I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Grim. Violent. Dark. That sums up The Black Company in three words. This is a switch-over from the good vs. evil high fantasy form of the early twentieth century to a grittier, darker fantasy realm. Sure there is wizardry, but there seem to be no innocent, upright parties. All the sides of the conflict are varying shades of evil; no side can be labelled noble or righteous.
Told from the point of view of Croaker, the Annalist (history keeper) of a mercenary force known as the Black Company, we get the story from a man who seems to have a sense of honour, even if it is twisted. The member of the Company are all known by a single nickname or title (Captain, One-Eye, Goblin, etc.) as they have left their previous lives behind and will leave the Company only through death. If these men have any loyalties, they are to their Company comrades and secondarily to their current employer.
Fantasy novels frequently have momentous battles in them (LOTR, the Belgariad, the Rift War saga, etc.) but these are usually witnessed from an overarching view point, with a sense of good winning over evil. The Black Company changes the view point—suddenly, it’s the guys in the trenches, the ones bleeding and dying, who are supplying the story. The ones who are following orders without seeing the big picture; the ones who are fighting because they signed up, not because they necessarily believe in the cause. We get the down-and-dirty view of the battle field. It reminds me of gritty historical fiction like The Whale Road, a Viking story by Robert Low.
By contrast, the Lensman series from the 1940s and 50s looks like naïve poppycock, with its belief in the essential goodness of its main characters and their ideals. There is none of the nobility of purpose that the reader enjoys in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Black Company would seem to have roots in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series and in R.E. Howard’s Conan—all men who betimes pledge their swords to an employer in hopes of a financial reward. Each has their own personal concept of honour, within which they attempt to live. The Black Company takes things one step further with a whole group of men participating in this arrangement. It shares some similarities, I think, to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, which places a member of the Torturers’ Guild into the role of main character, a morally enigmatic choice if ever there was one.
Much more realistic—showing the mud, the blood, and the gore, as well as the moral ambiguity of war itself, I can see where this series is likely one of the many roots in fantasy literature than has led to the current Grim-Dark branch of the genre.
Book number 184 in my science fiction/fantasy reading project.