Tolkien Gestures Book 13: The Black Company

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, we pass beyond books that were recommended as “essentials” and into a run of books recommended as just plain “good”. After the last couple of reads, I was looking forward to it.

You know what is fast becoming my most hated fantasy trope? it’s “To Be Continued”. Now I’m sure every fantasy author wants to be create a new series and write many books in their expansive, detailed, and yet strangely-familiar-to-every-other-sodding-fantasy-world feat of imagineering, but I’m getting slightly tired of every book being unable to end without some sort of indication that this is merely the beginning.

In fact it nearly spoiled my enjoyment of a book I otherwise really quite liked.

So, The Black Company was touted when I was setting up the list as a refreshing blast of “gritty” and indeed it is both gritty, and refreshing. It essentially tells the story of the eponymous mercenary company entering the service of The Lady, a sort of 2nd Age female Sauron replete with Dark Tower and her Nazgul-like Taken, and their part in suppressing The Rebellion in the Northern Lands against her reemergence from being “mostly dead, ergo slightly alive” for a few centuries. It is narrated by the Company’s Archivist and medic and is basically an Eastern Front war story told in a fantasy world, from the perspective of what are essentially, the bad guys. Not that the good guys are terribly nice either.

As you may have noticed from the summary above, there is a Lot Of Capitalisation throughout. No-one actually has a name, just nicknames, or titles and its a conceit that works really well. For a start the company itself is a home for those with no-where else to go, with their old lives lost once they signed up, and The Taken all have names that are secret so go by sort-of-names, sort-of-titles, and letting everything else feel slightly stylised and titled gives it a coherent feel to the world that otherwise is a little indistinct (war ravaged terrain being a tad samey!). But, strangely, that stagey, slightly underdeveloped worldbuilding helps here, as we’re not distracted by the “ooo look at that!” travelogue sections that seem to be the genres other big stock in trade.

What is actually clever, and really sold me the story, is the realisation towards the end that this is really a grunts-eye story of some very high-level political machinations within both the forces of The Lady and The Rebels. As everything starts to unravel, and the Final Battle approaches (there’s a conscious evocation of the “beats” of Epic Fantasy Myth Story going on, just from the other side) it transpires that much of the running around, defeats and betrayals that seem by-the-by are merely what The Company can see of wheels within wheels plotting with more factions at play that perhaps anyone is quite aware of. It works, it’s clever, and it serves to elevate the book from “dark fantasy from the bad guys side” to something with a bit more going between the ears. It is always a pleasure to come across, in a film, or book, or whathaveyou, a series of revelations that make you reappraise earlier events, and thats what we have here.

My only quibble really is the post-end-ending, where a couple of revelations-that-aren’t come to the fore (well they’re a relevation to the character, but they’re placed in the book like they should be a revelation to the reader, only they aren’t) and a moment which feels like its supposed make The Lady more evil (well I know you have a large army of evil and suppress all the lands under your rule of darkness, your majesty, but now you have kicked that defenseless puppy I can stand no more!!) doesn’t quite play off when the climax (the clever plotting, the Final Battle) are over. It feels like a play for another book, feels slightly too much like rather than allow the story to be self-contained, which it would be fine with, it just has to be a book one.

Because this is Fantasy, dammit. and writing just one good book isn’t enough!

Next up: Something even more people keep telling me is good; David Gemmell’s Legend

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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  1. As someone who hasn’t read a lot of fantasy I’ve been really enjoying these posts. The daunting thing about fantasy is that (as with all genres) there is a lot of rubbish about which means you need to dig to find the really good stuff. The thing that makes this more problematic in the fantasy genre is the fact you usually need to commit yourself to a much longer page count than in other genres! So I’m using your reviews as a bit of guidance in navigating the genre. I think my reading pile will be more fantasy oriented in 2011


  2. dwgrampus /

    its good to hear you’re enjoying them, i’ve found it an interesting process.

    i’m currently nearly finished “book 17” and broadly i think the whole years reading has partly confirmed, and partly countered, my starting predjudices. i guess i should have expected that!

  3. I’m not sure if you’ll read this but I’ll leave this for future readers, commenters and lurkers. The big thing that is stressed about writing fantasy is the need to plan and map out stuff. largely because Tolkein did but Tolkein wasn’t a writer he was a literal world builder creating a new mythology. I have found that improvisation is actually the surest key to success. Plans and maps can get you so far but then you need to reevaluate and go with what works well. Scorpious, Vader being Luke’s father, regeneration, the Infinite improbability drive all allowed to happen because heir creators changed their plans.

    With fantasy being anathema to improvisation the world cannot change to suit the plot and the series you hope for cannot be shoe horned in later “oh yeah guys the villain’s totally not dead, look plot” So yeah we get this. Forever To Be continued.

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