The Black Company was first published in 1984. This is 12 years before A Game of Thrones is first released and 15 years before Gardens of the Moon. It is six years before The Eye of the World starts The Wheel of Time saga. If you told me that Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and Steven Erikson had somehow missed out on Glen Cook’s work, I would call you a liar and point to any number of influences – some of them downright rip-offs – within this first Black Company novel. In short, Glen Cook is as responsible for the current state of fantasy fiction today as almost anyone short of Grandfather Tolkien. If I were to judge the first novels of any of those authors to Cook’s debut, I’d give the edge to Cook. Whether that holds true for the entire body of work is not yet known, but I hope to be able to make that call within the next few years.
The Black Company is a book about a mercenary troop in a dark land populated by grim characters and magic that is unbounded and terrifying. Their tale is told by the troop physician, a man named Croaker, who also happens to be the Company’s historian and pseudo-priest. Croaker is a man out of his element in any space that is not a medic’s tent. Because we see the Company’s movements through Croaker’s eyes, we feel at home because he is just as lost and confused as any reader would be. Croaker takes us on the journey and his viewpoint is one full of humor, common sense, and a warmth and humanity that is sorely lacking in the larger world. In short, Croaker is the only viewpoint possible for the story of the Black Company because he that rarest of species – the human being.
The world that Glen Cook paints is what is known today as grimdark. This is a tenuous term that does not necessarily have any clear definition, but many attribute its first steps to Cook himself. Grimdark worlds are not nice. They are, by their very definition, grim affairs where someone is as likely to ride heroically into battle as they are to die bleeding in a gutter. Game of Thrones has some of this, as do any number of current popular fantasy series like the First Law Trilogy from Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire books. Cook takes his readers into the mind of real military veterans – men who have seen the war wounds and felt the heady terror of combat enough times that it becomes almost rote. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Cook himself was in the Navy, and the dialogue throughout the course of The Black Company suggests an author intimately familiar with how comrades in arms speak to one another. It’s fun, disgusting, and I wish everyone wrote conversations so well.
Though we might expect it today, in 1984 telling a story from the villain’s side might have seemed peculiar, but Cook does just that. The Company is under contract to a villainous sorcerer named Soulcatcher, who is herself the literal slave of a demi-god known simply as The Lady. The Lady rules the world and has ever since some foolish wizard named Bomanz woke her up from a thousand year sleep, along with her ten wizard subjects collectively known as the Taken. Still sleeping is the original dark lord of Cook’s world, the Dominator, who is responsible for the name Taken and who makes even The Lady look nice and docile. Glen Cook’s naming system is very literal. He does not fool around with made up languages or apostrophic nomenclature. His words are never flowery (though there are odd bits of beautiful imagery in this book), and one can learn much about a character’s personality through learning the name. Soulcatcher, for instance, has a severe case of multiple personality disorder due to her penchant for sucking up souls. Goblin is a wizard who looks like a goblin. One-eye, you guessed it, has one eye.
The Taken may sound familiar, as will their lord the Dominator, to anyone familiar with The Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan’s Forsaken are essentially a complete theft of Cook’s pantheon. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of theft because it has been done for ages. The rogue’s gallery style of villain creation is as old as the notion of government. Cook’s villains have a style all their own, to be sure, and unlike Jordan’s bad guys, the Taken are unwilling slaves to their master and mistress. What makes for an even more striking similarity is the fact that the Taken are sealed up with The Lady and Dominator in some hill somewhere for a thousand years in what might strike readers as the very method which the Dark One and his Forsaken are sealed up in some hill somewhere for a thousand years!
I honestly don’t mind this kind of similarity. It gives a writer the chance to create a whole host of supervillains to love or hate, and Cook’s Taken are unique enough to stand out amidst the baddies of the world. Jordan uses Cook’s idea and refines it, creating more elaborate scenarios and personalities, and all for the better.
The other theft I want to talk about concerns Steven Erikson’s Bridgeburners. They are basically the Black Company with different names, and this might be the more egregious theft because the two companies are so similar that I think you could interchange them in either series and hardly notice. To Erikson’s credit, his characters are every bit as lovable as Cook’s, and there is nothing lost by reading the tales of both troops. Are the Bridgeburners a tribute to the Black Company? The ultimate cover band? Sure. Maybe we should all have a Black Company in our fantasy world. They would be richer for it.
There are probably more authors who read Glen Cook back in the 80s have lifted some of his ideas. There are probably authors who Glen Cook read and whose ideas he stole whole-cloth. Everyone steals from everyone is the point, I suppose.
All that said, the first of The Black Company novels is excellent. The story is exciting, simple to follow and at times even predictable, but told with such a wink-and-nod insider quality that the reader always feels like he or she is part of the Company (though I’m not actually sure that women are allowed in the Company, this is one area where Erikson vastly improves on Cook). These are soldiers who are forced to contend with powers well beyond their pay grade, and it is a world where no one is safe. It is also a world worth returning to because the story of Croaker and The Lady does not end with The Black Company. In some ways, the first book is just a warm up for some true chaos to come.