, in the Black Company. Joe Abercrombie, too, owes a lot to these books and their mix of humor and grim brutal reality in an essentially martial world. 

Cook is also the author of the very fine Garrett files, a genius collection of books about a fantasy noir PI that I think I enjoy more than the Black Company, and which are still being written, irregularly, some twenty five years after the first book came out. In other words, the man's solid: two great series coming out over the same twenty or twenty five year period; and other things besides, some that I've read, some I haven't.

One last thing. There's a game in the Black Company, called Tonk. It's a card game that the soldiers all play for small change when there's down time, which is almost always. Regularly, for ten books, there will be someone in the background shouting out "Tonk!" When me and my friends were about 20 or so, we found a rules set for it, and for a short time, Tonk became our game. But I can see why it's the sort of thing you play always and forever to fill up the boring hours; it's not very thrilling or challenging, and it's superfast, and you could win or lose a lot of money in a day but make it up the next. Strange, though: when I first ran into Tonk during this reread, and all the rules came back into my head at once. It's curious when a book becomes a part of your life in more than the sense of reading and liking it. And for that, thank you, Glen Cook

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