Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Blade Itself
Joe Abercrombie, 2006

Regular visitors to ::Acquired Taste will have noticed frequent references to Joe Abercrombie in the past few weeks. One of the themes of this blog is that writers are readers too; and sometimes we come across stuff we love, just like anyone else. The reader in me has been thrilled and delighted by Abercrombie's First Law trilogy; the writer in me, howling with envy, wants to gun him down in the street...

I'm forming my judgement on the trilogy based on the first two novels, The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged; like a drug trial hastily rolled out to the public before it's completed, some things are just too good to keep.

The trilogy broadly has three plot strands: the first is a subversive reinterpretation of the standard fantasy quest, an ill-assorted band of companions following a charismatic wizard literally to the ends of the earth to find a magical artefact. So far, so predictable. What makes it memorable is the way in which Abercrombie twists the stereotypes, and pushes "ill-assorted" to breaking point: this a group whose members mostly hate each other. The conclusion of the quest at the end of Before They Are Hanged is a masterpiece of using familiarity with the genre to create a wonderfully amusing anti-climax.

The second strand is a war between the 'Union', a decadent monarchy riven by political machinations (you can see why I like it) and the shadowy Gurkish. It's distinguished by its unflinching depiction of war. Abercrombie doesn't do heroic: his concept of war is shaped more by Iraq than medieval chivalry.

The final plot strand is the story of Glokta, a former war hero crippled and embittered after torture by his enemies. Glokta himself becomes a torturer, but never loses his humanity (although it's well buried at times). Abercrombie realises his character brilliantly: it is one of the great creations of all fantasy literature.

Abercrombie has two main strengths: the ability to paint original and rounded characters in a milieu awash with stereotypes; and a vivid visual imagination. He is adept at providing just enough detail for the reader to picture the varied locales. His control of voice is also exemplary: the narrative of 'Dogman', the northern bandit, could come from a different pen to Glokta. When we read Jack Vance, we always know we are reading Vance; Abercrombie is lost in his characters (both approaches, of course, are equally valid).

One critic described Abercrombie's work as "misogynistic". I don't think it's true--it's just that the few female characters are less accomplished than the male ones. One of the questing band, for instance, is Ferro, a warrior more kick-ass than any of the men: what I call the 'Xena Warrior Princess' stereotype. Abercrombie is good at overturning stereotypes, and he writes Ferro very well: but this is a stereotype which is simply irredeemable. In the first two books, he has four main female characters: three of them turn out to have been abused as explanations of their dysfunctional personalities (the fourth, almost certainly not coincidentally, was far and away the most successful for me).

This a minor flaw set against the achievement as a whole. Abercrombie has a dark vision, and he owes more to Martin than Tolkien. His voice has an unusually wide range, and the reader's immersion in his fictional world is complete. I am fascinated to see what he does next: for me, the best parts of the series are the ones which are not reinterpretations of existing tropes. Now he's got that out his system, I'm looking forward to seeing what else he can do. I don't think we'll be disappointed.

How has it influenced me?
Give me a chance! A month ago I'd never heard of him! Abercrombie and I come from the same place in fictional terms: an enjoyment of classic fantasy alongside a frustration with the derivativeness of much of the recent writing in the field. We have gone to very different places since, but I am sure that as I come to write future books, Abercrombie's example is one I will be drawing on.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • don't be afraid to steer away from conventional happy endings
  • you can sustain a vital and energetic novel without a conventionally sympathetic protagonist...
  • ... indeed the anti-hero can give you perspectives not available to the 'hero'
  • skilfull deployment of different narrative voices can deepen the immersion in your fictional world
  • humour and a dark story are not incompatible

2 comments:

Jon said...

Tim,
This reminded me of something Brandon Sanderson wrote on John Scalzi's blog a while back; thought you might find it interesting.
http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/09/12/postmodernism-in-fantasy-an-essay-by-brandon-sanderson/

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks for that link, Jon - a really interesting piece.

I haven't read Sanderson, but his article makes me want to address that.