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Book Review: The Company by K.J. Parker

* Genre: Literary Fantasy, Military SF, Epic Fantasy
* ISBN: 0316038539
* ISBN-13: 9780316038539
* Format: Hardcover, 432pp
* Publisher: Orbit
* Pub. Date: October 29, 2008
* Author Website

The Company, written by K. J. Parker, is a depressing novel, yet excellent novel. Think The Road in an epic fantasy setting, and you’ve got it. Written in a sparse, no-nonsense tone, the story is about five men (formerly six) who managed to survive many years of medieval warfare in the most deadly of roles. As line-breakers, they were given a lifespan of one to two battles, but these men, by relying on each other, managed to survive the entirety of the war, save the death of one. Yet the only things that really brought them together were their will to survive and the fact that they all came from the same town. After they (except for one, who went on toe become a general) left the army, they never encountered on another, even though all but one lived in the same town. When the former leader returns from his army career, he has a crazy idea for the five of them to move to a remote island and become farmers and colonists. The other members of the company (known as A Company) agree, and off they go.

Readers familiar with the history of the Jamestown colony of Virginia can imagine what happens next. In a very Lost fashion, two steps forward equals three steps back. These men, warriors by trade, do not handle the farming life very well. They are both over-prepared and underprepared for the rigors of their new life. Even that might have been overcome, but there is a holdover from their army days, an undercurrent of mistrust and deceit, that threatens to put them at each other’s throats.

Through a series of flashbacks to their time in war, we are given the characters of these five men. These are usually bleak situations, and these men are painted as survivalists. They will do anything to survive, a fact that results in the very consequence that wraps up the novel. And that ending is sad and bleak. This is not a hopeful novel, and things do not end well for the characters. If you didn’t like the way Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy ended, then The Company will not appeal to you at all. The flashbacks reveal that at one time or another, each of these comrades had in some way slighted the others, a fact that builds tension and makes you wonder about just how this colony of theirs will survive. Thoughts of the Donner Party swirled in my head on several occasions.

The story has a lot of comparisons to the writing of David Gemmell and Glen Cook. Like Gemmell’s Legend the overall tone of the story is bleak and pessimistic. It ends on a note of sadness, and every triumph is tainted with failure. Cook’s descriptions of battle share a lot in common with Parker’s. Like Cook, Parker’s writing has crispness to it, and his soldiers are realists and pragmatists, rather than idealists. Though this book classifies as epic fantasy, it has none of the heroic, uplifting feel that epic fantasists prefer. Don’t read this book on a rainy day, but do read it.

There are female characters in this story, but they are not its object. Except for one notable character, the women are chattels. To the men of the company, they are a means to the survival of the colony, but are not really participants in it. Readers looking for strong (i.e. strong-willed) female characters will find them, but will not like how that “strength” is portrayed. These are not the women of women’s liberation, but rather they are the women who preceded that movement. They are strong in their own way, but stymied from showing it by their husbands.

This story is about men, about their lust for revenge, their grudges, their lies, deceit, and selfishness. It is about five meant who know each other very well, yet don’t really know each other at all. It is about the push and shove of strong wills, about the ability of these men to work together to overcome an invader, but when that threat is gone, their own inability to overcome their own petty squabbles destroys the fragile peace.

The plot has surprises around every corner. The ingenuity of A Company will surprise you, as will their sometimes perplexing motivations. The Company is part mystery, part psychological commentary, and part adventure novel, but in all ways it is good.

The Company is an amazing stand-alone novel. After I read it, I wanted to go back and read it again. It has so much depth that a second read will bring out more depth of characterization and some of the answers to the mysteries will be more evident. Yes, it is depressing, and no, it doesn’t end well for its protagonists, but nonetheless it sucks you in. You will read this book for the very same reasons you watch Lost, for the very same reason you enjoyed David Gemmell. You will just have to know what happens next, even if it only makes things worse. The Company is textually stunning and full of vibrant characterization. It is a must read.