Strange Company by Nick Cole Book Review
Strange Company by Nick Cole [Amazon link] is a trip deep into the uncanny valley where everything is at once familiar and unsettling. It is a love letter to the lost and the rejected and the broken who nonetheless have enough spirit to give the universe that screwed them over the middle finger. And finally, it is an example of an almost forgotten style, the weird tale, dressed up as military science fiction.
After finishing Strange Company, I fear that I lack words to describe it. I can give you a list of things it is like, in some way, yet none of those things are this. The Strange Company is a unit like no other, and it has gone places and seen things that no one else has.
The first thing that the Strange Company makes me think of is the crazy stuff that went down in the wars of post-colonial Africa. You can see what happened as wars of liberation, or as proxies of the Cold War, or as tribal score-settling. All of those things happened. Sometimes in the same places. You might think it all makes some kind of sense, until you look at things like the Biafran War in Nigeria, which had the oddest patterns of who was backing whom:
The chaotic conditions of Africa in the 1960s and 1970s attracted soldiers of fortune, looking for adventure, for a quick buck, or just because it was the only thing they knew how to do. This is the time and place that gave us Rhodesian range detectives, the Mozambique Drill, and the reputation of South African mercenaries. A fair number were Vietnam veterans, men like Jim Bolen [Amazon link] with time on their hands after the United States di di mau’ed out of Southeast Asia.
What went on there in that time was, not nice. They were ugly little wars, and no one came out the other side looking good, win or lose. The mercenaries especially, who had no loyalty to anyone but themselves. When I was listening to the Blasters and Blades podcast, Nick talked about giving this book to his wife, and after she read it she came downstairs to ask him “what’s wrong with you?”
This is a warts and all presentation of what that time might have been like, and as such, it is also, not nice. I am reminded of a review I gave eight years ago of Hammer’s Slammers on Amazon, and I found that I was quite disturbed by David Drake’s [a Vietnam vet himself] portrayal of mercenaries in it. Back when they still allowed comments on Amazon reviews, I can remember some comments on that review that I didn’t understand the “realism” of Drake’s book. I understood it perfectly well. I just found the callousness and amorality of the mercs disturbing. There is a reason no one throughout history liked mercenaries when they show up.
I’ve probably changed in the past decade, and I might write a different review of Hammer’s Slammers now, but I don’t disagree with what I said then. What is so unusual about what Cole does here is how he humanizes the monsters, without pretending they are anything but what they really are.
As Sergeant Orion says
“We don’t always shoot bad guys in the company, man”. I know, I’m a killjoy. But I can’t do anything but do me. It’s all I know. Your mileage may vary, as I tell guys when they complain about me raining on life with reality and stuff. "We shoot who we get paid to shoot. It’s best not to think about that too much, Boom, if good guys and bad guys is some kind of criteria for you, I mean.”
The primary mechanism by which we see the men of Strange Company for who they are is Sergeant Orion, the Log Keeper of Strange Company, who records the story of anyone who chooses to tell it to him, exactly as it is, just as the eighteen Log Keepers before him have done. His dedication to the truth is the one bright spot in an otherwise grim and dark existence. Through his eyes, we can see.
We see Gains, the ever cheery gymbro who always has an encouraging word, or Boom Boom, the former hunting guide who joined the Company because he couldn’t abide having to work for a Monarch, the smug and oblivious Masters of the Universe. Or Amarcus Hannibal, who is just a murderous psychopath. Some of the best soldiers have been those. Lost loves and broken dreams abound among the men whose rejection of the corrupt system they find themselves in has brought them to the Company.
We also see the war crimes and the brutality and the naked, desperate struggle for survival. Because Orion is setting it all down truthfully. There is that.
If Strange Company was just that, it would be a solid example of military scifi in a venerable tradition. But this is where stuff starts getting weird. The advantage of the weird tale is that it allows the story to go places that a more standard narrative cannot. It can “weave a spell of words that mystifies and fascinates the reader“. The pulp tradition has many well known authors who wrote weird fiction, but perhaps the best known author who has blended science fiction and weird tales was Philip K. Dick. Accordingly, there are plethora of Phil Dick references in Strange Company.
Like PKD’s work, the veils of reality are thin wherever the Strange Company finds itself. That rupture in reality isn’t necessarily their doing, but being the dirty, cheating, underhanded mercs they are, they take full advantage to fulfill their contract, to get the job done, to survive. The choice of Pascal Blanche to illustrate the cover is absolutely perfect, as his brand of hyper-real surrealism matches up with a gang of ruthless mercenaries whose bag of tricks involves tears in the fabric of reality and psychic voodoo.
As we fall further down the rabbit-hole with Strange Company, as they battle their way across the planet of Crash desperately seeking exfiltration from a job gone badder than they thought it possibly could, we gradually leave behind what we thought was real, and learn who tore reality, who the real monsters are. The men of Strange Company, as bad as they are, are not the most horrible things lurking in the dark hollows of the universe.
Not even the Ultra Marines, loyal and vicious servants of the Monarchs are that. This being a weird tale, we also get an inversion of Cole’s usual style of elite military operators doing elite military things. The Strange Company has a long and storied history, but now they are down on their luck and flat broke. The real elite units are in hot pursuit, and it will take all the guile and treachery the Company can muster to evade annihilation. And absolutely none of them know what they are getting into.
If you liked anything else Nick has done, there is a family resemblance in Strange Company, with the strangeness turned up to eleven. So if you like military scifi, stick around and see how weird it can get. I don’t think you are going to find anything else quite like this. And if you are a fan of weird tales, and I know there are some out there, give this a try. Come and see what redemption there is on the far side of nowhere. Christ died for the least of these too.
I was provided with an advanced review copy by the author.
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