Thursday, January 31, 2013

Most Challenging Book of 2012: The Black Company

Not a man falls without my telling his tale. How can I do that from twenty miles away? How many details will be lost in the oral histories I will have to collect after the fact? How many men will fall without their deaths being observed at all?

But mostly I spend my time thinking about the Limper and the Lady. And agonizing.

I do not think that I will be writing any more cute, romantic fantasies about our employer. I have been too close to her. I am not in love now.

I am a haunted man. I am haunted by the Limper's screams. I am haunted by the Lady's laughter. I am haunted by my suspicion that we are furthering the cause of something that deserves to be scrubbed from the face of the earth. I am haunted by the conviction that those bent upon on Lady's eradication are little better than she.

I am haunted by the clear knowledge that, in the end, evil always triumphs. 

- excerpt from The Black Company by Glen Cook

I have always admired people who do what they aren't supposed to do, but what they do is so awesome that no one cares. Glen Cook breaks the "rules" of writing on almost every page, but he always follows the only real rule: tell a good story.

Croaker is the historian and medic for an infamous mercenary band. They don't care what side their employer is on. If the pay is right, the Black Company is loyal to the end, and will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Their reputation precedes them, and soon they're recruited by the Lady, a powerful sorceress set on world domination. Their job is to kill anyone who gets in her way.

Croaker's moral compass is a bit rusty from lack of use, but he's still got one, darn it, and when word gets out that the prophesied White Rose has been reborn to fight for all that is good, he starts questioning his oath of loyalty to both the Lady and the Company itself. It's every soldier's dilemma, except it's not just one country at stake.

It's easy for me to lapse into excited writer's jibberish whenever I talk about The Black Company, but that would also kind of ruin the point I'm trying to make. So I'm keeping the technical jargon to a minimum.

They say war is months of boredom punctuated by moments of horror. I'll follow Croaker for four pages while he plays card games and shoots the breeze with his buddies on watch, when suddenly the garrison comes under attack. He grabs his sword and his medic's kit and three paragraphs later the rebel riot is squashed. A few simple yet powerful descriptions will cover hours, sometimes days of sustained combat. It's short and to the point, and I don't feel like I was jipped out of an experience by not seeing every move that was made.

Cook also breaks several dialogue "rules". The language that he and his cohorts use often doesn't fit the language of a medieval, or at least pre-industrial society. Sometimes they refer to things that I have no reason to believe have been invented or even conceptualized yet. Doesn't matter. His men are soldiers, and they talk, think, and act like soldiers. In fact, the anachronistic dialogue and characterization is so authentic that Cook's fanbase has a huge military demographic.

Worst and best of all, Croaker straights up tells me things about himself and the people around him that he's supposed show me by artfully hinting at them using various devices of the craft. I don't care, because he tells me in a way that grabs my attention. As an example, after reading this line from book two, Shadows Linger, I had to set the book down and to let the full weight of the words sink in:

"I hadn't had many shots at field command. I hadn't learned to deal with the feelings that come when you know men have been killed trying to carry out your orders."


In interviews, Glen Cook doesn't have much to say about the craft of writing. He doesn't get caught up in trends; he was writing dark, gritty fantasy before it was a Big Thing, and if someone told him it was no longer a Big Thing, I doubt that would stop him from writing whatever he wants. He doesn't shroud his work in mysticism; he wrote most of his novels while working a blue-collar job at General Motors. He is no pretentious artiste droning on about his Muse.

Me, I'm something of a pseudo-literati. I read books with an analytic eye that I'm sure would be very helpful if applied to something practical. I admit that I like it when the perfect word to describe something also happens to be a big, smart word. (Seriously, earlier versions of this post put me in debt for all the 2 dollar words I dropped.) I also have a tendency to lose myself in the technical side of writing, reworking the same paragraph over and over, and I miss the forest for the trees.

Glen Cook tells me to cut that crap out. He tells me to focus on my job. Tell the story. Fifty years from now, who cares if university professors find my prose a work of genius or an act of literary vandalism? Who cares if anyone at all remembers me fifty years from now? Did I like what I did?

All of the best writers use what works and throw away everything else. Anything can work if done well. At the same time, I can't please everyone. Even though I think The Black Company is brilliant, it remains mostly under the mainstream radar and is something of a cult classic. Clearly my opinion is not the be-all-end-all, but that's fine, because neither is anyone else's.

The Black Company challenged me to write the story I want to tell, to the best of my ability. The rest will take care of itself.

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