This book is a reminiscence of the more recent and famous A Game of Thrones series. I can see why many people refer this novel as the precursor of the gritty fantasy genre.
The story revolves around a physician soldier (you might say a medic sergeant) of The Black Company, a mercenary group, who happened also to be the Annals writer of the company. The story began with just another assignment contract for the mercenary, until it get entangled into an epic struggle, in the wrong side…
It doesn’t meant that there is the right side or the wrong side, the good and the bad is not clear, everything is gray. The good is bad, and the bad is good. You cannot depend on anything but yourself, or in the case of the novel, in the company.
The characters are well-built through the dynamics of the company. You can feel the sympathy for the characters, and the company too. I can see the parallel of the company with French Foreign Legion (Légion étrangère). When you join the legion, your past is forgotten. Many join the legion to escape from their past, or to seek asylum. Each of them has their own reason, but nevertheless pledge the allegiance as one company, The Black Company.
As a gritty fantasy, this is not your common sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Magic is not seen as some exotic thing, but just like any other combat skill. And a sorcerer can be killed by common soldier, given the circumstances.
I think the best part of this novel is the plot. You have the plot, counter-plot, and the counter of the counter-plot. You will keep guessing until the end, and still you wonder. What I find interesting also, the story is told from the perspective of foot soldier, not the general. They are not the decision maker, but nevertheless, they are the one who died in the battle field. I can see why this book is popular among military person, because it personify the daily struggle of a military man in the front line. (Glen Cook, the writer, is a Vietnam War veteran).
I will give this novel a 4.5 stars, almost perfect! What I feel lacking, is the feel of the epic struggle, like the one you get from some epic fantasy. You are not entirely absorbed by the story, and engage wholly with it, like it is your own struggle.
Endnote: The end of this novel gives a hint of a very important plot for the sequel (spoiler), which will launch me into the sequel.