This book offers a masterclass in “gritty,” “dark” fantasy to its more modern proponents. Written in the ’80s by Glen Cook, the blurb claims that it “changed the face of modern fantasy,” but I had never heard of it. Nonetheless, I am tempted to support the claim. It is a work of dark fantasy that- unlike the over-inflated claims of some of the sub-genre’s more modern authors – genuinely does play with the standard ideas of the fantasy genre, and in my opinion presents a much more nuanced version of a fantasy world based on “realism.”

The chronicles are a trilogy of books about the eponymous thousand-year-old mercenary company, famous across the majority of the known world for it’s fighting prowess, brutality and amorality. The company has been in a long period of decline but is still much sought-after and much feared, but at the start of the tale finds itself facing a terminal situation. The company exits its contract through treachery, a very rare event in it’s history, and enters the employ of an undead wizard called Soulcatcher, who is one of a mysterious and evil group called The Ten who were Taken. These ten had been buried under the earth along with their leader, the Lady, for a thousand years until some fool freed them, and have taken over a Northern empire, where they are fighting a bitter civil war against a group of wizards who want the Taken reburied. It is into this war that the Company is thrown, on the side of the Taken, and we follow their actions in the war through the writing of their physician, Croaker, who shares his medical duties with the role of Annalist, recording the history of the Company.

This means that we are reading a story about an amoral mercenary in the employ of the great evil force that fantasy heroes usually find themselves destined to destroy. It’s certainly fine material for gritty fantasy and offers a lot of opportunities for an undisciplined author to indulge their vicious and misogynist fantasies, like a fantasy-trilogy Quentin Tarantino[1]. But to his credit Cook rises above this cheap schlock, and offers us instead a nuanced attempt to understand the morality of ordinary soldiers on the wrong side of a moral divide. He also avoids the trap modern writers seem to have fallen into, of letting their own sexist fantasies run riot against the backdrop of a world rife with gender inequality, or failing to consider how gender roles might change in a world where magic is real. This world is also not static, so we see magic developed as a technique of war over the decade or so in which the novels are set. The Company itself has three wizards, none of them particularly powerful or clever, and uses them cunningly in ways that make them far more valuable than their raw power would imply. The book has some resonances with recent opinions I have posted here about both post-scarcity fantasy and misogyny in modern fantasy, and I will try and write some separate posts on both these topics.

The novels are well-written and easy to read, with neither the overblown prose and melodrama of high fantasy nor the swearing and gutter language of modern “dark” fantasy. The first book, especially, also manages to eschew casual contemporary speech without becoming stilted, though the last two become a little more casual and at times too modern for my tastes. The settings are majestic and fantastic but still within the bounds of classic settings (except the plains of the last book) and the battles range from minor skirmishes to a monumental siege in which a quarter of a million people die. The later stages of the story are over-shadowed by the possible return of the Lady’s husband and supposed master, the Dominator, and the dual threat of his return and her ascendancy sees our heroes making much more complex moral choices than we are used to seeing in fantasy.

The characters are also well-developed and subtle, and even the nasty ones get a sympathetic description. We see subtle insights into the reasons why they have chosen the crooked path, and ultimately the evil characters are not so easy to judge, nor the good characters so easy to acclaim.

For this reason I can recommend this book to both readers of fantasy in general, and admirers of “realism” in fantasy. For those who think that the George Martins of the world have rewritten the genre or – worse still – shown fantasy worlds as they really would be, I recommend revising your judgments in light of this book. I think some people may claim it started this particular sub-genre, though I am not sure about this claim, but certainly it offers those authors a lesson in how to depict the complexities of realism in fantasy, and how to rewrite the conventions of high fantasy without being obnoxious. It’s also an excellent story, that is a lot of fun to read.

fn1: shudder