One of my favorite series as a teenager was Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.” What struck me about those books, as I was just relating to Jill the other day, was how they took the conventions of the fantasy genre and switched them around: the character was not someone you would want to emulate (he rapes a woman in the second chapter of the first book), the plot revolved around his refusal to act against evil (i.e., be a hero), and the characters sometimes did things that weren’t quite what you expected (the situation referred to above, among others). Yes, I know that Donaldson did not invent the concept of the anti-hero, but it was the first time that I ran across the idea, and I liked it. Looking back, I think that there’s more to those books than just the anti-hero device–Donaldson’s world-building in that first trilogy was thorough, not quite derivative of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (unlike Terry Brooks’ abysmal The Sword of Shannara), yet owing much to them.
Glen Cook’s The Black Company reminds me of those books, but also does something unique with the concept. While it has a narrator who figures prominently in the plot, the true “heroes” of The Black Company is the group of warriors after which the book is named. True mercenaries, they battle for hire, sometimes taking the side of “evil” in their long history. I put “evil” in quotes because in Cook’s world, like ours, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish good from evil. Croaker, the narrator, is the physician and annalist for the mercenary band, which has seen better days before the time at which the novel opens. Trapped in a city with a client who is obviously on the losing side, the company try to hold the town while looking for a way to survive with their honor intact. Their solution leads them into the service of a wizard named Soulcatcher, one of the Ten Who Were Taken, now in the service of the Lady of the north who has just been released from her years of captivity. The Lady and her ten wizards have retaken much of the north, but they are steadily losing ground to the Rebel forces who have a prophecy that the Lady will be defeated when they find the child known as the White Rose. As in the Covenant books, people die, are transfigured, and betray their comrades with a style not often found in fantasy. Nowadays, this would be marketed as Dark Fantasy–that weird genre or subgenre reserved for books that have wizards and magic yet retain a little more grit in them rather than be filled with sugar and spice.
The Black Company was recommended to me as an Excellent book by the Alexandria Digital Library–while I Enjoyed the book, I doubt I’ll ever re-read it, so instead I found it merely Really Good.
[Finished 3 March 1997]