Soldiers Live, by Glen Cook

soldiers-live-by-glen-cook coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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Glen Cook has done it again. You can tell, when you see that name and the words ‘Black Company’ on a novel, that you are in for a good time. Mr. Cook knows what fans of this series like, and he is able to deliver it, consistently. Soldiers Live is said to be the last in the Black Company series of novels. I, for one, am sad. It’s nice that a series actually has a closing, which too few fantasy series have these days. However, the Black Company has never been a regular fantasy series. It has an edge and a style that is unique. Place a chapter of a Black Company novel down in front of me with the names all changed, and I’d still know it for what it is.

In talking about Soldiers Live, I’m going to be revealing some of the plot for it and other books in the Black Company series. If you haven’t read any of the books, hop to it. If you’ve finished Water Sleeps, then this review is safe for you. I’m not going to reveal anything earth-shattering about the plot of Soldiers Live, but even vague references may tell you more than you want to know. I’ll try to be careful.

Water Sleeps ended with the Black Company rescuing the Captured, including Murgen, Croaker and Lady, and heading off into a new land through one of the working Shadowgates. Soldiers Live opens four years later. The Company has grown and Sleepy is now captain. Croaker, once the Old Man, has become the Annalist again, for lack of any other to take up the charge. Croaker’s cynical wit always livened up the Black Company series until Dreams of Steel, when Lady took over. While the voices of many of the Annalists have similarities, I think of Croaker’s voice when I think of the Black Company, and it’s great that he’s back in that position.

The Company has grown in its four years in the Land of the Unknown Shadows, also called Hsien. This is the home of the Nyueng Bao, though only dimly remembered in their oral histories. The inhabitants of Hsien consider the Company a possible threat but also a possible ally, and they are allowed to recruit and grow. The Company is once again strong, filled with trained, professional soldiers, and ready to hit back at Soulcatcher, who still rules the realm of Taglios.

Croaker, of course, still wants to find Khatovar, and the mysterious golem that controls the Plain of Glittering Stones, Shivetya, is willing to help him find it. Sleepy has other ideas, though.

And so it goes, a story of factions, friends, allies and enemies, everyone with an agenda and nobody willing to share too much, just in case their secrets become known. Nobody writes like Mr. Cook. There is so much going on with this novel that Mr. Cook could have turned it into two, at least. However, Croaker is an annalist, unable to be everywhere at once, limited by his own physical shortcomings. He can’t leave his flesh, like Murgen did. He can’t ride Smoke. He can only tell us what he sees, and while he tries to be in on all the action, he can’t. This is both frustrating and very realistic.

The most frustrating part for me was reading about battles and deaths in the novel. Its great to read about the battle unfolding when you can be a bird perched on everyone’s shoulder. Murgen could do that. Croaker can’t. It defines his narrative voice, and can be extremely limiting. However, that’s what it would probably be like to be such a battle. Without modern communications, how would anyone know what is going on elsewhere? It’s realistic, and gritty realism is one of the reasons I love this series.

And there are deaths. I’m not going to say who and I’m not going to say when, but again, Croaker can’t be everywhere at once. Sometimes, we don’t even really know what happened because he really doesn’t know what happened. Again, this can be frustrating, but it’s frustrating for Croaker as well, especially as he is forced to face his own mortality. Mr. Cook is to be commended for allowing us to empathize so strongly with Croaker using such a simple technique.

In the end, the book is as good as any since the first trilogy. It is a fitting end to a wonderful tradition. Mr. Cook did not slow down, did not sell out. He followed the vision of the Black Company to the end. Sad though some of the fates of these characters may be, they are fitting. This is not the world of heroic deaths or heroes standing fast against countless odds. This is the world where a sword in the gut kills the hero as quickly as it does the faceless enemy.

Now, while this is rumored to be the last of the Black Company novels, the ending is open enough that the tradition may continue. It won’t be the old Company. The ending of this novel is definitely the ending of that Company, though perhaps not in the way many expected. There is, however, room for many more novels following the exploits of a new and different Black Company. Is it too much to dare hope for?

Something you might want to remember; Glen Cook just sold an unnamed fantasy trilogy to Tor. My heart skipped a beat when I read that. Could we be so lucky?

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