The Many Deaths of the Black Company

Chronicles of the Black Company, the first omnibus comprised of Glen Cook's first three Black Company installments, was everything I wanted it to be. Perhaps not as groundbreaking today as they were when the books were initially published, they were nonetheless as entertaining as anything you are likely to read in the fantasy genre. Understandably, I was eager to read the rest of the sequence.

Alas, the second Black Company omnibus turned out to be a fun yet quite uneven read. And sadly, The Return of the Black Company, the third omnibus suffered from more or less the same shortcomings that plagued its predecessor. Indeed, it featured novels that vary greatly as far as depth and merit are concerned. Still, She is the Darkness moved the tale forward like no other Black Company volume thus far, setting the stage for what could be a memorable finale.

The Many Deaths of the Black Company can be called many things, true, yet memorable is not one of them. Although there are some high notes throughout, there's no denying that the storylines peter out over the course of these last two installments and end in a somewhat lackluster fashion.

Here's the blurb:

In Water Sleeps, the surviving members of the Company regroup in Taglios, determined to free their fellow warriors held in stasis beneath the glittering plain. Journeying there under terrible conditions, they arrive just in time for a magical conflagration in which the bones of the world will be revealed, the history of the Company unveiled, and new worlds gained and lost… all at a terrible price.

And in Soldiers Live, no Black Company member has died in battle for four years. Croaker figures it can’t last. Then a report arrives of an an old enemy newly active again. It attacks them at a shadowgate — setting off a chain of events that will bring the Company to the edge of apocalypse and, as usual, several steps beyond.

Following in the footsteps of both Croaker and Lady, The Return of the Black Company saw another change of point of view, with Murgen now as the new protagonist through whose eyes we witnessed everything. I'm aware that not everyone agrees, but I truly enjoyed Murgen's narrative. As a sometimes inept soldier and someone with low self-esteem, the company's Standardbearer was nearly as much fun to follow as Croaker used to be. Given his fate in the last book, he couldn't possibly be the narrator for what came next. Sleepy's is thus the perspective through which we see the events of Water Sleeps unfold. Her POV is unlike those of her predecessors, but I liked the chance to discover how she feels and thinks. Problem is, the first half of this omnibus is extremely slow-moving and often boring. As was the case with Bleak Seasons, I doubt that there was enough material to warrant a full novel here. In a nutshell, Water Sleeps is about Sleepy preparing the remnant of the Black Company for their rescue attempt of those companions trapped underneath the Glittering Plain without alarming Soulcatcher of their true objective. There are some good parts here and there, but it's mostly a slog from start to finish.

Soldiers Live features the return of Croaker as narrator and it's awesome to have him back! For my money, Croaker has always been the true voice of the Black Company. As a narrator, his witty and sardonic observations remain one of the highlights of the entire saga. The man is aware of his strengths and his flaws, and it's always a joy to follow his narrative. And now that he's older, supposedly wiser, and crankier, his perspective will make you chuckle in every chapter. With revelations pertaining to the Plain of the Glittering Stone, the Shadowgates, Khatovar, Kina, the birth of the Black Company, and so much more, Soldiers Live probably answers more questions than any other installment in the series. Honestly, I was expecting more out of Narayan Singh and the Daughter of Night, but it was not to be.

The ending notwithstanding Glen Cook truly shines as an author in this novel. Along with She is the Darkness, Soldiers Live is one of his his best works to date. With unexpected twists throughout, a decidedly creepy and evocative imagery, this final volume definitely shows Cook at the top of his game. But as the second portion of The Many Deaths of the Black Company following a lackluster Water Sleeps, once again it just shows how disparate in quality and originality the Black Company novels ultimately all turned out to be.

Cook's worldbuilding has always been minimal, but the author seriously upped his game in these last two books. All the Black Company installments have been character-driven affairs and the same can be said about the works comprising this last omnibus. Kudos to Cook for not being afraid of killing many of our favorite characters. I would have expected him to do so with a bit more emotion, yet that's just me. I relished the opportunity to be reunited with most of the old crew one last time.

As I mentioned, the ending felt somewhat uninspired. Those readers hoping for resolution and a conclusion that ties up all the loose ends are bound to be disappointed. It's with mixed feelings that I reached the last page. I would have loved for Cook to close the show on a high note. Alas, though it occasionally showed signs of brilliance, the series has been dragging for a long time now and it's no wonder that the tale of the Black Company would draw to a close in such a fashion.

Many new readers give Glen Cook a shot based on Steven Erikson's blurbs. I know it was the case for me more than a decade ago. If you are a Malazan fan and love the Bridgeburners, please keep in mind that the Black Company series saw its first work published in 1984. At the time, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Raymond E. Feist, and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman dominated the bestseller lists. Hence, Cook's novels really stood out. Needless to say, the face of the fantasy genre has changed dramatically over the course of the last few decades and I'm afraid that the Black Company sequence, like many other beloved SFF works from the 70s, 80s and the 90s, has not aged well. For potential readers thinking of picking up this series, I suggest that you get your hands on the first omnibus and take it from there.

The final verdict: 7.5/10

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