Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Soldiers Live, by Glen Cook
Though there are two more Black Company novels rumored to be on the horizon, Soldiers Live is currently the final novel of the Black Company. Soldiers Live does not exactly bring everything full circle. The Company is about the intermingling of tradition and change, of past and present. Soldiers Live embodies this idea. When Glen Cook first published The Black Company he created a distinct cast of characters who comprised the core of the Company: Captain, Croaker, One Eye, Goblin, Elmo, Lieutenant, the Captain, Silent. Through these characters, and others, Glen Cook built the identity of the Company. The Black Company was a mercenary company, though. They were always at war in the employ of somebody, at least in the opening volumes of the series. In war, people die. Soldiers die. The original cast, which I am quite sure was beloved by many fans, was depleted. The Black Company was a mercenary company and when one soldier falls another soldier steps into his (or her) place. Over the years, over the eight previous novels (plus an offshoot novel), the overall cast of the Company has changed.
After being on the back burner for the previous four novels (for a variety of reasons the last four novels have been narrated by Lady, Murgen, and Sleepy), Croaker is back as the Annalist of the Black Company. Croaker was the original narrator of the series back when he was Annalist and medic. Glen Cook’s vision of the series, his storytelling, is strongest when Croaker narrates.
Soldiers Live picks up several years after the conclusion of Water Sleeps. The Company is building their strength in a world behind a Shadowgate, the world where the Nyueng Bao likely originated from. They intend (and do) return to their own world to finish their fight against Soulcatcher, Mogaba, the Daughter of Night (the long ago kidnapped of Croaker and Lady), and Narayan Singh (the one who kidnapped the kid), and to finally stop the Goddess Kina from returning and bringing about the world destroying Year of the Skulls. Soldiers Live is a novel of conclusions, of endings. For Croaker the story is personal. The most important aspect is that it is his daughter in question, the one he never had a chance to meet because of Narayan Singh. The other important part of the novel, for Croaker and for longtime fans, is that Soldiers Live gives the first glimpse of Khatovar. The Black Company is known as the last Free Company of Khatovar, though nobody knows what that means anymore given that it has been 500 years since the Black Company left Khatovar. Khatovar has long been an obsession of Croaker’s. What Glen Cook shows the readers is not at all what might be expected, and yet it is more poignant and powerful because of that surprise.
Glen Cook resolves all of the major plot threads that had been left dangling for several volumes, but he does so in a way that feels like this is the way the stories should tie together, that he isn’t just jamming everything in to satisfy the patient reader. After ten volumes Glen Cook cannot possibly make Soldiers Live feel completely fresh, but one thing that Cook has done a good job of (even when a couple of the books kind of sucked) was making sure that he does not simply tell the same story over and over. Croaker has changed over the years. Lady has changed. Soulcatcher has not (interestingly enough). The Black Company itself, under command of Sleepy, has drastically changed and by the end of Soldiers Live the readers sees that change will not cease. The Company at the end of the novel is not the Company we were first introduced to. This is perhaps Cook’s greatest accomplishment with The Chronicles of the Black Company, that he constantly shakes up the status quo and is not afraid to take chances.
While coming back to Croaker could be viewed as a chance to capture what made the series so great to begin with (Murgen’s two volumes really were a mess), it was an appropriate choice. It was a chance to bring the narration full circle and through the much older eyes of Croaker, show the changes that have taken place. Sleep or Suvrin would not able to show the contrast nearly as well as Croaker. Between Water Sleeps and Soldiers Live, Glen Cook has given The Black Company a fitting send off. He has Croaker repeat throughout the novel “Soldiers Live. And wonder why” as a bit of a mantra, of sorrow and question, and of acceptance that frequently the characters will never know the reason why things occurred. They just get on with their job.
That is Soldiers Live.
If there really will be two more novels of the Black Company I will welcome them. If not, Soldiers Live is a very good way to say goodbye. Nearly everything that needed to be addressed in the novel and the series was addressed, or at least touched on.
It was worth the journey.