Glen Cook, Soldiers Live (2000)

manydeaths

Author: Glen Cook

Title: Soldiers Live

Series: The Chronicles of the Black Company

Pages: 566

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.

Goddess-Kali-Dancing-on-Shiva-Bengal-1860s

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.

Score: 10/10

52 thoughts on “Glen Cook, Soldiers Live (2000)

    • Ah, you know how it is… I could squabble and detract half a point from the final score, because it wasn’t the best book in the series, but it was such a fitting, bittersweet ending I figured I’d let it slide 😉
      I did enjoy it, very much indeed! 😀 Cook’s Empire series is good, but not so good. I’m gearing up for Garrett 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        • No, I can’t really get myself to it 😉 Even while I acknowledge it’s written very well, with ambition and amazing scope, there aren’t many characters I find likeable and want to read about… I’m sure I will finish it one day, but not in the nearest future 😉
          For now, Garrett looks much more promising! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

          • You mean that paedophile simpleton wizard? He’s there from the very beginning, and indeed a very ambivalent, not to say unlikable, character – or maybe there are two and I just read only about the first… 😉

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ah, he was indeed quite off-putting – one of the reasons I am currently not continuing the series… I wanted to see him redeemed, but that’s not Cook’s way, is it 😉

            Liked by 1 person

          • I read only the prequels – The Fire in His Hands and With Mercy Toward None, but Mocker played quite a big part in both.
            Don’t get me wrong, the twist on the origins of Islam and the war with Europe was very interesting. My main gripe was with characters – none was too sympathetic, and though the Vikings and Haroun were able to elicit some from me, it just wasn’t enough at the time. I will probably get back to it at some point, though. The problem is, The Chronicles of Black Company is just so much better! 😀

            Liked by 1 person

          • LOL 😆 Yeah, Mocker had certain leanings, explained somewhat by his early childhood experiences – or at least that was my impression of him in the two prequels – he definitely was interested in the younger end of spectrum.
            Though thanks to this discussion I begin to wonder if this was not Cook’s general concept to show that around sixth century people had different ideas on childhood and maturity – after all, nearly all characters wed and/or had children before in their teenage years 😉

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ugh, that’s way beyond Mocker then – and I didn’t warm up to him even despite the backstory… I remember reading your review and remember distinctly that you were quite angered by that twist. Well, I will definitely keep that in mind!

            All this talk made me think that maybe it’s time for another Cook! 😄

            Liked by 1 person

      • No no, it might take me a few weeks of months. I’m in the process of finishing Dune, and I’m thinking I’ll maybe read the entire series first before I’ll get to something else. Reading time has been a bit short as well lately, so…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sure, I totally get it 😄 life gets in the way of the best laid plans.
          I do wonder what your take on subsequent installments of Dune will be. I enjoyed two or three of the first, but the quality steadily decreased and I stopped after the fourth I believe…

          Like

    • Thank you, Lisa! 😊
      I agree the genre is rather particular and not everyone will equally enjoy it, but I’m very happy you’re willing to give Cook’s series a try – it’s definitely worth a peek 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s a beautiful, poetic review of a book I hesitate to read, for reasons you so beautifully explained here. I know I’ll like it, but I already anticipate the bittersweetness of coming to the end of this superb saga.
    This is a series powerful, smart and delightful, big enough touch many topics, but not overly long, every piece of it I read so far was excellent. Now I feel I must finally go there and finish Cook’s masterpiece, and I already feel nostalgic about it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 😀

      Yes, I absolutely know what you mean. It took me a long time to read Soldiers Live, and then even longer to write the review. There is a sense of completion, mixed with nostalgia and sadness – it’s a long, emotional goodbye to persons you feel you know and understand and respect like your best friends. I’d go as far as to say that Lacan’s idea of seeing the Other’s face finds its surprising embodiment in Cook’s Black Company series, on many levels. And witnessing their crazy journey, their undefeated cry of defiance against anything the world throws at them, was a source of deep satisfaction and pure reading joy.

      I’m a bit envious it’s still ahead of you 😉 I’m sure you’ll appreciate it 😀 And I’m already certain I will be re-reading the whole series at some point! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading this review makes me think you really would love The Last Kingdom series. (Lots of battles, victories and defeats, friends die, new friends are made.) I often feel the same way about reading/reviewing the new Last Kingdom books when they come out. I put off War of the Wolf for over a year because I was afraid it was the last one. I honestly don’t know what I’ll do without Uhtred. It will kill me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am going to order the first installment from my library today – it does sound like something I would enjoy 🙂
      The only solution is re-reading – or finding a comparable series! 😉
      I’m a huge fan of Hobb’s Realm of Elderlings – though it’s a vastly different read to Cook, I enjoyed it immensely as well. So there’s hope for such as we after all 😆

      Liked by 1 person

        • Yes! 😀
          Assassin’s Apprentice is the first installment in the series. Fair warning – Hobb’s brutal to her characters, and as you quickly grow to treat them as friends, reading can be tough 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          • The covers are beautiful (especially UK ones) and quite misleading, I guess. Hobb writes masterful epic fantasy in alt-late Medieaval setting with a strong bend toward character development. But it’s nothing romanticized, like McKinley or McKillip, or Kay for that matter. I’m quite surprised to think that it has more in common with the blood, sweat and tears genres I usually prefer, but it definitely feels this way! 😉
            And while at the beginning there is plenty of the main character feeling sorry for himself (and he does that a lot, poor Fitz ;)), there’s a lot of action as well 😀
            If you’re curious, you can check out my (mostly) spoiler-free review of the first trilogy here: https://reenchantmentoftheworld.blog/2015/09/16/robin-hobb-farseer-trilogy-1995-1997/ I checked, and yes, the blood and rage and grief are all mentioned 😉

            Liked by 1 person

          • Perfect. I actually don’t read McKinley and McKillip and I think that’s precisely the reason why. The actual medieval period was not all that romantic. Just my two cents though. I don’t know what it was really like.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Definitely doesn’t seem romantic to me 😉 Most people led short, poor lives, and while they had moments of happiness and joy, they seem to have suffered and feared much more acutely than we do now – at least in the developed countries. Life was cheap, heroes scarce, social structure much more constraining… I love to read about this period, but I definitely wouldn’t want to live in it! 😉

            Liked by 1 person

    • You may want to search for them in your library first – I usually do that, and when I know I like the books I buy them 😉

      Yes, the omnibus editions are quite expensive, but they are also pretty hefty – usually around a 1000 pages in one, I believe 😉 But you can sometimes get a good offer on them on Amazon – if you don’t mind waiting and checking from time to time 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, stunning review as always, Ola. I don’t know how you do it but you’re incredibly eloquent and find the right words no matter what. You’ve got to teach me how to do that. 😮

    I love how this ended up with a perfect score yet it still seemed like it stabbed you. Almost like it stabbed you in the right spot and you’re thankful for it hahaha

    I look forward to trying my first Cook story at some point. It’s up there on my priorities! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you as always, Lashaan 😀 I think you’re doing great on your own, though! 😉

      Yeah, stabbing sounds about right. I guess it all comes to the concept of artistic truth and mimesis. Even if the ending is not as happy as I’d like but it remains true to the world and characters created and worldviews expressed in a book, I feel content – it’s a feeling that there could be no other ending that would fit so well, even if its bittersweet and makes me a bit sad ;).

      I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on Cook, then! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s