Who needs House Targaryen when you’ve got The Black Company? Millions of Game of Thrones fans, apparently, because let’s face it — there was no way we weren’t going to get at least one GoT spinoff like House of the Dragon. But it’s downright criminal that Glen Cook’s fantasy series has failed to make it to the small screen thus far.
The Black Company series spans nine books, plus a spinoff and an interquel, and covers 40 years of a mercenary company’s 400-year history. No, that doesn’t mean Cook’s only a tenth of the way from finishing; the main narrative is very much done, unlike George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series.
But what really makes The Black Company so special, apart from the fact that it’s exceedingly well written, is that it’s about the people who get their hands dirty. It’s a story about soldiers, but it avoids glorifying war. While leaders are shoving carved pieces around a map, the Black Company is fighting and dying for a wage they may never get to spend.
The books follow the gruff Croaker, who serves as the company’s doctor and archivist, tasks he administers with a little reluctance. He’s no leader, at least not at first, and he seems like an odd choice for the series’s main POV character; it half feels as if you’re going to turn over and find the next few pages blank, simply because he couldn’t be bothered.
As the series’s main character, he’s in no danger of dying, but if you’re lucky death comes swiftly in The Black Company. A lot of the company aren’t, so you get detailed descriptions of how characters meet their demise. I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but company wizard Tom-Tom becomes “a twist of human wreckage” with one swipe of a claw.
Equally enthralling, though far less gruesome, is the way the Black Company interacts with its “superiors.” They’re ostensibly working for the baddies, a woman known as The Lady. She was gifted unholy powers by her husband and then, some years later, left him entombed so she could forge her own empire, complete with undead lieutenants.
At least — that’s how Croaker’s comrades speak of her, usually in hushed tones. But like with a lot of conflicts, (There’s a rebel army trying to bring her down.) things aren’t quite that black and white. Croaker and The Lady aside, there are a wealth of other characters, including the almost comically stoic Raven, wizards Silent and Goblin who struggle to pick up the slack after Tom-Tom dies, and Darling, a young girl who… well, I’ll steer clear of that spoiler for now.
The full series of books spans multiple arcs, and while there are skirmishes and battles aplenty, Cook manages to stop the series from blending into one big bloodbath. The Black Company isn’t exactly powerless, not least because of its size, but there’s the feeling that Croaker and co. are never quite in charge of their own destinies; at most, they’re one step ahead of a nasty demise. It helps that Cook, who served in the military (though he didn’t see active service), drew inspiration from the war in Vietnam and the soldiers he met.
When Croaker does find himself forced to lead, he faces the daunting task of “spending” the lives of the Black Company. For all its backstabbing and surprise deaths, there are Game of Thrones episodes where you can tell characters are “safe,” particularly when the series leaves its source material behind.
Here, Croaker may have plot armor, but every loss wounds the surviving members of the company and, with the odd exception, the reader. I’m not just talking about characters who expire, either; there are some gut-wrenching twists that don’t necessarily result in a mountain of corpses but leave you gawping at the page just the same.
So If The Black Company books are that good, how come we’re not already on season 5? There’s certainly enough material, even factoring in the trimming that typically takes place when a book makes its way to the small screen. The truth is that, back in 2017, there was a Black Company series in the works. Eliza Dushku, best known as Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was set to play The Lady, but it appears to have fizzled out.
Am I disappointed? Not exactly — it was set to air on The CW, and while the channel has done well with a lot of shows, I’m not convinced it’d have the budget or the production aesthetic to do it justice. HBO and AMC both seem like a better, bloodier fit for The Black Company.
House of the Dragon is still fun, but there’s a definite air of familiarity about it, and I’m not just talking about the incest. Maybe I’ll change my mind as the series progresses, but after Game of Thrones, I’m not sure another series about a war between kings and queens, largely seen through their eyes, is going to hit the spot.
Chronicles of the Black Company, or whatever a show would end up being called, could be a real breath of fresh air for fantasy TV. You’ve got a lead who doesn’t tell his worst enemy his plans, mercenaries that — despite the hazards of the job — still live longer than Game of Thrones’ Golden Company, and an “evil” sorceress whose motives are muddier than they seem. What’s not to love?