Allow me to start off this review by saying, loudly and passionately: Damn it. I'll get back to why in a moment.
The Black Company is a dark, gritty, military fantasy following a group of elite mercenaries as they are pulled into a struggle between good-- well, no, not good. Between evil and potentially more evil. Published in 1984, The Black Company is definitely one of the pioneers of the military fantasy genre and it wouldn't surprise me if a number of current authors who are a fan of R-rated gray fantasy (*cough* Joe Abercrombie *cough*) looked to this series for inspiration.
I'll admit that even though The Black Company only clocks in a little over 200 pages, it took a bit to engage me. The first 3 or so chapters read as though they came out of a magazine serialization - repeating of character information we'd already been presented with, odd re-stating of plot points in each chapter, and a very story-like quality to the chapters, with each presenting its own introduction, conflict, and resolution. This seemed to abate a bit by the mid-point of the book - either that or I just got used to it.
As I mentioned, The Black Company clocks in at about 218 pages. Today so much fantasy seems to be judged on the thickness of the book, rather than the quality between the covers - and this book pointed out to me just how much I've fallen victim to the stereotype of "thicker is better." When I picked up The Black Company I assumed it was a big, fat tome of a fantasy novel, but discovered that it was actually the first 3 books of the series republished in one volume. I immediately soured on the book, but continued reading - and I'm extremely glad I did. Cook manages to pack more plot, conflict and characterization into 200 pages than most contemporary authors do in 500. He has a way of laying out the plot in what seems a stark, plain telling, but that in reality has layers of implications and a lot of depth. When I first started reading I actually had a hard time because I was charging through the text so fast that I was missing important plot details - he really expects you to pay attention to every word, every sentence, and every character nuance. Cook trusts his reader's intelligence and plows ahead through the major plot points assuming you'll be able to keep pace.
At first I was a little put off by the stark styling of The Black Company, but by the end of the first book I found myself very emotionally engaged. I didn't mean to start in on the second book right away, but I was 10 pages in before I realized what I was doing. Somehow, unbeknownst to me, Cook had tied me up in his characters - made them deep and complex and compelling in spite of the spare words used to describe them. The fantasy genre has changed a lot in the 25 years since Cook published the first book in The Black Company, but I think a lot of contemporary authors could take a couple of pages from Glen Cook's book (so to speak).
Now - back to why I started this review off with a bit of passionate cursing. From the time The Black Company really hooked me, about half way in, I kept having a niggling sensation that it felt a lot like The Book of Amber (10 short fantasy novelettes published in one big omnibus. Well worth reading). However, I kept assuring myself that this was only a trilogy - after all, I had all 3 books in one volume! Then I started this review and did a bit of digging about the books' history and discovered that The Black Company is, in fact, the first of 10 books. I didn't mean to throw myself head long into another huge series, dammit! (read: Woohoo! I have another 9 books to enjoy!)
Goodness, this review really go lengthy, given the relative shortness of the book in question. The bottom line here is that in spite of its bumpy start The Black Company is a really great read.