Classic Review – The Black Company by Glen Cook

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

black companyFormat: paperback, 1984

Pages: 319

Reading time: about 3-4 hours

Just as Zelazny’s Amber series was important to me in my younger days, Glen Cook’s Black Company series opened my eyes as an adult. Having just left the military at the time I acquired this book, The Black Company struck a chord with me on a metaphysical level that no other book could. The new wave of gritty fiction that has encompassed the industry, from Lynch and Abercrombie to Erikson, owes at least some of its origins to Cook’s best-known work, and Erikson readily admits how influential it was.

In the Black Company, we follow a story told through the eyes of the Annalist and Medic, Croaker. The name and position of this main character immediately informs you as to what kind of sarcastic wit Cook possesses…did Croaker get his name because he talks a lot? Or is it because soldiers die in spite of his efforts as a medic? Or both? It’s brilliant and hilarious at the same time.

The Black Company, as an organization, has been around a long time. One of the Free Companies of Khatovar (and also the last), it is a mercenary faction that takes jobs and sees them through. They are not always on the winning side, and their numbers have fluctuated over the years (the outfit is several centuries old), but there is an honorable aspect to the Company. Not neccesarily in deeds, mind you, but rather in commitment. Those who join the Company are expected to fall in line with this ideal – a person’s past is irrelevant, only their dedication to the Company matters.

As a veteran myself, the cast of characters and their actions ring with authenticity. Each character is fleshed out in the form of their speech and further defined by their actions. Since the story is told first-person by Croaker, this method of characterization works well, though we often wonder what some characters are thinking about since we only have Croaker’s thoughts to listen to. Cook makes you care about these people, which is dangerous – as a mercenary outfit, becoming too attached to character is heartbreaking when they don’t make it. There’s always another soldier waiting to step in, however.

The true gem of the story revolves around two characters: One-Eye and Goblin. As the two most powerful sorcerers in the Company, their role is important. As you soon find out, there is something of a competition between them. It’s a cross between trying to one up each other, and playing practical jokes on each other. The interactions between Goblin and One-Eye deliver some of the most hilarious scenes you will find in fantasy fiction. Where some authors struggle when attempting to pull off humor, Cook delivers effortlessly. He could have written stand-alone books just about the two sorcerers, much in the way Erikson writes short stories about Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, and I would have been ecstatic.

In this particular story, The Black Company is serving the Syndic of the city of Beryl, until the city starts to collapse in chaos and an ancient evil is unleashed. The Company ends up finding a loophole in its contract that lets them escape the chaos, and is then approached by a strange being that wishes to hire them. Only later does the Company realize they now work for the Lady, who is feared as evil incarnate and a powerful sorceress. Marching orders are given to the Company from The Ten Who Were Taken (or the Taken for short), a group of sorcerers twisted into psychotic beings by Lady’s evil dead husband, The Dominator, and who now work for Lady. These orders involve stamping out a rebel group led by the mysterious Whisper. The rebels are fighting Lady’s forces while trying to find The White Rose, a child prophecied to defeat Lady.

I’ll not give away any more spoilers than that. Cook’s writing is quick, similar in a way to Zelazny’s, with lots of action and quick wit. Descriptions are just enough to get the job done, but at times feel inadequate to give the reader a good image of surroundings and descriptive detail – kind of like the anti-Robert Jordan. Still, if you’ve got an active imagination, you’ll have no problem following along. In addition to the One-Eye vs. Goblin competition, you get lots of banter between the Company members, something Erikson tries for in the Malazan series but falls short in comparison…that’s not a slight against Erikson…Cook is simply an absolute master at this style of writing. It’s brilliant and engaging.

In conclusion, I highly recommend The Black Company. It captures the feel of a medieval mercenary group perfectly, and makes me wish that I had thought of it. The best part is that this is the first in what eventually stretches out into 10 books. Sadly, Cook has not written a Black Company novel since 1999’s Water Sleeps. This first book, however, contains all the hooks necessary to draw you in to the series. You can also find it as part of the omnibus edition Chronicles of the Black Company (which actually contains the first three books of the series).


Book Review: Whispering Nickel Idols by Glen Cook

Format:  Paperback, First Edition, 2005

Pages:  368

Reading Time:  about 3 months*


In my previous review of a Glen Cook book, Angry Lead Skies, I revealed that though I love the Garrett P.I. series, another stinker will see me walking away from Glen Cook’s writing. Well, I guess I better buy some good shoes, because I am indeed abandoning this series after struggling through Whispering Nickel Idols.

In all fairness, this book isn’t quite as bad as the last one. It does feel like it could have been written by Mr. Cook. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to make me want to go out and buy Cruel Zinc Melodies. Maybe he’s tired, or bored with this series, or needs money…I have no idea what Mr. Cook thinks or feels. But it sure feels like he’s mailing it in, so to speak.

Garrett has been reduced to a shell of himself in this book. He has a brush with death that relegates him to a minor character about halfway through the book, and he feels like an observer the rest of the way through. It’s obvious Cook wanted Garrett to change after the P.I.’s near-death experience…the detective spends more time with Tinnie Tate, sits on the sidelines, and is always one step behind everyone else until the end of the book. He whines and complains more than usual – about people, the weather, his beer, but most of all about his finances. At one point I was questioning how this guy could be considered a detective at all since he couldn’t figure anything out without help.

The most glaring problem with the book, however, is that it just isn’t very compelling. I said it in my last review and I’ll repeat it here: what I enjoy about the Garrett novels are compelling mysteries, twists and turns, minor skirmishes, big dust-ups, sexual tension, and a tremendous dose of tongue-in-cheek humor mixed with sarcasm and wit. There’s a little bit of these elements here and there throughout the book, but not enough to satisfy me. I kept thinking, “where’s the action, the suspense, the mystery, the humor?”

*My favorite time to read is when I’m headed for bed – a relaxing, quiet time to turn pages for an hour. Some books I stay up longer to read, because I just can’t stop turning the pages. With this book, I could barely make it through a chapter without falling asleep. Every day for 3 months. And were talking chapter sizes of 1-3 pages long. That’s why I have nicknamed this book, ‘The Book That Almost Killed My Blog.” I have vowed to read only one book at a time and finish every book, but Whispering Nickel Idols nearly made me break that vow.

So with that said, I part ways with Glen Cook. It’s a sad day, but I do have fond memories of the previous books in this series, as well as the Black Company books. Now, however, I’m looking forward to other adventures…

Book Review: Angry Lead Skies by Glen Cook

Format:  Paperback, First Edition, 2002

Pages:  364

Reading Time:  about 7 hours

I am a huge Glen Cook fan. I’ve devoured every book in the Black Company series, and I’ve been following Garrett P.I. for some time. Garrett has been around far longer than Harry Dresden or Eddie Drood…Cook laid the groundwork for these types of books, and there was nothing like Sweet Silver Blues when I first read it back in 1990. Angry Lead Skies is the 10th book in the “series”. I use that word loosely because each book is a stand-alone tale that does not require reading previous installments. Although it would be more helpful if you know some of the backstory, Cook takes the time to re-introduce each character to get you up to speed.

Each Garrett novel begins with a knock on his front door, leading to a mystery that the P.I. is asked to look in to. Along the way people usually try to kill him, and he struggles with his romantic relationships as the case gets in the way. Garrett has several friends, partners, and romantic interests: The Dead Man (a 400 year-old dead Loghyr with psychic capabilities); Dean (the housekeeper); Morley Dotes (a vain, vegetarian, elven assassin); Playmate (friend and stable owner); Saucerhead Tharpe (muscle); Doris, Marsha, and Dojango (half-troll, half-giant, also muscle); Tinnie Tate (off-again, on-again romantic interest); and The Goddamn Parrot (also known as Mr. Big).

The premise of this particular tale has aliens invading the town of TunFaire. Yes, that’s right, aliens. There is a loose plot of a boy gone missing, but not much mystery to speak of. In fact, most of the plot is resolved in the first two-thirds of the book. The last third of the book has Garrett setting himself up with money and explaining himself to the police and is incredibly anti-climatic. And what’s with all the sex with these ugly aliens? Over and over again…really?!!!

This is in fact the worst story I have ever read from Glen Cook. I was unhappy with how dark the Black Company books were at the end of that series, but this is far, far worse. I’ve seen several reviews that suggest this book was ghost-written by someone else. If that’s true, it would explain a lot, as it’s hard to imagine Mr. Cook wrote this story. What I enjoy about the Garrett novels are compelling mysteries, twists and turns, minor skirmishes, big dust-ups, sexual tension, and a tremendous dose of tongue-in-cheek humor mixed with sarcasm and wit. But I found none of that here.

In fact, not only are these elements absent, but several inconsistencies arise, based on what has transpired in previous novels. “illiandantic” has a review over at Amazon that sums up these inconsistencies nicely:

“First of all, where did Garrett’s love interest, Katie, come from? Usually, he finds these women as part of his cases (either the principal or a player). In this case, we start out the book with her already there. She has no background and plays no part in the book. He doesn’t even mention Tinnie (whom he had gotten back together with at the end of the previous book — a couple of weeks in Garrett time) until half way through the book.

– Second, Playmate is way out of character. In all the other books, he’s a simple, honest person. In this one, he’s essentially a walking Dead Man or a more honest Morley Dotes: a sophisticated, educated, smooth talking, cynical person. Plus, Cook specifically notes that he’s NOT really 9 feet tall. Yet, in all the other books, he IS 9 feet tall. A couple of books ago, Cook graphically portrayed him in a situation at Morley’s restaurant as being bent over to fit inside. My guess is Cook needed some way to work a specific type of character in as a principal and a 9 foot tall, simple guy wouldn’t work. So, he just changed him.

– Similarly, Singe has miraculously graduated from a smart, though barely articulate, rat woman into practically an Einstein.

– Ditto for the Rose triplets. Specifically, Doris and Marsha. In all previous books those two grolls were dumb as stumps. Even more importantly, only Dojango spoke “English” (that was why he was around — to translate). Doris and Marsha ONLY and SPECIFICALLY spoke grollish.

– And, finally, near the end, Cook mentions that the Tates have DWARF blood somewhere back in their line. That’s not correct. Again, specifically, in all previous books he’s mentioned that they have ELF blood in them.”

Everything pointed out here is spot on, and goes a long towards proving something is fishy about this book. From the opening chapters it becomes clear that something is up – the prose and dialog is clumsy, hard to follow, and it takes 3 chapters to introduce the “mystery”. I was scratching my head in confusion. I’ve never had this much difficulty getting interested in one of Cook’s stories.

I struggled to finish this book, and don’t want to waste any more of my time reviewing it. The story is that bad.  I will give the next book a chance, but if it’s more of the same, I’ll be dropping this series, and dropping Glen Cook as one of my favorite authors. My time is valuable to me, and I don’t want to waste it reading pedestrian material.