I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Black Company (dark fantasy book review)

I've read quite a few books in 2021, but almost no sci-fi or fantasy. So I asked some recommendations from MeWe, and my friend Jens from The Disoriented Ranger (check his blog!) recommend me this one. Well, I'm all about dark fantasy, and I share many tastes with Jens, so here we go!

From Wikipedia:
The Black Company, released in May 1984, is the first novel in Glen Cook's ongoing series, The Black Company. The book combines elements of epic fantasy and dark fantasy as it describes the dealings of an elite mercenary unit – the Black Company – with the Lady, ruler of the Northern Empire.
BTW, while I'd usually avoid an "ongoing series", I get the impression that the first trilogy completes some kind of cycle. And the first book can be enjoyed by itself, even if you don't read the rest.

I've found the book fun, but not especially well-written. My copy claims the book is a mix of Tolkien and Bernard Cornwell (somewhat like George RR Martin, I guess) but these three authors are far superior. This might be an unfair comparison, since they are some of the greats. This is somewhat comparable to the first few Witcher books, but so far I think I enjoyed the Witcher a bit more.

The book is told in-character from a "military" point of view. Cook spent time in the army, and it shows. The narrative purposely resembles the account of a modern soldier.

The characters are a little shallow, the action and war scenes a bit rushed and confusing, and the plot twists relatively predictable. Monsters are few and not particularly interesting. The villains are very reminiscent of Sauron and the Nâzgul (with added intrigue and betrayals, which is cool)... The twist, here, is that the Black Company is fighting on their side!

On the other hand, the book is easy and pleasant to read. I couldn't put it down and ended it in a few days, unlike many more recent fantasy series.

If you want to mine the book for RPG ideas (and there was a Black Company RPG published in 2004), you'll find some useful stuff here. The "mercenary company" structure seems perfect for adventuring. It has all the upsides of a military campaign with a bit more freedom, side quests and sketchy characters.

In short: 
Interesting book, but I wouldn't add this to my favorites, at least in this first iteration. I plan to read the second one to see where this goes!

Post Scriptum:
Just found out that Gygax recommended this book!
In Dragon magazine issue 96 (April 1985), Gary Gygax wrote this about The Black Company which is what inspired me to seek it out originally. Anyone else read this way back then?

"A good “game” book If you haven’t read The Black Company by Glen Cook (Tor Books, Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1984), then you are missing a good book which relates closely to the AD&D® game. I can’t swear that the author plays FRP games, let alone any of TSR’s offerings, but somehow he has captured the essence of them, regardless. The Black Company reads as if it were a literary adaptation of actual adventuring, as it were, in a swords & sorcery milieu akin to that of a proper AD&D game campaign. The style of writing is neither heroic nor swashbuckling. There is none of Robert E. Howard in the book. It is a dark work. Nevertheless, it is one fine bit of fantasy authorship. I recommend it to all role-playing game enthusiasts for many reasons, not the least of which is that it will assist in proper fantasy role-playing. For $2.95 this book will provide both reading enjoyment and much support for your RPG activity. It is one you shouldn’t miss."


  1. I enjoyed these a great deal. I enjoyed the dialogue a lot. I was a Marine infantryman and our banter was much the same. The series gets weird later on. I enjoyed the early books a great deal. My favorite of the bunch is the Silver Spike.

    1. Yup, I can see that... there is a genuine quality to the dialogues and situations. And the second book is already looking better than the first.

  2. Yes, it's relatively light fare and unfair to compare with any classics. That said, it is also his first book! He wrote a lot and he definitely got better with writing more. Personally, I like the Garrett P.I. books far more (those are among the very few I actually reread!). It's great "fantasy noir" with fantastic characters and lots of humor and some brillant stories in a fine setting (definitely ripe with ideas to loot). Black Company is great, though, and if you enjoyed the first, you'll like the two after that as well. Actually, if you discovered him as an entertaining author, you'll have a lot to look forward to.

    And thanks for the shout-out!

    1. My pleasure! And thank you for the recommendation man! And yeah, this book left me a bit underwhelmed... but it IS a page turner and I already started the second, which seems noticeably better written than the first. And probably a bit darker too... Let's see where this goes!

  3. I loved this series - I like how the action is rushed and confusing, that the characters are frequently caught up just surviving or being left in the dark - they're foot-soldiers in this high magic empire, not the protagonists changing the world. Its a great perspective for low level campaign inspiration.

    Maybe not Tolkien level, but absolutely goes on my favorites list.

    1. Yes, that "low level perspective" is definitely interesting!