The Black Company

Warning: I don’t think there are any spoilers here, but I am not afraid to quote later sections of the novel.

Many creative endeavors are the synthesis of two or more unrelated things. The Black Company is The Lord of the Rings (without demihumans and humanoids) crossed with the Vietnam War, told from the perspective of a mercenary company employed by the Dark Lord (though in the case, the Dark Lord is “The Lady”). And the Lady in the Tower has an all seeing eye that visits characters in their sleep (I’m going to be charitable and consider that an homage).

This may sound contrived on its face, but it works surprisingly well. Diseases, for example, are referred to by modern scientific names. I don’t usually favor settings that use magic as a replacement for technology, and there is plenty of that here. Instead of helicopters, there are flying carpets; wizards function as artillery; healing magic is used repeatedly (though its effect is limited since it seems to be the domain of very powerful sorcerers).

On flying carpets, page 176:

Flying carpets buzzed around the Tower like flies around a corpse. The armies of Whisper, the Howler, the Nameless, Bonegnasher, and Moonbiter were eight to twelve days away, converging. Eastern troops were pouring in by air.

And modern medicine, page 191:

At least I would not spend my night amputating limbs, sewing cuts, and reassuring youngsters whom I knew would not survive the week. Serving with the Taken gives a soldier a better chance of surviving wounds, but still gangrene and peritonitis take their tolls.

I think the fact that this works is due in no small part to the spare, almost clinical style. Only the horrific elements are granted much description (this might be another lesson for referees). What the other characters are wearing, for example, is mostly left to the imagination of the reader, which grants the narrative a somewhat timeless feel. Had there not been mention of bows, swords, and siege towers, I would not have had much difficulty imagining these characters toting M-16s or tanks assaulting the fortresses. The names are mostly short, descriptive, and sarcastic. It’s unclear which are nicknames and which are “real” names. This is exactly how I would expect cynical soldiers to talk. And this novel is tightly edited.

This is a gaming blog though, not a literature blog, so what is there here that can inform tabletop RPGs? First, I would say that the Taken are one of the more interesting depictions of lich-like beings in fantasy literature. They are called Taken because somehow The Lady (and her husband, the still-trapped Dominator) were able to bend the wizards to their will. When The Lady captures rebel wizards, she is able to “take” them into her service, to replace her fallen sorcerous lieutenants.

Many people seem to like the idea of dangerous magic (for example: the conflation of evil, chaos, and the arcane in LotFP). This is most often conceptualized in two ways. The first is as a danger of screwing up majorly and summoning something you can’t control. The second is as a creeping taint that slowly corrupts (some games use a sanity system to model this). What if using arcane magic not only attracted the attention of powerful entities but also made you susceptible to domination by them? Geas or quest spell mechanics could perhaps be used.

Here are some inspirational quotes regarding the Taken.

Page 45, on their origins:

The city of Oar lies in northermost Forsberg, and in the forests above lies the Barrowland, where the Lady and her lover, the Dominator, were interred four centuries ago. The stubborn necromantic investigations of wizards from Oar had resurrected the Lady and Ten Who Were Taken from their dark, abiding dreams.

Page 142, on The Hanged Man:

With the Guards battalion was the Taken called the Hanged Man. He was improbably tall and lean. His head was twisted way over to one side. His neck was swollen and purpled from the bite of a noose. His face was frozen into the bloated expression of one who has been strangled. I expect that he had considerable difficulty speaking.

He was the fifth of the Taken I had seen, followed by Soulcatcher, the Limper, Shapeshifter, and Whisper. I missed Nightcrawler in Lords, and had not yet seen Stormbringer, despite proximity. The Hanged Man was different. The others usually wore something to conceal head and face. Excepting Whisper, they had spent ages in the ground. The grave had not treated them kindly.

Page 144, on Shapeshifter:

I spied a brown hulk shambling down the switchback road. Shapeshifter, going out to practice his special terrors. He could enter the Rebel camp as one of them, practice poison magics upon their cookpots or fill their drinking water with disease. He could become the shadow in the darkness that all men fear, taking them one at a time, leaving only mangled remains to fill the living with terror. I envied him while I loathed him.

The last thing I note is the excellent and whimsical depiction of magic duels. Forgive the long quote, but it only really makes sense in context (page 166):

I heard a rustle, turned my head, found myself eye to eye with a snake. It wore a human face. I started to yell-then recognized that silly grin.

One-Eye. His ugly mug in miniature, but with both eyes and no floppy hat on top. The snake snickered, winked, slithered across my chest.

“Here they go again,” I murmured, and sat up to watch.

There was a sudden, violent thrashing in the grass. Farther on, Goblin popped up wearing a shit-eating grin. The grass rustled. Animals the size of rabbits trooped past me, carrying chunks of snake in bloody needle teeth. Homemade mongooses, I guessed.

Goblin had anticipated One-Eye again.

One-Eye let out a howl and jumped up cursing. His hat spun around. Smoke poured out of his nostrils. When he yelled fire roared in his mouth.

Goblin capered like a cannibal just before they dish up the long pig. He described circles with his forefingers. Rings of pale orange glimmered in the air. He flipped them at One-Eye. They settled around the little black man. Goblin barked like a seal. The hoops tightened.

One-Eye made weird noises and negated the rings. He made throwing notions with both hands. Brown balls streaked toward Goblin. They exploded, yielding clouds of butterflies that went for Goblin’s eyes. Goblin did a backflip, scampered through the grass like a mouse fleeing an owl, popped up with a counterspell.

The air sprouted flowers. Each bloom had a mouth. Each mouth boasted walruslike tusks. The flowers skewered butterfly wings with their tusks, then complacently munched butterfly bodies. Goblin fell over giggling.

One-Eye cussed a literal blue streak, a cerulean banner trailing from his lips. Argent lettering proclaimed his opinion of Goblin.

6 thoughts on “The Black Company

  1. Peter

    The Black Company is hands-down my favorite fantasy book. It’s pretty inspirational, and its flavor really affected how I run my fantasy games. And the Taken are just awesome, especially in both how “human” and totally inhuman they can be. They’re pretty believably powerful sorcerers, yet at the same time once-mortals.

    I could go on forever, so I won’t. 🙂

  2. Eric

    It is easy on of the best fantasy series I have ever read. The books kept me up way past my bed time every night. I have to say it has seeped into my games in places too.


  3. Brendan

    I’m a good way into the second book now, and there is even more D&D inspiration there (The Black Castle & the catacombs, etc). Glad I finally got around to starting this.

  4. Brendan


    I just finished The White Rose. I agree the plot was disappointing. There was still lots of setting inspiration, though. The Plain of Fear, the role of father tree, and the more detailed description of the Barrowlands. I’ll probably write another post about Shadows Linger and The White Rose when I get a chance. Do you recommend the later volumes?

  5. Matthew James Stanham

    I have not gotten around to reading the later volumes yet, partly because my experience with the third dampened my enthusiasm, but am reliably informed that they are comparable to the first three. Looking forward to reading your expanded thoughts, and I agree there definitely is a lot to potentially borrow in these novels!


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