Following my thoughts on post-scarcity fantasy, I found myself reading the Chronicles of the Black Company, which presented me with a range of examples of a world where the relationship between magic and culture is not static, and magic is not treated as a technology that fell from the sky. Where a lot of fantasy worlds seem to have been designed as straight depictions of a medieval world with magic unthinkingly bolted on, Cook treats it as a living part of the world, rare but subject to innovation and capable both of causing social change and being adapted and enhanced by it’s society, as well as interacting with undone technology. We are also presented with an idea that is often ignored or under-played in classic fantasy: the importance of research, literacy and the historical record.

There are many examples of innovative use of magic in this book, mostly in the military context. The simplest example is its use in spying and finding spies. The Black Company keeps its use of wizards very secret, like Guinness and its use of statistics, and as a result its enemies never understand how the Company can know so much about them, nor how they can catch spies and scouts so well. The Company exploits this by spreading misinformation and suspicion, giving the impression that it has spies everywhere and deliberately spreading a reputation for cunning and counter-espionage. Wizards in this world are rare, and the Company ruthlessly exploits the relative advantage they give it, as well as both protecting them and keeping them secret.

The wizards also fashion minor amulets and magic items when they are really essential, and though they aren’t powerful they serve to give Company members a slight edge at certain times. Their mighty leaders, the Taken, go further than this, however, employing magic liberally in battle to destroy, mislead and hamper the enemy. Storms, powerful chemical weapons, fireballs, illusions and all manner of enchantment tricks are employed, as well as magic to rally the troops. The Taken also have flying carpets, which early on in the war they use primarily for their own personal missions. Later on, as matters get more pressing, they use them to ferry key Company members about and later still for troop transport. Finally they start building larger carpets which are designed to glide, fitted with ballistas, and used as aerial attack platforms. Eventually simple bombs are designed, and they enter a kind of aerial warfare arms race with their enemy. This is the kind of thing that I expect magic to do in the world, but very rarely see described with any sense in the genre. Cook further backs this up with occasional references to other innovations: at one point, for example, Croaker is given a painkiller derived from a rare locally-sourced herb. He immediately seeks out it’s name and suggests stockpiling it for the Company, only to discover that the Taken are considering cultivating it after the war for civilian use. This is how I expect any rational person to react to a magic or medicinal herb, but in most fantasy stories this knowledge remains strangely sequestered, and is never converted into any benefit for the wider community. In this book, the eternal bad guys think about it as soon as they see the possibilities it contains.

The most refreshing aspect of Cook’s approach to fantasy in his world is his depiction of research. Croaker,being the Annalist, is literate and aware of the importance of documents, and his Company consider documents to be more important than loot. At one point they stumble on a cache of key rebel documents in a captured camp and as soon as they learn what they’ve got they become ruthless beyond compare. They kill every rebel captive who might identify that they were there, set a trap to delay reinforcements, and flee with the documents before the soldiers have had any time for pillage. Amongst these documents they find evidence that they may be able to learn the true names and history of the Taken, and possession of these documents becomes the most important consideration of the story. At later stages of the series Croaker and some of the Taken prioritize the safety of these documents over that of their men or their treasure, and exhaust themselves researching them. Even the knowledge that they possess them is a death sentence for anyone not of the Company. I don’t think I have ever read a fantasy story where research is so explicitly worked into the narrative and so key to military success, and it’s both refreshing and enlightening. Obviously other stories – e.g. The Lord of the Rings – have the success of research as a trigger in the narrative, but this story works the ideas of research, espionage and secrecy into the fabric of the story in a much more sophisticated way.

This book’s treatment of magic as an integral and living component of the world is a good example of what I was pining for in my discussion of post-scarcity fantasy. It shows how much richer and more interesting the fantasy genre can be when people think more deeply about the role magic plays in the world than just seeing it as the domain of pre-destined teenagers and bearded old men.