Author: Glen Cook
Title: Soldiers Live
Series: The Chronicles of the Black Company
Format: Paperback Omnibus Edition
Soldiers live, and wonder why.
Soldiers Live is the final installment in Glen Cook’s Black Company series. I’ve read it over a year ago, but somehow couldn’t force myself to write down a review. Mostly, I think, because Soldiers Live is an elegy to Black Company so heartfelt and bittersweet and true – to its own history, sentiments, internal logic and the author’s worldview – that I found the necessary return to it surprisingly tasking. Over time this book came to resemble a tender spot one only gingerly agrees to touch, for it is a reminder of a past encounter with unyielding reality. What remains – a wound, a bruise, a slowly healing scratch – whatever the case, it’s a sign that reality won despite our best efforts of will 😉
And so it is for the Black Company. It still goes on, united by a common dream, but in nearly forty years of its history told by Cook over the course of nine books it has changed so profoundly it’s hardly recognizable for what it once was. And the crucial change is, obviously, its people. There are almost none of the old guard left, and whoever lives still, bruised and battered and exhausted by the constant struggle, has not much time left.
As we have lived with them through thick and thin, through their bitter defeats and elating victories, their slow demise feels somehow deeply personal. But don’t think Cook would ever stoop to cloyingly sweet salutations and soothing platitudes of “happily ever after”. This is a final book, no doubt about it, and it has a noticeably slower, more dignified pace than previous installments. Every character is granted a time in the spotlight, and a fitting conclusion to the twisted story of their life – but “fitting” in Cook’s dictionary rarely if ever means “happy”. The ironies and tragedies inherent in the Black Company’s fate are in Soldiers Live equally numerous – or maybe even more numerous – than in the previous books. Some of them are deeply satisfying, others – heartbreaking. Nobody comes out unscathed, not even the reader. As I don’t intend to spoil anything, the one telling example of Cook’s worldview and unflinching approach to life – real or imagined, is blanked out below 😉 The fabled city of Khatovar, the cradle of Black Company of yore and the guiding star in our Black Company’s years of peregrinations, which had taken them to the ends of the world and beyond, is finally at Croaker’s fingertips – to be denied him forever. And to make the irony even more perversely delicious, the one person who was actually able to visit Khatovar – and in consequence deny it to others – was one of the Black Company’s lifelong nemeses, Lisa Bowalk, the forvalaka.
In short, dreams are shattered, long-awaited reunions turned into bitter heartbreaks, sacrifices are made, and some uneasy truces with life given and taken ultimately made. The lines between justice and vengeance are blurred, survival and morality seem tangled beyond recognition, and in the changing world your oldest and bitterest enemy becomes the last and only one to know you as truly as you know yourself. And yet, the spirit remains unbroken. There is a pervading, lingering sense of an ancient tragedy in the Cook’s Black Company series, underscored by the many ontological and epistemological questions wisely left unanswered: are phenomena such as fate and morality outside forces, existing independently, beyond our cognition, or are they something we create ourselves? What informs our choice of values? How do we define heroism? How do we understand identity and personality, our relation to memories and past? Is there an unchanging core to us, or are we in constant flux, modeled by our surroundings and events?
in addition to being foreign territory the past is as history, a hall of mirrors that reflect the needs of souls observing from the present. Absolute fact serves the hungers of only a few disconnected people. Symbol and faith serve the rest.
But worry not, the philosophy in Soldiers Live remains safely in the background, while the fore is taken fully by a whirlwind of unpredictable events. Old enemies resurface, new friends and foes are made; discoveries and surprises abound even as old feuds find their final resolution and labirynthine intrigues years in making bear fruit, and just as life ends for some, it goes on for others. There are many explosive and bittersweet goodbyes, heroic last stands and ugly deaths, painfully pragmatic choices, tragic regrets and unfulfilled wishes, dark temptations and bad decisions… but in the end, for the chosen few, a hard-won acceptance of life as it is and as it was lived prevails. Could any of us wish for more? 😉 By the way, this sort of answers another lingering question, whether any form of lasting peace is possible for lifetime soldiers.
The world of Black Company expands in Soldiers Live once again, more fully embracing the complex nature of the cycle as a masterfully woven tapestry of many genres: military and political fiction, closely based on real-life counterparts, and meticulously constructed fantasy and mythology. As the prophesied Year of the Skulls nears, Kina, the very real incarnation of Kali, is in ascendance once again – and it is such a powerful foe that all other Black Company conflicts, even the everlasting, bitter feuds with Soulcatcher and Mogaba, or the cursed forvalaka Lisa Bowalk, pale in comparison. And as Soldiers Live is once again from Croaker’s point of view (well, mostly), we are not only given opportunity to compare his style and personality from the original chronicles to this final one – which is an unexpected but very welcome treat – but also to view the entire Chronicles as a complete whole; a cycle coming to an end. That said, to complete my review I must mention the few minor problems in the novel, mainly a few instances of uneven pacing and moments of verbosity, clearly dictated by the need to allow every character their moment on scene before the last goodbye. In the greater scheme of things, however, they never matter enough to be bothering.
The conclusion to The Chronicles of Black Company is realistically, gut-wrenchingly imperfect. It’s not what we wished for, but it’s more than we could’ve hoped for. It’s a tribute to resilience always guided by values, no matter the cost, and, most of all, a heartfelt paean to memory and remembrance, to a clear-eyed recognition of life in its wholeness, of one’s responsibility and actions, and one’s place in the infinitely complex web of relations with others.
In the night, when the wind dies and silence rules the place of glittering stone, I remember. And they all live again.