I was 15 and animatedly recounting the “Apprentice Adept” series to a friend, when he thrust a paperback at me as his response. The cover depicted a masked figure holding a dagger. Said dagger’s business end rested embedded in a table carved with arcane symbols. It was “The Black Company” by Glen Cook, and it forever influenced my reading preferences and the way I would write in the fantasy genre.
The Black Company mixed fantasy with military realism, depicting the life of a mercenary band and eschewing romanticism. Ironically many of the novels in the series were narrated by the company’s physician, who grudgingly admitted to a romantic streak when recounting the history of his world and his martial brotherhood. Doubling as the company’s historian, he chronicled their deeds, including losses of brothers-in-arms and insights into the world’s locales and cultures.
Cook created characters that were memorable for their contrasting personalities and even more so for their failings. Most were less than admirable, if not criminal, but they had formed a close family of misfits with whom I found no difficulty sympathizing. They were men who had long ago come to terms with hard realities, chief among them that nobody else would have them except their fellow soldiers. They didn’t fight for honor or nation, only hard currency and each other.
I had never considered the price of magical power until I read what Cook’s characters experienced, especially the feared “Lady” and “Ten Who Were Taken”, gifted sorcerers compelled to serve the Lady and her husband. Some bore horrible deformities, others were insane, and even those who appeared less so were scarred in ways not easily discerned. The corrupting influence of magical power was clearly evident in the greatest wizards who took every opportunity to sabotage each other’s plans. To mere mortals, like the narrator, it was at once terrifying and captivating to witness the results of the magic unleashed upon the world.
The novels dispelled all of my preconceptions about heroes, since he frequently portrayed the characters as disappointingly human. Sure, they were capable of decency and honor, but those things often turned out to be low priorities when the lives of their brothers or fortunes were in the balance. Those who paid with their lives were mourned. Then life went on, and the survivors seldom wished they had traded places with their deceased brethren.
The novels spanned decades within the over-arcing tale, and that allowed for some remarkable character transformations. Age took a toll on some. One central character even grew from childhood fostered among the mercenaries, and Cook artfully steered her from a scared child to a gifted commander.
I was lucky in many ways to discover Cook’s novels at that age. My brain and imagination were still malleable during those formative years. He dispelled my preconceptions about the fantasy genre before I knew I’d formed them, and I’ll be forever grateful.