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You who come after me, scribbling these Annals, by now realise that I shy off portraying the whole truth about our band of blackguards. You know they are vicious, vilolent, and ignorant. They are complete barbarians, living out their cruelest fantasies, their behaviour tempered only by the presence of a few decent men. I do not often show that side because these men are my brethren, my family, and I was taught young not to speak ill of kin.
—Croaker, p. 102
What can be said about the Black Company series? That the first book in the series manages to subvert Black and Grey Morality, and end up going somewhere far more interesting than it, Grey and Grey Morality, or any of the other standard options? That the best way to explain the first book is "It's as if a typical fantasy epic is propaganda from the winning 'good' side, and this is the reality"?
The verisimilitude is incredibly high - Glen Cook served as a soldier, and the books form a very honest look at a band of mercenaries who find themselves in service to an apparent Big Bad. However, while "the Lady" may have the evil magic behind her, the rebels are, if anything, far more ruthless in their tactics, and some of them are incredibly nasty pieces of work.
Unfortunately, the best and most interesting trope-breaking events are such huge spoilers that it would be unfair to even hint at them here.
The series currently consists of ten books, divided into three smaller collections:
The Books of the North
- The Black Company
- Shadows Linger
- The White Rose
The Books of the South
- Shadow Games
- Dreams of Steel
- The Silver Spike (set between Dreams of Steel and Bleak Seasons, but not part of either collection)
The Books of the Glittering Stone
- Bleak Seasons
- She Is The Darkness
- Water Sleeps
- Soldiers Live
Now complete with a character page.
- Absent Aliens - No elves, dwarves, goblins, orcs, or other fantasy species. There are some very weird nonhuman creatures in the Plain of Fear, but they've got a very minor role in the plot.
- A Day in the Limelight - The Silver Spike follows the travels of Case, a minor character from The White Rose, and the adventures of the Black Company deserters.
- Anti-Magic - The White Rose.
- Anyone Can Die - Anyone can, and most do.
- Especially in last two books, their collective edition is not titled The Many Deaths of the Black Company for nothing.
- Artifact of Doom - The Silver Spike.
- Awesome but Impractical - the flying poles. A heavy-duty Flying Broomstick capable of transporting two people plus equipment, programable and usable by non-wizards thanks to an internal power source... which just happens to be the strongest explosive known in the setting.
- Babies Ever After - Implied to happen with Darling and Raven's Soldier companion, Case.
- Badass Grandpa - Many, as the Company gets older. Outside the Company, The Silver Spike gives us the mild-mannered but frighteningly badass Old Man Fish. Uncle Doj, a sort of warrior priest, also counts.
- Badass Normal - Damned near every member of the Company, save the Lady and the various mages.
- Though in comparison to their more powerful brethren, the Company mages still qualify.
- Bait and Switch Boss: In She is the Darkness, Longshadow is built up as the Big Bad only to have Soulcatcher show up in his inner sanctum and take him down, though he does enough damage to her that she's not really able to savor her victory much.
- Beige Prose
- Benevolent Boss - Soulcatcher, of all people, in the first book treats the Black Company well for a Taken, generally being helpful and even building up a (limited) level of camaderie with Croaker. She even spares Croaker and Raven after they witness part of her plot against the Lady. Of course, none of this stops her from repeatedly trying to off the Company once they get in her way...
- Big Bad - Played with and often subverted - the protagonists are often seen to be serving the Big Bad. But there's a lot of candidates for the role.
- Both The Dominator and in later books Kina play this completely straight, though.
- Big Bad Wannabe: The Shadowmasters, most obviously Longshadow.
- Bittersweet Ending - The last chapter of Soldiers Live. - which is still much better than you would expect from the rest of the saga.
- Black and Grey Morality - At the BEST of times. But only if you ignore the description of the trope and go a whole lot more subtle.
- Break the Cutie - Though Croaker hardly qualifies as a "cutie", the events of the series gradually transform him into a pragmatic, crafty soldier who will not be stopped from reaching Khatovar and will do whatever he must to protect Lady.
- Being Tortured Makes You Evil - Averted with Croaker, who survives being enslaved to Soulcatcher without turning evil.
- Subverted with Murgen when he wakes up and finds that he had been tortured, but remembers none of it Of course this may not have happened, who the hell knows with that guy.
- Card Games - The life of a soldier is one of tedium punctuated by short periods of terror, and the Black Company old-timers fill that tedium with endless games of Tonk, an Afro-American version of rummy. The rules are on the Internet, and are playable with standard playing cards. Played for money, but the money's not really as much of the point as it seems.
- The Chosen One - The White Rose. Subverted when, unable to find the real chosen one, the Rebel just grabs a random kid to fill the role for a morale boost.
- The Daughter of the Night is this for the Stranglers.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder - Quite a bit to go around, though Soulcatcher is the queen of this trope.
- Combat Pragmatist - The Company as a whole.
- Comedic Sociopathy - The Company's main source of entertainment is a "feud" between two of their wizards.
- Crapsack World - the setting is an arguable one, but the age of the Domination that preceded it is constantly mentioned as one of these. Just having grown up there is said to go a fair way towards explaining Lady's outlook on life.
- Creepy Child - the Daughter of Night.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass - Shed. Everyone, Croaker and Raven included, are amazed at the feats of cunning, skill, and general badassery the cowardly, self-pitying, unassuming innkeeper is capable of when pressed.
- Also Narayan Singh to a degree.
- Cryonics Failure
- Cute and Psycho - Soulcatcher, again. Oh, is she ever...
- Deus Ex Machina - quite literally at the end of Water Sleeps.
- Did Not Do the Research- Cook describes Soulcatcher as wearing a morion which covers the Taken's face completely. Pretty much the defining characteristic of that kind of helmet in real life is that it's open-faced and doesn't conceal one's visage at all.
- Not exactly. There are variants of the basic morion that include cheek guards/face plates. Granted, the whole issue could be side-stepped by just picking a different helmet.
- The Dragon - The Lady was this to the Dominator in her backstory. She herself doesn't have a clear example- Soulcatcher is the strongest Taken, but she's also probably the most treacherous and unstable (and therefore unreliable). In the end, the best fit is probably Limper. In the later books, Mogaba serves as The Dragon to Longshadow and later Soulcatcher.
- Dream Spying
- Dropped a Bridge on Him - Raven gets an honorable mention for having pulled this off no less than three times. With progressively bigger bridges, I might add.
- With the sheer number of characters it is inevitable that some of them die anticlimactically or even without a proper death scene, simply found dead after a large battle.
- The Empire - The Lady's Empire in the North, which the Black Company works for for a while.
- The End of the World as We Know It - The plot of one of the Big Bads, and actually happens to one of the worlds linked to the one most of the story takes place in due to a combination of the arrogance of one of the local overlords and the cunning of the Company.
- Enfant Terrible - Lady and Croaker's daughter, who is Kina, Goddess of Death reborn.
- Epic Fail - the attempt to capture Mogaba culminates in the whole team rushing into a bedroom in the dark, setting off a trap and starting a wild shootout that kills nearly all the comandos, Murgen, three company wizards including Howler and putting Lady in a coma. As a cherry on top, Croaker knocks himself out during evacuation, trying to ram his flying pole through a reinforced window.
- First Father, setting off Self-Destruct Mechanism in the pole the Company stole, only to realise the Company left with a fake and set the real one under the portal that protected his world from being swarmed by millions of murderous shadows.
- Even Evil Has Standards - While the Company as a whole has a tendency to take morally ambiguous contracts, they still have standards: they take exception to killing women and children, even though one of their employers' lackeys doesn't have the same qualms.
- Evil Overlord - Played with in Lady before she quits, who is ruthless, but genuinely tries to be the lesser of two evils.
- Evil Sorcerer: Lots! The Lady, the Dominator, the Ten Who Were Taken, and the Shadowmasters all qualify.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin - The Taken: Soulcatcher steals souls, Shapeshifter changes shapes, The Howler howls a lot, The Limper limps... you get the idea.
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture: From the Books of the South onwards, the series takes place in a fantasy counterpart of India, complete with pseudo-Muslims and pseudo-Hindus. The latter even have the practice of suttee and their own thuggee cult (neither of which are even renamed). Not to mention the goddess Kali in the form of Kina.
- Fantastic Racism - The Nyueng Bao don't seem to like non-Nyueng Bao very much.
- Golem - Shivetya. Also, the clay body of the Limper in The Silver Spike.
- Hell-Bent for Leather - Excluding the probably metal helmet, Soulcatcher is clad entirely in tight leather, from mask to boots.
- Hijacked by Ganon: Subverted rather amusingly with Longshadow. Given his habit of dressing in robes and a mask and not letting anyone see his face, along with the fact that one of the other Shadowmasters, Stormshadow, turned out to be a renegade Taken, Lady and Croaker assume he's someone they've faced before, probably another Taken. Once they get the mask off, nobody recognizes him. Turns out his an Outside Context Villain.
- Ho Yay - Murgen tends to linger on descriptions of Mogaba and Willow Swan. May bleed into Foe Yay territory in places.
- Hub Level - The Plane of Glittering Stone; an artifact created by the gods in times long past to link sixteen worlds together.
- Which has some interesting Wild Mass Guessing opportunities mwhahahahahahahha.
- Humans Are the Real Monsters - Every last bad guy in the series is a human being, and the good guys aren't all that good.
- If We Survive This - Croaker makes one to Lady before the big battle in The White Rose, which he actually comes through on.
- Another before they take Dejagore. Croaker tells Lady they're gonna bang in Stormshadow/Stormbringer's bed that night. They do. Also that's when the Daughter is concieved
- I Know Your True Name - The true name of a wizard can be used to destroy their power. Thus, many wizards go to great lengths to make sure that nobody knows it, such as killing everyone who knew them before, and leaving complex misdirections as to their origins.
- Implacable Man: The most powerful wizards are all but impossbiel to kill. The Dominator only died once his body was completely destroyed, Limper kept coming even when he was just an undead head controlling a golem body, and Soulcatcher survived decapitation and carried her severed head around with her in a box for years before finally forcing Croaker to sew it back on.
- Infinity Plus One Spear - In this case, two of them: the Lance of Passion, an artifact the Company has carried from its origins in Khatovar. Also One-Eye's spear, a magical weapon that was the masterpiece and legacy of one of the Company's mages, designed to kill archmages and magical beasts, it worked far better than advertised in the end. It ends up killing a god, albeit with a bit of explosive help.
- Karma Houdini - Despite having taken part in a scheme that caused the death of hundreds, and having personally killed several people, Smeds ends up owner of a brewery, with a pile of money hidden for tough days.
- Kavorka Man - Croaker, who, despite being far from handsome, winds up married to former Evil Overlord Lady, and attracting the attentions of her sister, Soulcatcher.
- Kill'Em All - Though only at a few key points in the series.
- La Résistance - Subverted with The Rebel, who are actually worse than what they're rebelling against. Played straight when Darling and the Company take over the rebellion.
- Literary Agent Hypothesis - The original trilogy is supposed to be Croaker's section of the Annals of the Black Company. Given his central role, his personal appearance in the right place at the right time to observe plot-essential points, and a little conversation in the third book about how his historical writing style is different from the Northern tradition in how much he puts himself into the history (i.e. write in first person), and it seems Glen Cook is trying to raise this idea.
- Love Redeems - Lady, thanks to Croaker.
- May–December Romance- Played with in the relationship between Croaker and Lady. He looks older than she does, but she's Really Seven Hundred Years Old.
- Morality Pet - Darling for Raven. Inverted in that it makes Raven overall worse, not better. As Croaker muses in Shadows Linger, Raven "concentrates" all good in him for Darling, and so acts more evil to everyone else.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast - The Dominator, Longshadow, Shapeshifter, Soulcatcher, Stormshadow, Howler, Limper, the Hanged Man... Every villain worth remembering has a suitably intimidating name.
- Not Quite Dead - Most of the original Taken, although The Limper in particular simply revels in this trope. Croaker also joins the club after Dreams of Steel.
- In fact, all the magic users count to some degree; the more powerful, the more this trope fits, to the point where they need to be diced up, cremated, and their ashes scattered to prevent their revival.
- Old Soldier Croaker, and the rest of the Old Guard after they're resurrected from a decades-long magical imprisonment in Water Sleeps.
- One-Winged Angel - The Limper, just before the end.
- Only Known by Their Nickname - Everyone who's important in this series goes by a nickname of some sort based vaguely on their character, frequently ironically. For example: the company doc is named Croaker, and its nastiest platoon leader is named Mercy. It's a rule in the Company, because everyone enlisted must leave whatever past they have behind them. Most wizards, on the other hand, use a nickname because their true name is the source of the powers.
- Played very straight when Croaker must record his actual name, and has trouble remembering it.
- This becomes a major plot point in The White Rose, when the Dominator, and everyone else tries to destroy Lady's powers by stating her name.
- ARDATH YOU BITCH!!!!!
- Our Werewolves Are Different - The Forvalaka - terrifyingly deadly monsters, generally described as 'undead were-leopards.' Blindingly fast and capable of healing nearly any wound in seconds, they require high order sorcery to have even a chance to defeat. Some wizards can take their forms to devastating effect, most notably Shapeshifter and his apprentice.
- Werewolves and werebears were also mentioned.
- Parental Substitute: Raven for Darling, and Croaker for Shukrat and Arkana.
- Quirky Miniboss Squad: The Ten Who Were Taken. Much like if the the Forsaken were actually badass, although prone to the same Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.
- In the Books of the South we get another, the Shadowmasters- less effective overall, both because there are only four of them and because their boss, Longshadow, is too erratic to be any kind of effective leader, so that the end result is that they're even more backstabby than the Taken. They're still a major headache, though.
- Redemption Equals Death - Often subverted interestingly, often averted, occasionally played straight.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni - Soulcatcher, being capricious and more conventionally insane, is red to Lady's blue. It's mentioned that this makes Lady the more powerful of the two when she puts her mind to something, but on the whole it's hard to say which is more dangerous.
- Royals Who Actually Do Something - The Prahbrindrah Drah and his sister, as this exchange illustrates:
Swan: He's the kind of guy who's got to check things for himself. [...] He's a pretty good old boy. First prince I ever seen that tries to do what a prince is supposed to do.
- Samus Is a Girl - Soulcatcher, though she's not a very good example, as it's hinted at before it's actually revealed, and Sleepy.
- The Savage South: The main characters spend most of the saga travelling from the north (which is the standard fantasy setting) to the south (India expy) down to their place of origin at the southernmost end of the continent... where things get really weird.
- Scary Impractical Armor - The Lifetaker and Widowmaker outfits. Justified in that the whole point is for the outfits to be scary and Lady has laid on the spellwork to make them protective in spite of their impracticality.
- Sealed Evil in a Can - The Barrowland could be considered to be an aisle in a supermarket for all the evils trapped there.
- Soulcatcher appears to be this, at the end of Soldiers Live. However, it's hinted that she may be released in the name of balance if Lady decides to become the Lady of Charm again.
- This seems to be standard procedure. The Barrowlands have a larger number of sealed evils, but Old Father Tree and the Plains of Fear and Kina both fit the bill as well, and Shivetya may count as Sealed Good in a Can, or at least Sealed Neutral.
- Sibling Rivalry - Lady and Soulcatcher. At Cain and Abel levels. To make things clearer: Lady is the Evil Overlord for the first section of the series. And she's the nice one.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism - Waaaaay towards the cynical side.
- Lampshaded in The Silver Spike, where a former Imperial soldier gets in a big argument with a former member of La Résistance about whether the Lady's rule was really any worse than The Kingdom that preceded it.
- Lady herself claimed that for commoners their strong law enforcement was a boon, and Croaker (as a healer) noticed and mentioned the Empire's attention to the pharmacy. Of course, she also mentioned that it would be a good idea to just wipe out the whole town (for some necrolatric traditions) even if the Dominator hadn't messed with it all...
- Squishy Wizard - Inverted. Low level wizards like Tom-Tom and Goblin live much longer than usual, high level wizards like the Limper are almost impossible to kill due to their unnatural vitality.
- The Starscream - The Taken are basically a Starscream Squadron. Then there's Mogaba and Narayan, who both stab their superiors in the back for their own ends. Subverted by Blade, who betrays his employers when Croaker comes back from the dead...but later it's revealed to be part of a grand military maneuver by none other than Croaker himself.
- Sweet Polly Oliver - Sleepy. The Company later finds out, but nobody cares beyond changing the pronouns.
- Took a Level in Badass - Suvrin is introduced as a timid little fat guy leading a poorly trained group of soldiers, who quickly surrenders to the Company because he knows he doesn't have a hope for beating them. By the end of the series, he becomes the new Captain.
- Trying to Catch Me Fighting Dirty - Company military doctrine is based around the concept of fighting dirty. Closely connected with Combat Pragmatist above.
- Unfortunate Name - “My name is Case. Philodendron Case. Thanks to my Ma.”
- Unreliable Narrator - The tale is framed as excerpts from the annals of the Black Company, as laid down by various members. Most of the narration is by Croaker, the Company's doctor and eventual leader. In later books the pen is held by the standard bearer, Murgen, his understudy Sleepy, and Croaker's love interest the Lady of Charm. All of them are, by their own admission, less than totally reliable (though Lady only admits that grudgingly).
- The Voiceless - Silent, as you might expect.
- Until he speaks ONCE after figuring out Lady's True Name, thus wiping out her power. She gets better.
- Voice of the Legion - Soulcatcher. (But serial, not parallel. She only uses one voice at a time, but she's got a lot of them, and switches every sentence or two.)
- War Is Hell - In the world where Might Makes Right and even Grey and Grey Morality cases rarely come without booby traps attached, it's to be expected.
- Wife Husbandry- Subverted with Raven and Darling. He loves her and cares for her in place of the children he abandoned, but when she reaches puberty and begins to become sexually attracted to him, Raven fakes his own death and takes off.
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity - The more powerful a wizard is, the more dangerous their quirks are, usually including being power-drunk and always including a lot of paranoia (the Lady even acknowledges the latter).
- Xanatos Gambit - So very many. Used by the Black Company themselves, as well as many other places. Often results in...
- Gambit Pileup - The series has several—in the Books of the North the Dominator's plan slams headlong into the Lady's; in the Books of the South the Company's plans crash into Longshadow's, and everyone's plans get derailed by Soulcatcher.