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“I’ve been trying to get through this damn book again.” Ardee slapped at a heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.

“The Fall of the Master Maker,” muttered Glokta. “That rubbish? All magic and valour, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.”

“I sympathise. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up with one another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.”

Oh Joe Abercrombie – you kidder!

This concluding chapter to the fantasy series The First Law does an excellent job of refusing to compromise the intent of its author. From the initial entry The Blade Itself Abercrombie has tweaked the noses of fantasy literature. I have been following this series from the beginning of my blog and I must admit reading back over the reviews, by the second title Before They Are Hanged, the joke was wearing a bit thin for me. However, by Last Argument of Kings the energy has definitely returned and the story comes to an ending both fulfilling and devastating.

There are no easy answers in this fantasy and this is something I really admire about the books.

Glokta remains the favourite character from the bunch, returning to his homeland now fatally compromised by the events in the siege of Dagoska. For a man whose justification for his actions in the service of his king, torturing and murdering suspects as a member of the Inquisition, rest upon a certainty that he is in the right given his suffering at the hands of the enemy Gurkish this is a maddening dilemma. If he now too is guilty of treason, how is he any different than his victims? Logen returns from a failed quest still unredeemed, desperately hoping he can become a better man. Realizing he has no choice he returns to the North, where most of his former friends believed he is long dead. In truth they had hoped The Bloody Nine had finally died, known for his propensity for killing friends and enemies in the midst of a bloodlust. Jezal returns from that same quest as Logen welcomed back as a hero. Wishing only to have the chance to live  a normal life, following a humiliating experience outside of Adua, instead the manipulative mage Bayaz is positioning him to fill a very special role in the kingdom.

War has come. The Gurkish have finally invaded the mainland. A rebellion against the lords has been stirred up. Bethod’s armies in the North are occupying Colonel West’s forces, which are desperately needed at home. Our heroes between them must beg, borrow and steal the means of winning an uncertain peace.

Where this book excels is in its frustration of the fantasy novel trope of a final conflict resolving all plot threads. Instead here Abecrombie makes it clear that these events are part of a recurring pattern. The real conflict is between those, like Bayaz, who recognize this, and those who feel that an end is something worth sacrificing for.

This is a very entertaining and clever narrative and Abercrombie deserves all the praise for fashioning an unromantic fantasy series. This is great fun.

Last Argument of Kings

“Do you like to read books, Bran?” Jojen asked him.

“Some books. I like the fighting stories. My sister Sansa likes the kissing stories, but those are stupid.”

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only once. The singers of the forest had no books. No ink, no parchment, no written language. Instead they had the trees, and the weirwoods above all. When they died, they went into the woods, into leaf and limb and root, and the trees remembered. All their songs and spells, their histories and prayers, everything they knew about this world.”

This review has been a long time coming. I complained often to friends that I could barely remember A Feast of Crows, the last book in this series which was published over six years ago. I trusted in George R.R. Martin‘s abilities as a writer to suck me back into the action, given that the plots and backdrops to A Song of Ice and Fire are so impressively constructed.

Interestingly in A Dance With Dragons Martin resolves the split he introduced in previous volumes, with successive books focusing on a specific selection of characters and then the opposing points of view of others being presented in the next. Here we follow up on Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow for the initial half of the book, but afterwards we catch up with Arya Stark and Cersei Lannister among others. Having resolved his arbitrary divide between the North and South geographical locations of these characters in order to split the material, the action finally begins to move forward.

But oh this is a long, hard read.

Part of the issue for me was that while the first books had these conflicting points of view on the series of events – which was a nice approach – the latest in the series have been see-sawing back and forth along a fictional timeline. It is quite confusing. Another issue is that either I am wearing rose-tinted glasses as far as my recollection of these previous entries in A Song of Ice and Fire, or Martin’s writing is a lot more miserabilist. For starters there is the unremitting torture and humiliation of the character Theon Greyjoy, who has gone from a ward of the Stark family (in effect a well-treated hostage), to the abused catspaw of the bloodthirsty Ramsay Snow. The chapters that relate to Reek – the name Theon is forced to adopt – are very disturbing and difficult to read. Then there is our favourite anti-hero Tyrion, traumatised by having murdered his own father and on the run to the East. Mutilated and half-demented, the quick-witted dwarf is a long way from the cynical yet oddly decent character he was first introduced as. Then there is Daenerys whose efforts at running a kingdom have left her at the mercy of competing power factions and untrustworthy advisors.

It is a credit to Martin that I feel so invested in this story, but it took me quite a while to finish it. The picture being painted here of the ‘game of thrones’ that threatens to swallow whole continents in war and destruction is vast. Increasingly however I am coming to understand why historical epics so often gloss over the scope and realities of conflict, instead introducing a sometimes insipid plot involving a small selection of characters caught in the middle of these events. Martin is trying to encompass every facet of the plot that he has unraveled, but it feels overwhelming. The taste of grit from the brutal and short lives of these people never leaves, which increases the feeling of an uphill battle to get to the last page. The sequence involving the army of Stannis Baratheon, snowed under and starving, was especially grim and the book ends with their fates seemingly sealed.

It is not all misery though. I was happy to see Davos the Onion Knight return to the book and am very excited to see Liam Cunningham play him in the second season of Game of Thrones (as discussed here on my Blue Jumper podcast). It was also great to get some story progression on Cersei and Arya, two of my favourite characters in the series in fact.

Overall though this is a troublesome read. I’m enjoying Joe Abercrombie a lot more at the moment, it is sad to say.

‘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

“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.

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