Mercenary soldiers in the service of the Lady, the Black Company stands against the rebels of the White Rose. They are tough men, proud of honoring their contracts. The Lady is evil, but so, too, are those who falsely profess to follow the White Rose, reincarnation of a centuries-dead heroine. Yet now some of the Company have discovered that the mute girl they rescued and sheltered is truly the White Rose reborn. Now there may be a path to the light, even for such as they. If they can survive it.
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The second book in the now three-decades-old Black Company series, which still remains a good read. Cook did something innovative for the time, which was to unshackle himself from the usual good-vs-evil conventions of fantasy, and write something darker and more subjective. As the lead narrator, a soldier/healer/annalist named Croaker puts it: "I do not believe in evil... I believe in our side and theirs, with the good and evil decided after the fact, by those who survive. Among men you seldom find the good with one standard and the shadow with another."
Cook’s style here is similar to the first book, a hard-boiled account that doesn’t waste too much time on world-building or character backstories, but simply relates events as they seem important to Croaker. The background is a standard fantasy world, with castles, swordsmen, taverns, wizards, crypts, undead creatures, and powerful sorcerers, but there’s something about the world-weary, grunt-level view of it that I found refreshing. Croaker and his friends aren’t the heroes sitting at table with Elrond in Rivendell -- they’re the rank-and-file out patrolling the slums for masters they don’t love, putting down uprisings by unwashed rebels with their own dubious leaders, and the cynicism shows.
The first book wandered across a landscape of battlefields and took a while to cohere around a narrative, but this one has more continuity. The Black Company is now in a city in the far north, investigating a strange new threat to The Lady. However, Raven and his charge, Darling, a girl who may be the reincarnation of someone with the power to destroy the Lady, have come back into the picture, and Croaker is finding it harder to hide this secret from his powerful employer. There’s also a second storyline, which follows a cowardly, put-upon innkeeper named Maran Shed, who desperately needs money, and learns of a dark way of making it. Shed’s financial-management skills, however, leave something to be desired, and his actions soon create problems for everyone.
I enjoyed the Black Company storyline, which fills in some of the side characters a little more, and contains an eerie magic battle scene reminiscent of the first book. The Shed plotline, which has a bit of a horror story feel, is written in the third person, and I liked seeing Cook develop a flawed but not-entirely-unsympathetic character and give him an eventual shot at redemption. Naturally, the two storylines come together, and Croaker is forced to make choices about his own redemption. There are a few weak notes, in the form of a rushed climax, but I’m curious to see how things will play out in the next entry in the series.
In sum, if you’re in the mood for “gritty” fantasy that’s a little more streamlined and episodic than certain other hefty series, this one is a good, brisk read. I should also note that I’ve gotten to appreciate the “grizzled” voice of audiobook narrator Marc Vietor, who has come to be Croaker in my mind.