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“I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once, I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.”

Ok, a one sentence review. If you like the fantasy novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, Fritz Leiber, or George R.R. Martin, you are required by law to love this book.

Oh I’m sorry, should I go on?

The quote above is taken from a rare speech from Logen Ninefingers, the ostensible ‘hero’, of this book – although it quickly becomes apparent that there are no virtuous heroes in Abercrombie’s grimy fantasy world. The story actually follows three threads attached to three protagonists.

Logen, the warrior from the North with a bloody reputation; Sand dan Glotka, who heads the Inquisition of the city of Adua and having survived years of horrible torture has returned a broken man, burning with the desire to make others suffer as he has suffered; and the pompous young lord Jezal dan Luther, whose station in life has awarded him great advantages that he takes for granted.

These three men are slowly drawn into a vast conspiracy that will see kingdoms clash, barbarism sweep the land and a malevolent force from the ancient past twist the rules of life and death.

When we first meet Logen he has just fallen to his presumed death from a cliff after a battle with savage Shanka marauders. Alone, tired and hungry, with his only friend a cooking pot, Logen comes upon a bedraggled young man who claims to be an apprentice magus. Apparently this nervous young fellow’s master, the legendary magus Bayaz, has requested the presence of the infamous Ninefingers. Having nothing to lose, his honour long gone, along with friends and family, Logen agrees to travel southwards.

Below the border with the Northern kingdoms, Glotka and his torturers have been set upon a conspiracy between the merchant classes against the crown. Glotka was once a noble himself, a handsome soldier whose skill with the fencing sabre won him fame and the love of women. After years as a hostage he has been reduced to a physical cripple, sucking soup through gummy jaws and in constant pain. He takes no passion in inflicting similar suffering on those he questions, as he is no longer capable of feeling much emotion at all.

However, he does feel contempt for Jezal, who reminds him so much of himself as a younger man. The lord is selfish, ignorant and through the advantages afforded him due to his breeding, a natural adept with the blade. His reputation rests on success in the annual ‘Contest’, a battle of skills between the greatest fencers within the kingdom. Confident to the point of extreme arrogance, Jezal finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with the sister of a superior officer, a woman named Ardee who disturbs his self-possession with her quick wit and knowing smile. She is a commoner though and he a lord, so a match between them would be impossible. Which only serves to spur on his desire for her.

The overall plot of the book is concerned with corruption, intrigues at court and a growing war between the allied kingdoms of the Union and the Northern lands belonging to the war-chief Bethod. More peripheral characters are drawn into the plot, with dialogue liberally peppered with contemporary insults. The book’s title itself comes from a quote from Homer and its moral compass swings wildly from one extreme to another. In that at least it has a lot in common with recent attempts to deconstruct the fantasy novel, but more importantly Abercrombie is very funny (which is surprising giving the amount of gore and slaughter on show here).

This is quite a thick tome, the first book in a series called The First Law (referring to a rule practiced by the magi to not communicate with spirits), yet I flew through it in a day. Great ribald fun.

What could I do? Lamentation wouldn’t bring my lovely girls back to life. I bit my tongue. It’s a wonder I had any tongue left, so frequently had I bitten it over the years.

The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of the hero’s long suffering wife Penelope. Left on the island kingdom of Ithaca to fend for herself while her husband contends with a Cyclops, vengeful gods and witches, Penelope tells of her efforts to confound the many suitors who seek to usurp Odysseus during his ten year voyage. This, after having already waited ten years for the costly Trojan War, fought to secure the return of her stunningly beautiful cousin Helen, to end.

This is also the story of Penelope’s twelve maids and their murder by Telemachus and Odysseus upon his return. The myth describes them as having caroused with the suitors besieging the palace of Ithaca, indirectly making them responsible for the long hours of cavorting and rutting within its halls. Penelope reveals that her maids were in fact spying on the men, delaying their attempts to kill her son Telemachus and forcibly marry her, seizing her husband’s kingdom in the process. The ‘carousing’, the maids died for was in fact rape.

All of this is narrated by the long dead Penelope, now a spectre wandering through Hades. She has been observing the progress of human history and has developed over time a certain arch sense of humour, picking up a few idiomatic phrases over the years. I was startled to see this figure from Ancient Greek myth use the word ‘factoid’ just three sentences in, but there you are. This is Atwood using the character of Penelope as her mouthpiece, with The Penelopiad intended as a corrective to the chauvinism of Homer’s epic.

By having the narration itself take place in the present day, Atwood mocks the pretensions of Homer’s characters, all of whom are still wandering around the underworld. She jokes that the gods have vanished ever since a much more spectacular establishment down the road – fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks – a great many special effects opened up. Penelope herself never really believed in the gods, as all she observed in her life was random misfortune and callous violence.

Her life was spent in a state of passivity, a quality that is lauded within Homer’s tale, her patience and forgiveness of her husband’s indiscretions elevated as virtues. Atwood reverses this by showing how Odysseus won her hand and took her to Ithaca as his bride in order to weaken her father in any future conflict between Sparta and its neighbours. That she could always see through her husband’s lies and omissions, but chose not to speak up as she knew he enjoyed fooling everyone. In fact, most of her dignified silences from Homer’s epic are retold by Atwood as Penelope furiously trying to repress her laughter at the foolishness of people around her.

Three women rule Penelope’s life. Her mother-in-law, Anticleia, is stern and unloving, treating her son’s wife at all times as a necessary inconvenience. Eurycleia, the palace wet-nurse, replaces her as mother to her own son Telemachus. And finally there is Helen, her cousin, who ruined her life, having ignited the conflict that took her husband away for twenty years and set in motion the events that would lead to the occupation of her home and the murder of the twelve maids. Atwood uses these three women to represent the clichéd archetypes of female identity in mythology – the matriarch, the crone and the whore. By doing so she exports any of these traits from Penelope herself. However, I’m not sure what character her heroine actually possesses, beyond the arch present-day voice we are offered in the narration, as Atwood-manqué. I feel this is an error on the author’s part, as Penelope is reduced to a mere cipher as a result.

There is anger here, with the twelve maids acting as a chorus throughout the book. They speak in verse initially, but later resort to a parody of a mock-feminist academic paper and even a ‘video-trial’ in the style of Judge Judy. Overall I feel the story should have been told solely from their point of view, as Penelope’s sheltered upbringing and passivity made her an aloof narrator (never mind a sarcastic ghost).

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