Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
The Black Company is gritty-as-can-be swords-and-sorcery fantasy, written years before that became a trendy idea. The “Company” of the book is a group of mercenaries that hires on with a powerful sorceress known as The Lady, and does various unpleasant jobs for her high command, a circle of grotesque and generally nasty wizards called The Taken. Imagine if the Lord of the Rings were told from the perspective of a group of Sauron’s hirelings, and you might have a sense of what to expect. Except, here, there isn’t much chivalry from anyone -- the “rebels”, while less defined, aren’t much more savory than the Lady’s minions.
The writing, accordingly, has a bracingly hard-boiled flavor. The story’s narrator is the Black Company’s chief medic and historian, a man named Croaker. He entertains few illusions that his brothers in arms are “nice people”, as they go from territory to territory, pacifying the inhabitants in the traditional manner, but there’s a sort of professional honor code that holds the company of rogues, fallen men, weirdos, and thugs together. They might be fighting for money, but they operate with discipline, take care of their own, and display occasional human decency. In a world where the unimportant often end up dead in piles as the armies sweep through, that’s better than nothing.
Overall, I really enjoyed the Platoon-meets-Lord of the Rings feel. The writing is a little choppy, though, often skipping past major events with a terse summary, or dropping in new characters with minimal introduction. But, the style fits well -- Croaker isn’t a guy who believes in the glory or righteousness of the cause and he’s patched up the wounded so many battles, he has little taste for describing what happens on the field, but, at the same time, he feels that what happens to him and his comrades ought to be recorded. I found the simple immediacy refreshing -- even in a fantasy world, the experience of ground soldiers might be universal, including their distance from the politics of everything. That said, some of the anachronisms got a little annoying: I wouldn’t expect someone in this world to know about biological evolution or use the term “sandbagging”. On the other hand, I suppose the use of spellcasters in the lines would enable soldiers to employ somewhat more “modern” tactics.
Other aspects of the book aren’t as ground-breaking. Once you get past Cook’s different take, the world-building and plot fall into familiar molds. But the action, initially aimless, begins to take on a purpose, and I got caught up in the story around the midpoint of the novel. The climax features an epic siege battle as good (and ghastly) as any in fantasy. I also enjoyed the endless bickering between two rank-and-file wizards, who seem to devote more energy to petty magical squabbles with each other than doing their jobs. I don’t know how well Cook maintains the strengths of his grunt-level perspective in subsequent books, but I’ll have to check out the next one. You can certainly enjoy this entry as a standalone work, if you choose not to go further.
Audiobook notes: I thought the narrator did a competent if uninspiring job. He sounds a little “older” than I would expect Croaker to be, but, then, it’s not clear how many years after the fact he’s supposed to be telling his story.
Shades of Grey takes place in an absurd dystopia that resembles a mix of Brave New World, Kafka, and Monty Python. In the book's reality, it's centuries after some ill-defined cataclysm, and the world is now full of strange things like living roads, man-eating trees, small gravity-defying relics, and wandering balls of electrical energy. More significantly, humans are now divided by their ability to see different parts of the color spectrum, and some colors have interesting physiological effects when looked at.
The characters of the novel live in a dysfunctional collectivist society that assigns social standing by color, has a less-than-awe-inspiring Big Brother figure, and is bound by all sorts of ridiculous, Kafka-esque rules -- e.g. cars aren't allowed, except for Model Ts; everyone must pretend that certain people don't exist; and manufacture of spoons is forbidden (turning them into a valuable “beige market” good). The protagonist, Eddie Russet, is a guileless young man determined to be a good citizen and secure himself a socially advantageous marriage to a certain tiresome young lady. At least, he is until he meets an low-caste young "grey" named Jane, whose brand of civil disobedience might be better called just "disobedience".
Fforde's sensibilities are an interesting mix of laugh-out-loud-funny and a bit dark. There's a lot of subversive fun mixing the social rigidity of its characters with their self-serving schemes to exploit loopholes in the rules and/or manipulate others, but there's also a discomfiting bite in the obliviousness with which most of them accept (or even embrace) their society's injustice and warped logic. Humorous or grim, though, I enjoyed Fforde's inventiveness and the process of discovering how everything in the world fit together, which held a few hints at the larger history. From time to time, we get Canticle for Leibowitz-esque references to things left behind after the collapse of our own world, interpreted in a way that's half loopy, half insightful.
That said, the overall story, themes, and writing aren't quite as original as the setting. Towards the end, things start to fall into molds that'll be familiar to readers of more traditional escapist fiction, which leaves some of the initial potential for satire and mind-bending on the table. Still, I liked the creativity quite a lot, and who knows what Fforde might do with the forthcoming sequel.
It's my firm opinion that you have to pick up the audiobook to really get the full effect of the cheeky British humor. The untroubled tone the narrator gives to Eddie (speaking as he is from inside a carnivorous tree) is an amusing fit, as are the voices of several other characters.
I've heard mention of Jack Vance and his Dying Earth books more than a few times in fantasy circles, but this is the first work of his that I've read. Now, I can see why writers like George R.R. Martin and Dan Simmons consider him such an influence. Vance was quite imaginative and his droll, literate style of writing set him apart from many of his contemporaries.
This novel offers plenty that dedicated fantasy readers will find appealing. Its hero, Cugel, is a thorough scoundrel who manipulates others in a variety of clever, sometimes heartless ways, then puts on a shameless show of innocence that would do an embezzling politician proud, but he's constantly finding his gains reversed, so you end up feeling some sympathy for him. The world of the Dying Earth is a colorful, baroque place populated by decadent societies, strange religions, weird, dangerous creatures, magicians, and interesting magical devices. Such is Vance's inventiveness, that I lost count of the number of times I recognized an idea or an object I'd seen in some later book, by another author. There's even a virtual reality of sorts. Not everyone will like Vance's deliberately ornate style of writing, but for me, it was part of the charm. The excessively formal way the characters speak to each other while indulging in all sorts of low-minded acts can be quite funny.
That said, some of the book's initial charms wear a little thin after a while. There's little structure to the overall plot -- Cugel just roams from one misadventure to the next, repeating his scheming and self-aggrandizing claims in each new place. Only a few characters persist through the whole novel. And the stilted language does get a bit tiresome -- after a while, you just want a bartender to talk like a bartender, or a brutish monster to talk like a brutish monster.
But, never mind, there's plenty of wit and creativity here, and its not hard to see Vance's influence on the fantasy genre. Which is to say, on those authors who aspired to better writing than Ron E. Howard, but took their worlds a little less seriously than Tolkien did. Picture the sort of book that Terry Gilliam might have made into a movie, and you have Eyes of the Overworld.