In my reading of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company I was, of course, confronted with scenes of violence and rapine such as one might expect of a company of mercenaries fighting on the side of an undead evil. However, I was also struck by the difference between the depiction of this aspect of the story and it’s depiction in, for example, the tv adaptation of A Game of Thrones, about which I have complained previously.

Taking A Game of Thrones as an example, we see a modern “gritty” fantasy writer’s view of the behavior we might expect of men and soldiers in a world where women have few rights, war has no laws, and the all moral decisions are supposedly painted in shades of grey. In Martin’s depiction, men are constantly spouting venomous, misogynist language, sex work is ubiquitous and glamorized, women are under constant threat of rape and rape culture is omnipresent and accepted. There is very little sense that men even see rape as wrong (except perhaps as a property crime), or that soldiers and victors should (or even could) be expected to act with any decency. We also don’t see any evidence that gender inequality might be differently constructed in a world of magic and dragons. Instead we have a vision of a world that you can’t help but think of as a misogynist teenager’s daydreams.

In Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company we see the same setting, of gender inequality and war with no laws, but instead of reading the tale of men who have to make hard moral decisions to win, we find ourselves squarely on the side of a bunch of famously bad-arsed mercenaries fighting on behalf of an ancient and powerful evil. This is an evil that takes no prisoners and allows it’s favorites to commit any crime. So how is this setting depicted?

First of all, we see that our soldiers take no prisoners – they often kill their captives, and torture is done wherever necessary. They also use rape as both a tool of war and a reward. But neither activity is dwelt on in the text at all, and there is not really any point in the story where the plot takes a turn such as to make these unsavoury activities necessary to the story or to bring them to the fore in the narrative. Furthermore, although we get the impression that some of the main characters may be capable of it or may have done it – certainly Croaker orders or condones the murder of both military and civilian prisoners, including the elderly – we don’t see it as necessarily pleasant for them, and we don’t get the impression they think it is not wrong. In general rape is seen as a crime that soldiers can get away with, those who don’t want to are respected for it, and men who commit acts of violence to protect e.g. children are even given extra leniency in considering their punishments. There is no revelling in rape culture here, but a kind of guilty acceptance of it as one of the many bad things that happen in war. The Black Company is composed of exiles and criminals and held together only by it’s own internal honor and allegiances, so it is generally expected that soldiers don’t turn on their own over external moral principles, but this doesn’t stop them from condemning the crimes their members commit, and it certainly doesn’t require that the author revel in them, or enable his readers to. This is rape culture with a context, not stripped of its historical and social meaning and presented to the reader as a kind of warporn.

We also see a very different depiction of female characters in this story. Being a story about a company of male soldiers, most characters are male, but two characters in particular are women, and some are of indeterminate gender for much of the story. The women come from both sides, and both wield great power. One is perhaps supernatural and both are magical. Both expect equality as a consequence of their temporal power and the men around them give it without question. These women, like most of the characters in the story, have human flaws, but their flaws are not the usual kind of gender-specific hysterics and weaknesses one expects of a fantasy story. Indeed, one of these women is a rape survivor, but it’s not particularly relevant to her character and she has no obvious weaknesses or flaws as a consequence of it. Certainly her character and narrative role remain largely unrelated to this, so she is not defined by the acts of men. Indeed, although both characters enter the story initially in relation to the evil acts of the men around them, they soon define their own place in the world and supplant the men whose shadow they might otherwise have been expected to remain within. And there is certainly no way you can claim, as some do in relation to Martin’s work, that only a terrible fate befalls powerful and successful women.

Another aspect of this story that I really liked was the ability of these women to form non-sexual relationships with men. There is one relationship particularly that would surely be expected to become sexual under the standard fantasy conventions, but in this story it remains a friendship, and neither member of the friendship seems challenged by this. These are real human relations as we might imagine them in a medieval world where gender inequality is commonplace.

This book offers us examples of how we should expect modern writers to provide us a realistic view of a dark and vicious fantasy world, without either sugar-coating the bad stuff or revelling in it. Cook manages to present a world of gender inequality where vile deeds are commonplace without making us think that he admires it or we should enjoy it. He also asks questions about how women’s role might change in the presence of magic, and assumes that essentially our relations would retain their fundamental humanity in such a world. This is very different from what I saw in A Game of Thrones, and, I submit, a far more mature approach to the sub-genre and to fantasy writer’s interpretation of misogyny and violence in the medieval world.

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