The final entry in this year's Christmas of Counter-insurgency event. This was another elder book, one that had I originally read during high school, and then last re-read about (calculates...) 18.25 years ago. When I first read the series in high school I looooved it, and I'm happy to say that in many respects the series (or at least its first ~3 books) holds up really well. Normally at this point I would do a quick summary of the book, but the web actually has some much better lines that I'm going to quote instead:
"Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote." - Steven Erikson, in one of his better lines of writing
"Lord of the Rings told from the perspective of a medic in Sauron's army." - not entirely accurate, but not a terrible summary either
My own less pithy take would be that the series is a sort of military or tactical noir, narrated by the surgeon/historian of a mercenary company as they get caught up in the rebellions and grand events of a fantasy continent. So far so basic, except that the series distinguishes itself in several ways: - The author was part of the US military during the Vietnam war (though as part of the Navy rather than a grunt), and his first hand experience is an enormous help in making the characters and actions feel real and lived in. I didn't know that the author was a Vietnam vet the first 2 times I read the books, but a friend mentioned it to me years later, and it made soooooo many things about the books click into place. Ok, continuing on...
- The magic "system" is great. With fantasy books there is always the question of how do you handle magic, how do you capture a sense of strangeness and wildness and wonder while still also having a somewhat consistent world. Cook's answer to this question is to A) have all the PoV characters be non-magic users and B) have magic be to these characters what US airpower was to a Vietnamese peasant. That is to say that magic is completely alien to their lived experience, it is massively violent and destructive and just completely outside the bounds of what they are familiar with. Magic in the world is a force without limits; like technology there is no upper bound on what can be done with clever enough rules-lawyering. Nothing about magic is explicable to the characters, and any sort of real sorcerer is a terrifying creature that is capable of almost anything. Oh, oh, here's another way to put it, it's a bit like having a Star Wars series from the perspective of the non-Jedi, where the force using characters are these super-human murder machines driven by abstruse and ancient ideological conflicts, and the best you can hope for it is not be noticed/force-strangled by them.
- The villains! The villains in this series are great; they are all basically powerful wizards that have been lucky/vicious/paranoid enough to survive for 500+ years. The downside to that survival is that A) using high level magic is semi-Lovecraftian, since vibing with its alienness requires/creates serious psychological harm, so the wizards are all disturbed to one degree or another just as a baseline, and then B) most of them were horribly tortured into serving the previous Big Bad, before C) they were all defeated by an ancient rebellion and buried alive in warded tombs, since they were too powerful to be destroyed by the rebels of the time. So by the time some memorabilia hunters accidentally released these wizards from their centuries long entombment, they are all pretty freaking insane. A characteristic example would be the Howler, a 4 foot high dude completely wrapped in stinking rags who, every 20-30 seconds, just screams at the top of his lungs with mad abandon. He doesn't sleep, but except for the chronic screaming he's one of the more rational spooks. And then of course all of these weirdo wizards are completely driven by their old politics and endless, byzantine feuds and plots, like if high school had gone on for 500 years.
- The hero! The most heroic character in the story is the White Rose, a Joan of Arc type character that is prophesied to re-incarnate every so often to defeat the great evils of her day. I don't want to spoil too much, but she's super sweet and brilliant and vicious and I still get all sentimental about her story. Like you can imagine the Vietnamese girl who was napalmed in that infamous photo, if she had spent her life watching, learning, scheming, and fighting in order to get her revenge on those fucks in the US Air Force.
- The wildness of the world; there are were-jaguars, there are wizards with gestalt-minds, there are illusions and invasive mind-magic, there is a ranger and pet pair where the pet is the one actually controlling the ranger, there are snake demons and flying carpets, sentient menheirs and ents, and these things are all sort of introduced organically and bit by bit into a the backdrop of a grounded, low-tech world. E.g. at the start of the books you learn about this thing called the Plain of Fear, and how it's a really crappy and inhospitable place where a far-away battle or two was fought, and then a book or so later they actually visit the Plain and you learn more about the place and its fever-dream creatures, and then another book or so on you learn more about what actually creates the Plain, and the ecosystem of its creatures, and how it ties into the ancient history and a wider cosmology, etc. etc. So the books are constantly dropping references and names, and some of them get passed by, while others are expanded more and more by events. It creates the illusion of a full and lived in world with a wild history stretching back for millennia, with each great event leaving its detritus and weirdness behind it.
- Minor neat thing 1: there is this really evil thingy-ma-jig, kinda like the One Ring, but no one extant in the world really knows how to destroy it. Solution? Open a gateway to a different dimension, throw it in there, have it be someone else's problem. I love this, it is so perfectly human.
- Minor neat thing 2: There is this demon dog, a millennia's old protean slavering beast of Zhul that can take Terminator 2 levels of punishment. He's also kind of one of the more level headed and rational creatures in the books, he just can't actually talk and so is sort of forced to work with/around the various insano wizards he's on the same side as.
- Minor neat thing 3: The wonderful Myth series of games that Bungie created draw *extremely* heavily on the Black Company's world building/flavor/cosmology, and I loved those games too.
- Minor neat thing 4: At the end of the first book they visit Charm, the center of the evil empire, and this world's equivalent of Mordor. And rather than being a blasted desert, it has these perfectly green and well managed fields, with a giant black basalt cube-fortress in the middle of the lands. It's basically his fantasy version of West Virginia and the Pentagon, except that the Pentagon has one less side and is all in black stone.
- Minor neat thing 5: One of the reasons the ancient wizards are so scary is just because of their enormous breadth of knowledge. E.g. there's a point midway through the first book, where the rebellion's living mages are trying this new spell to break a siege, and the narrator digs through his history books because he remembered that this magic was mentioned in his annals at one point from like 400 years ago. And he takes his information to the insano-crypt-wizard in charge of their army, and the insano-wizard is like "yeah, that class of spell was the meta several centuries ago, but don't worry I spent 20 years playing that sub-game and so just watch as I take these noobs to school." I love this from a game design view-point,;it's completely unrealistic in terms of actual playability and such, but I love the idea that this deep-deep knowledge is almost more useful than raw skill.
Anyway! In case you can't tell, I'm still an *enormous* fanboy of the series, and I could go on and on mentioning things I liked from it. The quality kind of drops off after the first 3.5 books, as the events which drive the first trilogy are largely resolved and new and less interesting impulses to action have to be created. As I remember and half verified, the next ~6 books don't really rise to the level of quality as the first 3, though they do have their moments (e.g. a surprising head in a box, a 50 year old death-cult high priest who is getting tired and arthritic and reconsidering his choices in life, a very nice and sweet final ending).