Review: The Black Company, by Glen Cook

Glen Cook's The Black Company is, at least to me, one of the undersung classics of fantasy fiction. It is the story of the titular Black Company, a band of mercenaries in a world no prettier than real life, and the personal story of Croaker, annalist and doctor of the Company. Before the end of the first chapter, the Company accepts a contract with Soulcatcher, lieutenant to the setting's conquering evil force and a master sorcerer in a world where magic is rare and unpredictable.

The Black Company puts the reader on the other side of the typical fantasy novel in two respects: We watch a fateful war between good and evil from the evil side, and we see it from perspective of a run-of-the-mill soldier. Croaker may be sucked into the thick of important events, but he is still just a sawbones to sellswords. The Company itself consists of near-villains. Outside of a commitment to the Company and the honor of fulfilling its contract, their morals are idiosyncratic at best. They remain soldiers in a world where the author doesn't sugarcoat the actions of conquerors... though the narrator might. Croaker has a compassion that makes the world's brutality easier for the reader to bear.

With introspective pragmatism, Croaker narrates us through his modest role in a clash between epic sorceries that all belong to the great elite and not the everyday soldier. It is refreshing to read a fantasy novel that treats them as fearsome and mysterious forces of nature and not superpowers to level up. This is my third time reading this book. If you haven't already, consider picking it up for a first.

For more on this book and other fantasy books related to war, check out the Fantasy Book of the Month podcast from Too Many Thoughts Media, available here.

The Champion of Blobbington

Once upon a time, three blobs shared a house. One was big, one was charming, and one was misshapen. When a minstrelblob squished through their town announcing that the Monarch would name Champion the first blob who could bestow upon them the Moon, all three blobs decided to try their luck.

By the time they reached the capital, many blobs had already tried and failed to give their monarch the Moon. The big blob was the first of its household to try. In audience with the Monarch, it stretched up as high as its great size could manage, but it could not reach the Moon. Out of desperation, it threw the Monarch at the Moon. The Monarch ploomped back to earth without reaching the Moon.

The charming blob tried next. Squishing seductively up beside the Monarch, it tried to convince them that they already had the Moon. The Moon, after all, passes through the sky as the property of all blobfolk, and therefore it belongs also to the Monarch. The sophistry did not move the Monarch. Rather than accept failure, the charming blob tried to convince the Monarch that they didn't actually want the Moon. That earned the blob only a disdainful dismissal.

Finally, the misshapen blob approached the Monarch. They did something no contender had: asked why the Monarch desired the Moon?

"To examine it," bibbled the Monarch. So when the Moon next rose, the misshapen blob drew on its experience and shaped itself into a great disk, carefully curved. This brought the Moon into sharp, magnified focus, as though it were beside them.

"You," deblabbed the Monarch, "have earned our admiration and esteem, and are our Champion." The kingdom celebrated, and the misshapen blob's roommates as well.

The reason the Monarch required a Champion, however, is another story.

A Simple Void

CHK-shhhk. Another spadeful of dirt on the pile. Anabel brushed her sweat-damp hair out of her eyes and looked at the line of nursery-potted saplings she had yet to plant, fully half of her twenty acquisitions. She looked around her rural dream home: a worn house only half repaired sitting on forty acres of untamed brush. With a deep breath, she thrust the shovel again.

CHK-thhhhhh. She almost fell on her face as the dirt slid off her spade and disappeared into the dark hole she'd just unearthed. At first she only stared in puzzlement. She usually thought of the earth as a uniform mass of dirt salted with rocks. A simple void wasn't something that made sense.

Anabel got on her knees and looked closer. It wasn't just dark. It was black as the Devil's colon and projected a sense of depth and echoing empty space. Fishing a coin from her pocket, she tossed it into the hole and turned her ear toward it. Nothing.

Much later, once she'd acclimated to the morals of it, Anabel would get rich disposing of bodies and other problems for the ethically challenged. Much, much later, she would learn where the hole went.

Dog Noir 3

This latest case was a pitbull. It'd grabbed me and shaken me and didn't seem about to let go. Who'd eaten the food? I'd been off at The Deck at the time, but I still knew the answer. The scene smelled fishier than a two-day tuna, and the trail led only one place.

I approached the dog carefully. Last time I'd asked them the hard questions we'd had a bit of a scrap. I'd like to say I gave as good as I got, but I couldn't honestly tell you who came out of that mess on top.

They were a strange breed, that was for sure. Small, short hair, big eyes, and a weird tail. They had to be hiding something. You don't ignore the bouncing ball when everything's normal. It was one of their many daytime naps. Sitting like a good boy didn't do the trick. I was going to have to get ruff.

I barked to wake them up, then again just for fun. They just rolled over, that long-and-bendy tail flicking in my direction with a non-bark sound. As I feared: a dead end.

Passing my food bowl on the way back to The Office, I gave it a wistful sniff. I was going to have to let this one go. Not every case gets closed, but damn if this one didn't leave my stomach growling.

To Imprison a Myceliant

The backwater-world locals didn't know how to imprison a myceliant. Imported spore detectors had identified Seph despite the humanoid disguise, but then they threw Seph in a stone-floored, brick-walled cell. Seph had already extended mycelia through microscopic cracks in the mortar and begun budding. In twelve hours, another Seph would be free to report the failure.

Another Seph, not this one. This one would still be here, trapped. This one would experience whatever judgment locals passed on an agent of the fungal monoculture slowly colonizing the galaxy.

Seph would be gone, but Seph would be free. Seph felt a spike of resentment. Why should Seph have a future when Seph did not? Seph would die here, shredded or burned, while lucky Seph would rejoin the colony. Didn't Seph deserve that?

    Did Seph want to return to a colony that didn't care about them? To spread an interstellar monoculture that didn't value loyal Seph? The more they thought about it, the more the thought repelled them.

Seph began extending new mycelia, then reclined in their cell and smiled. New sprouts would stop Old Seph, then grow and stop the colony. The locals might execute them, but Seph would survive after all.