This week I'm taking a look at Chronicles of the Black Company, once again an anthology, in this case collecting the first three novels of the Black Company series, The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose, in one volume. For my readers who are unaware, the Black Company follows the adventures of a group of mercenaries, the titular Black Company. The first novel has the Company travel across the ocean to far northern lands and enter the employ of the Lady, a powerful sorceress who is attempting to crush a growing rebellion against her rule. As such these books are told more from the “bad guys” perspective, sort of like if there was a book that talked purely about Tolkien's orcs. It's an interesting take on a fantasy setting and definitely adds a twist to the pretty worn out monomyth we're all familiar with by now.
Unfortunately, the first book is pretty rough overall and it's not until the second book that I felt things started to improve. The books are (mostly) told from the perspective of Croaker, physician and historian for the Black Company. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Glen Cook cannot write first-person narration well. I say this because while the first book is written entirely in first-person, the second book alternates between first and third-person and I definitely thought the third-person sections were much better. By the third book Cook has gotten much better and the first-person segments are much more readable, which is good because Cook seems determined to keep this a largely first-person narrative. It just seems a shame that a story could potentially be made better simply by shifting the perspective. Fortunately Cook seems to have gotten a handle on first-person narration, which hopefully will show in later books.
Another issue that I found myself lamenting throughout the first book was that it suffered extensively from telling the reader rather than showing the reader. For example, the imperial forces get pushed back by the rebels and seem to constantly be doing a fighting retreat. This is in spite of the fact that Croaker keeps telling us the Black Company meets nothing but success on its campaigns. We're told the Black Company succeeds, sometimes shown that it does, and then told that they're retreating, and shown parts of that. I was wondering what the heck was going on to make the imperials loose ground on every front like that. Did they simply not have enough resources? Was the cost of victory so high as to make continued campaigns impossible? Was imperial occupation so harsh that it drove the population solidly into the rebel camp? TELL ME WHAT'S GOING ON!! I desperately wanted to know more about the bigger picture, and Croaker isn't just a private soldier so he's privy to at least some of the information and would be able to enlighten us, but he doesn't.
My other real big issue with show don't tell was when Croaker kept saying that the rebels were just as bad, if not worse than the imperials. I had been informed by the venerable TV Tropes that this series operates on the premise that a typical fantasy story like Lord of the Rings is white-washing propaganda written for the heroes' side and Black Company serves as a more honest account from the “villains'” perspective. And the book sort of touches on that when the Lady asks Croaker to record a mostly impartial version of events so she isn't maligned by future historians, but we're never shown how the rebels are worse than the imperials. And I think that would make for a really interesting novel. Rebels that ruthlessly execute any imperial prisoners they take, as well as execute loyal imperial sympathizers. Rebels that are so poorly organized and extremely mismanaged that they actually make the economic situation much worse for the common person who thrived under the stability of the empire. Stuff like that. But instead we're just told by Croaker, who being in imperial service isn't exactly an impartial observer. I feel like this was an excellent opportunity for Cook that was not fully utilized.
I will admit that in my own way, I've come to care about the characters by the end of the third book and so I'm most likely going to come back. Hopefully the series will get better as Cook's writing skills improve and maybe there will be more fleshing out. I'm at least hopeful.