The Black Company - Glen Cook i thought this book was great. a strange kind of modern classic, one that influenced many other fantasy efforts by ushering in the genuine darkness, grittiness, and lack of wonder of the military novel. the writing is direct, unadorned, choppy - a soldier's perspective, i suppose. the novel jumps right in the middle of the action and makes no attempt to help readers out, assuming that they will eventually catch up. experiencing the lack of poetry and of justice, the anonymity of most of the soldiers, and the dearth of noble sentiment - indeed, very little sentiment of any kind whatsoever - was like splashing into icy cold water. it is startling, at first. but you get numbed to it.

the beginning was definitely abrupt but i got into the swing of things pretty quickly. the novel is an onion that gets increasingly rotten as you peel away every layer - but still isn't a completely bad onion. you can still use parts of it in a salad. don't toss that onion away, it's not all bad!

in particular, i loved the literalized levels of moral ambiguity and evil:

the perspective of an often ethically apathetic but at times heroic doctor and Company historian Croaker...
who lives and works for a dark, deadly, downright evil but not always totally evil, murderous, macho mercenary outfit The Black Company...
that is hired by a frightening, elegantly evil but at times rather sympathetic and even gracious boss Soulcatcher...
who is part of an ersatz Legion of Doom, filled with flamboyantly evil sorts who are effectively deadly but also often drolly incompetent and are sometimes not-so-completely-evil - all of whom have their own stylish Swingin' Villain Look The Ten Who Were Taken...
they all work for a pretty darn evil, vicious, torturing, sister-slayin', former-but-still-ambitious tyrant of the land and, well, sometimes not-so-evil big boss The Lady...
who is locked in a secret combat over the fate of the world with The Worst of the Worst, a Completely 100% Evil Big Bad Guy, her husband and former co-tyrant The Dominator...
who secretly commands his own mind-controlled Justice League, heroes who are as morally ambiguous as any modern day guerilla group The Circle...
who in turn lead a resolute force of men, fighting against imperial evil, those brave souls known as The Rebel...easily sacrificed patsies who are apparently the actual good guys of the novel! we are not privy to their perspective...

'cause baby, we're with the bad guys this time!

the reader's stand-in, Croaker, is not all bad. he does some pretty good things. he usually won't lift a finger for anyone outside of the Black Company but, at times, he is a genuinely good guy. The Black Company itself sounds like a militaristic Evil Pixar. it takes pride in its reputation for excellence and usually delivers, above and beyond. it treats its people right. it cares for them; it tries to remember their names. it doesn't like wasting time and effort in senseless battle. it prefers to run rather than toss away the lives of its men. it tries to give them rest and recreation; it promotes comraderie and respect and positive, friendly relationships. The Black Company actively tries to never fuck its men over. and, rather sweetly, it does not think highly of child abuse and torture. that's a good company to work for!

however, The Black Company also kills sleeping guardsmen in their beds. it burns down whole villages. it cares more about a paycheck than about working for mass murdering villains. its younger men rape women while its older men shrug their shoulders indulgently, an older brother chuckling at the shenanigans of a younger brother. for chrissakes, it marches screaming prisoners of war in the middle of a town square and then proceeds to nonchalantly slaughter them, simply because they are in a hurry to get the hell out of dodge. Croaker notices these things, justifies or tries to explain away some of them, but mainly chooses not to dwell on it. as he says: he was not raised to speak ill of his family. and so his narration focuses on the The Black Company's current place on the map as he helps out the wounded, tries to figure out mysteries, and writes about those colleagues with whom he is particularly close. often he spends a lot of time mooning on and on and over the two most intriguing and glamorous women that he actually only sorta knows - Soulcatcher and The Lady. just as often, he contemplates the history and the future of his outfit. he is a Company Man, through and through. The Black Company is bad - Croaker knows it and the reader is shown it during several key sequences - but it is, as they say, not all bad .

the novel features a Secret Hero: Raven. he saves a little girl's life and protects her throughout the tale. he also has a habit of enacting blind vengeance, enjoys extreme knife play, and early on, he graphically and nonchalantly strangles his backstabbing wife at a garden party, in front of his new buddies The Black Company. he is not bad looking and apparently smells like a corpse. that's our mysterious Secret Hero, folks, enjoy him!

i understand that Glen Cook used his experiences in Vietnam to inform his novel. after learning that fact the parallel becomes obvious. but to me at least, it is not simply a parallel for Vietnam; it is a very grown up and realistic analogy for many wars, for the nature of war itself. even the Good Guys can be Bad Guys. and even the Bad Guys have their reasons. what villain truly thinks that they are motivated by Complete Evil anyway? almost anything can be rationalized.

the novel contains precious little of pure good - so little that i clung to those rare good deeds, parceled out by the author so sparingly. what the novel has in spades is shades of grey: no true heroes and very few completely villainous villains. and yet... not a despairing novel. i felt strangely refreshed after reading it.

review for the The Black Company trilogy:
http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/368122154