The Black Company is a hard book to summarize, so here I borrowed the blurb from GoodReads:
Some feel the Lady, newly risen from centuries in thrall, stands between humankind and evil. Some feel she is evil itself. The hardbitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must, burying their doubts with their dead. Until the prophesy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more. There must be a way for the Black Company to find her….
The Black Company – an elite mercenary company – is narrated by Croaker, the Company annalist and only fully trained doctor. The book starts with the Company in a contract with a country named Beryl. The country is going to hell in a handbasket due to the weakness of the country’s leader. In order to get themselves out of Beryl and what is turning into a desperate situation, the Black Company takes a commission with a new person who shows up to threaten the leader of Beryl: Soulcatcher. The deal made with Soulcatcher flings the Black Company into a major war of domination under the leadership of The Lady, an old evil recently returned to power. It seems that Soulcatcher is a part of a group called “the Taken,” “Taken,” or “The Ten who were Taken.” Taken is a word used to describe a horrendous process that takes an enemy and makes them over into loyal minion. The Ten who were Taken were a group of magician Kings and Queens that dared to try to stand in the way of the evil empire of the Lady and her husband the Dominator.
The book was a rather slow read for me – there is a lot that happens but there is little to no information given to the reader. Since Croaker is the company annalist the book reads more like the entries in someone’s diary (or Annals). The reader doesn’t know what Croaker doesn’t know and there is NO information dump taking place here – at all. The writing style felt clunky and unwieldy. There was a lot that I didn’t understand and I felt some type of confusion throughout the majority of the book. I’m not sure if it is because Croaker didn’t understand, Croaker felt it was common knowledge, or that it was the sparse writing. I also had a sense of separation between me (as the reader) and the action of the book. Normally I have a big issue with personal violence – I typically can’t deal with rape, torture, extreme gross/gore-ness – but the action in this story is so remote that I never felt the need to stop reading due to personal discomfort. Boredom or confused frustration maybe but never discomfort. I really liked a lot of the names that were used in the book (especially for the Taken), however. Soulcatcher, the Hanged Man, Shapeshifter, Whisper, Journey, the Limper, etc. Those were pretty cool. I didn’t like it when the names were abbreviated to things like “Shifter” and “Catcher.” It was annoying.
Note: While I do feel that the writing was clunky and unwieldy it does not mean that the writing was bad. It was pretty dang decent, just uncomfortable.
I didn’t understand why the Black Company was willing to work for the Lady. It seemed that they were in the process of helping to usher in a new era of evil. While I get the whole “we’re mercenaries and fighting is what we do” thing, I can’t understand why any normal thinking person would be willing to assist in the creation of an evil empire. It didn’t make sense, even mercenaries have a code of honor (and if not honor, a sense of self-preservation). There is a short story of The Black Company that I read prior to this book named Tides Elba from the book Swords & Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery. This story was set sometime after The Black Company but prior to any novels written after the coming of the White Rose. In the story the Black Company had to find a woman named Tides Elba for The Lady. In the story they knew they were delivering an innocent, pretty young woman to a horrible fate but really didn’t seem to care. “Waste of good girl flesh” was the only lament for the girl’s fate.
Maybe it’s just me. I expect my protagonists to have a basic moral code and a willingness to do the right thing in tough situations. That’s kind of where Croaker got on my nerves. He spends at least 1/3 of the book writing romances and drawing pictures of the Lady – as if she isn’t evil – and then the rest of the time saying how much she scared him. And he felt no remorse that SPOILER ALERT!
he helped to chase down and kill Soulcatcher (he shoots her full of arrows and then cuts off her head). Soulcatcher may or may not have conspired to take over the evil throne of the Lady. I can’t recall anything other than comments directly from the Lady (who we all know is evil) saying that was what Soulcatcher was trying to do. What I DO know is that Soulcatcher saved Croaker’s life on at least one occasion (and the Black Company) as well as treated The Black Company as regular people. The whole conversation by the Lady could have been one big lie – to get someone else to kill her sister for her. And what was up with Soulcatcher being the Lady’s sister AND being Taken??! The whole process of being Taken seems to involve some horrific things.
I did appreciate what Croaker did at the end of the book, however.