The Company has been called “military fantasy,” but I question both terms of that characterization. First, while The Company is absolutely not set in this world, there is nothing magical or fantastical about it. But if we define fantasy to include “an historical novel not set on this world,” then we’ve got a fantasy here, and I guess we must be satisfied with that. I also don’t see this as a military novel. Certainly, all the characters served together in a very long war, and their relationships with one another were formed in military college and through their careers as soldiers. Parker also frequently recounts incidents from the war in episodes interleaved with the present day. But war is not the core of this book. Rather, this is a sort of buddy novel, a novel about how men work together and about the dynamics of male friendship. It is rare to find a novel that discusses how mature men relate to one another. It can be done in comedy: buddy movies are a dime a dozen, and Neil Simon comedies explored the notion in both “The Odd Couple” and “The Sunshine Boys.” But an art work focused on the relationships between older men is otherwise a rare creature.
The Company is about five war veterans who band together to form a farming colony on an uninhabited island at the urging of the senior officer of their group. This man, General Teuche Kunessin, has always wanted to be a farmer, and he wants to do it with his closest friends, who shared the dream with him during down times between battles. When they first discuss the idea after Kunessin’s return from a longer military career than the other four followed — an idea that seems flat-out crazy to the four junior members, who nonetheless follow their leader — all but one of them is unmarried, which is obviously not a viable plan for a colony that is to have a future. In short order, the four unmarried men are paired up with spouses by the local matchmaker, making it clear that this is the type of society in which women are more commodities than people.
Kunessin finances the entire plan single-handedly, though the question of where the money comes from (other than a long military career) is a secret he guards carefully. Kunessin believes he has planned everything, down to the last barrel of nails, but too many years of military thinking has dulled his instincts for farming. The voyage to the island is bad enough, but the fire that devours most of the supplies shortly after the ship has left them behind casts the entire enterprise in a different light.
Almost every moment from that point forward is about surviving in a hand-to-mouth existence. Each of the men handles the situation in his own way, both individually and as a member of the group (and sometimes how a man relates to the group is contradictory to what he does as an individual). The men always mean more to each other than they do to their wives; while at least one of the men comes to like, if not cherish, his wife, they are really seen by the men as having little more status than the indentured men who have been brought along to help with the heavy work.
Whatever the men do, problems arise. Interference from the government, an unlucky bit of good luck (that makes sense in context), and never-ending hunger dog the group as it attempts to make a go of farming in the face of all the odds. But secrets carefully hoarded by each of the men slowly creep to the surface, and the survival of any of those on the island is far from assured. The Hobbesian notion that life is nasty, brutish and short is inherent in the project.
Parker’s style is straightforward and workmanlike, however complex the story might be. Parker continues to build suspense even when it appears all the juice has been wrung from the plot. When a particular outcome seems certain, watch out: Parker has a trick up a sleeve. There are some problems with Parker’s characterization, though; Kunessin was the only one of the men who was fully drawn and it was difficult to tell the other four apart — and much more trouble keeping the women matched up with the right men, as they are sketched in with only a detail or two. And the cascading series of disasters starts to feel old after a while. The reader wonders, can’t this group catch a single break?
Even so, I was fascinated by this story. These characters are so true to each other and to their past unity as a fearsome military unit, and so incomplete as individuals, seeming to lack purpose or even any joy in life — that my attention never wavered. Friendship and betrayal played out against a background of a struggle for survival make for a dark story that lingers in the imagination.
K.J. Parker takes a very interesting subject, post-combat veterans, and builds a medieval story upon it. The Company is not a fantasy novel, and it’s not historical fiction, but lives somewhere in between. After a major war a group of veterans from the same geographical area join forces once again, this time to settle an island.
The Company depicts the complex interactions of men who have spent a long period of time at war together. The commitment that they have to each other and the trust they place in their leader dramatically shapes how they approach things. Making the decision to uproot their lives and follow Teuche Kunnesin, the now retired General, is a prime example. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but out of loyalty and perhaps habit, they decide to do it.
Kunnesin is a planner, a visionary and a crook. Some of the best writing in The Company is Parker’s depiction of Kunnesin’s careful and thorough manipulation of the bureaucratic disaster that is the military administration. It would be funnier if it didn’t feel so real.
Aidi, Muri, Kudei, Nuctos and Fly are all good soldiers — heroes, to tell the truth — but each has his secrets and problems. Those hidden secrets and long standing disagreements combine to create a carefully balanced structure that works while in combat, but may not survive the demands of peace. The men who saved each others’ lives over and over now have to see if they can work together, using their different skills, to live in a future and place that they never planned for.
The Company was interesting, but kind of dry. There were times when I felt like I was waiting for the story to get going. It felt like a L.E. Modesitt novel where the main character is a master craftsman in training and you have to wait for a great deal of development before the story really kicks in. Parker is a solid world builder, though, and paints a believable picture of the challenges that the former soldiers face. Between the logistics of packing to settle an island and the challenges of managing a group of people all thrown together in very rough circumstances, there is plenty of grit and detail to make the story feel real.
In the end, The Company became less of an adventure and more of a study of human motivations and frailties. The characters, even the minor ones, all have issues, problems and ulterior motives that create a toxic brew. For me, it was a difficult story to get into because there wasn’t a special character that I could really identify with. That left me unsympathetic and finally almost uncaring about how the story ended. For world building and detail, I give Parker high marks; but for a story that I would recommend to others, The Company is pretty low on my list.