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‘It was on this precise spot, as I remember it, that Calica stood to address the senate, urging caution in the Empire’s eastern expansion. It was down there that Juvens replied to him, arguing boldness, and carried the day. I watched them, spellbound. Twenty years old, and breathless with excitement. I still recall their arguments, in every detail. Words, my friends. There can be a greater power in words than in all the steel within the Circle of the World.’

‘A blade in your ear still hurts more than a word in it, though,’ whispered Logen. Jezal spluttered with laughter, but Bayaz did not seem to notice. He was too busy hurrying from one stone bench to another.

A few months ago I came across this very interesting discussion by Joe Abercrombie. I had become a fan of the writer since my review and his account of how he was unfavourably compared to J.R.R. Tolkien by Leo Grin raised a grin. This notion of moral relativism in fantasy is quite an amusing one, particularly since the last thing The Lord of the Rings is about is righteousness (Hobbits being made of much softer stuff than warriors and kings, yet in the end winning the day). The comparison was playing on my mind when I began reading this book though.

After the events of the previous novel, Logen Ninefingers finds himself trekking into the wilderness in the company of a legendary wizard, Bayaz First of the Magi, chasing after a long-lost weapon. Colonel West has been handed the unenviable task of ensuring the foppish Crown Prince Ladisla achieves a safe military victory in the Northern territory of Angland. To the south Inquisitor Glokta has been assigned to protect the city of Dagoska from an implaccable foreign army. His mission is hopeless, but he is spurred on by his hatred for the people who broke his body under torture, leaving him a bitter and twisted shell of a man with a razor sharp mind.

With the business of introducing the cast of this series done by The Blade Itself, Abercrombie concentrates on delivering sizable conflicts on a grand scale. The siege of Dagoska in particular is horrific, with Glokta using every trick he can think of to stall the Gurkish army in their progress. West finds himself in the centre of a rout when the arrogance of the Crown Prince, and a peculiarly wily enemy who outmaneuvers the main body of the army, forces him to flee a devastating assault. In the company of a motley gang of Northmen exiles he desperately tries to hang on to his civilized bearing and perform his duty in protecting the life of Ladisla. Unfortunately nothing would make him happier than to take the selfish prig’s life.

To all intents and purposes it is Logen’s sections of the series that supposedly describe the central narrative. Abercrombie gives us a sense of scale with the different outbreaks of war, but Ninefingers and his fellow adventurers are evidently on a quest, of the sort most common in fantasy novels. This is where I began to think of the comparison made by the uppity Grin. As it happens much of the material was disturbingly familiar. Bayaz is a flawed and occasionally unreliable magus, much in the way of Gandalf the Gray. The group visit the devastated city of Aulcus, which reminded me a little of Moria with its ominous shadows and incredible grandeur gone to rot.

My worry is that fantasy novels invariably begin to plough the same furroughs. I could mention that Robert Jordan also echoed Moria with his Shadar Logoth, yet another haunted city. Just how many wizards and weather-beaten warriors have traipsed before our eyes on the page over the years. The author here has a running joke that the magi all speak in riddles and circumlocutions, which few of the other characters have any patience for, a welcome criticism of the genre.

Abercrombie’s theme though is that the characters in this series The First Law Trilogy are in effect all monsters. Some are simply better at hiding it than others.

Perhaps the material is familiar, but Abercrombie still invests his writing with far more bite than most out there. Plus these books are very entertaining and deliciously black humoured. I cannot wait to read the next entry.

Before They Are Hanged Joe Abercrombie

The advance of regret can be so gradual that it is impossible to say, ‘Yesterday I was happy, today I am not.’ At no one moment did Lilia realize that her marriage was a failure; yet during the summer and autumn she became as unhappy as it was possible for her nature to be. She had no unkind treatment, and few unkind words, from her husband. He simply left her alone.

As an introduction to the writing of E. M. Forster I do not think I could have done better. After all, this novel marked his own debut and as such, here the reader witnesses his first attempts to construct a subtle and gripping narrative of social mores. However, for the majority of the book I was confused. Was Forster satirising these English toffs abroad, or did he in fact approve of their condescending snobbery? It was only after the book’s conclusion that I realized just what Forster had achieved – a genuine work of compassion, unrestrained in its perspective on human weakness.

When recently widowed, yet worryingly vivacious, Lilia Herriton agrees to travel to Italy to go on an extended tour of the sites, the in-laws breathe a sigh of relief. The attentions of certain suitors of the young woman raised the spectre of a scandal, which they could not abide, and they trust in the efforts of her companion Caroline Abbott to be a champerone in her travels. The Herritons calm is disrupted when a letter is received from Lilia informing the family that she had made a new match with a native of the Italian town of Monteriano. The youngest Herriton son Philip is sent to recover the family’s honour only to discover that it is too late. Lilia has already married Signor Gino Carella.

The news could not be worse. Not only has the young widow and mother left her child behind in England, with no apparent interest in returning, she has chosen to marry the wastrel son of the town dentist. Philip is humiliated by the encounter with the couple, his plan to pay off the Italian foundering when Gino realizes staying with Lilia is far more profitable. He also blames himself for the entire situation. After all, had he not been the one to first sing the praises of the Italian countryside and the mercurial character of its people? Had he not encouraged Lilia to go on her tour, filling her head with ideas of high culture and art – romance, the thing he yearns for the most?

Philip leaves Italy disenchanted, embracing the cynicism of his mother, while Lilia is left to her domestic life with Gino which soon begins to lose its charms. By finally defeating her upper-class and superior in-laws has she only managed to strand herself in a country estranged from everything she knows?

At one point Caroline Abbott accuses Philip of been unable to take a stance on anything – he insists on sharing everyone’s point of view. It is a critical moment in this book as it reflects Forster’s own stance on human nature, weak, fallen, lovable, hateful and doomed all at once. Apparently the narrative itself was inspired by a disastrous trip across Europe that the young man shared with his mother, with much moaning and complaining about migraines and bad food. That privileged perspective on Europe, the site of many an upper-class aristo’s ‘tour’, persists but there remains a genuine sympathy for these characters, enriching the material throughout. Gino in particular seems to be the archetypal spoiled brat, using a callow rich woman for her wealth, but Forster shows that the boy-man has his own charms and needs. Lilia is tragic in her desire to still live up to the standards of the Herritons even after she has finally escaped from them, while Philip’s wish to be an aesthete, indulging himself in high-falluting talk about civilization and Old Europe comes undone when confronted with the pain of real life.

This is a wonderfully judged and subtle work, a remarkable achievement for a first novel.

There are some cheeks that serve no purpose other than taking up space on a face. Sometimes cheeks are just palettes for makeup experiments. Often, cheeks are just things that ache, making it difficult to give pretend-smiles. But then, there are other cheeks. Cheeks that are put on the face on a human being to illuminate the mind-blowing concept of having cheeks. That must be pulled. She had such cheeks. And they asked to be pulled.

I must confess I have been prevaricating over reviewing this book for some time. I was actually intimidated by the prospect of reviewing a book that is only nine pages long. A book of short stories at that. It was only due to the efforts of Irish author Oran Ryan from Seven Towers books that I was convinced to sit down, shut up and read Inklings (Facebook fan page here).

Aparna Warrier‘s stories are examples of flash fiction, brief and to the point. The style really puts Polonius’ line about brevity being the soul of wit to the test. Of the selection of stories contained in Inklings, there are examples of romance, magic realism, even a poem of sorts based on the repetition of two words, ‘violence’ and ‘money’.

This is what intimidated me. How could I even begin to review something like this? As it happens, Warrier was an excellent guide to this style of writing, capturing my interest quickly and delivering a series of well-paced short narratives that still feel complete despite the length. Taking our Time opens the collection, describing a romantic infatuation with a sting in the tail. The reversal in the final line inverts the meaning of the entire piece. Immediately I began to see the advantages of flash fiction. Intoxicated by the Impossibility illustrates the insomnia-inducing extremes of obsession, followed by Who wrote The Rules? an unusual interrogation on the nature of society itself. So What? presents philosophical absurdity, while Oil on Canvas sets about explaining the capacity of art to compliment memory.

The longest story here Always, a whole page and a half long, is a seemingly simple story about a child bring a worm to show and tell in school. However, Warrier perfectly captures the lonely vulnerability of schoolroom isolation, young Priyanka finding a place among the other classmates thanks to ‘Greenie’. It is a telling preview of what the author is more capable of with a longer form.

Of course my favourite story of the bunch is The Revolt of the Coconut Trees magic realism by way of The Day of the Triffids. What I have always loved about John Wyndham’s novel is that it opens with such a funny line, proceeding to describe the invasion of earth by vegetable alien life-forms with a grim black humour. Warrier’s effort is more of an ecological fable, but also has a similar sense of humour.

Overall this is a surprisingly effective collection and a fascinating introduction to flash fiction.

My thanks to the author for my review copy.

Right folks.

This is the longest I have gone without reviewing a book and I apologise. Will have a review up by this evening. I have quite the backlog of titles built up, many of them forwarded on to me while I was away in Ireland that I need to get around to.

I hope to have a more regular schedule soon once I have found myself a regular job. Anyway apologies once again to my regulars and thanks for reading.

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