The first step in the lengthy process of revising and rewriting my new trilogy is re-reading all the other First Law books, the details of which have become in some cases a little sketchy, I will confess, to make sure there’s nothing I’ve forgotten, or got wrong, no useful characters or relationships left out, no dead people wandering in and cheerfully greeting the central characters, no elements of history either of the world or the people that could be usefully incorporated.
This has produced about 14 pages of iPad notes, ranging from recording the famous sayings of Stolicus and Verturio, to physical attributes of characters, to how Glokta’s office was furnished, to the exact nature of the wound Black Dow’s axe made in Caurib’s head, to reminding myself of the colourful careers of, say, Pike (quartermaster, then merchant, tortured and convicted of treason, released from a penal colony by Colonel West, knew Threetrees, Black Dow, and Dogman personally, at the battles of the Cumnur, Dunbrec, Adua, AND the High Places, witness to the death of Prince Ladisla, held a shield for the Bloody-Nine during his fight with the Feared, became Glokta’s personal Practical and later trusted Superior of the Inquisition, overseeing the rooting out of a rebellion in Starikland for which he employed one Nicomo Cosca – what a career). I’ll now boil all that down into various categories for easier reference and work it into a big document with other character, setting and plot stuff I need to bear in mind when going through the revision. There’s a lot with a project like this.
But, perhaps more interesting, is the simple question of what did I think of the books? This, of course, is not the first time I’ve done this. In fact I read through the whole series in preparation for revising Red Country a horrifying 6 years (!) ago. Thoughts from my last reread:
My feelings probably haven’t changed hugely. It shouldn’t need saying that I like these books a lot, of course. They are precisely to my taste. Generally reading em, especially after a while, is a huge pleasure. But with the benefit of hindsight one does of course see all kinds of things one might have improved upon and it’s fascinating how your opinions change about what works really well and what, perhaps, works not so well…
The Blade Itself was tough this time around because I’ve read it a lot relatively recently and that made going through it a bit of a chore, but I’d largely stand by my comments of six years hence about its fundamental good qualities but occasionally clunky writing and lumpy pacing. Before They are Hanged I still think is the best of the three, the best paced and structured, strong character work in the groups, and the various set-pieces feel distinct and nicely realised. By Last Argument of Kings it feels like there’s a little fatigue (another massive fight?), but there are some great sequences and this time I wasn’t bothered nearly as much by looseness in the writing as I was six years ago. The ending ain’t to everyone’s taste, of course, and there were certainly characters and plot threads that did not get served as well as they might have (bit off a few more things than I could chew, perhaps), but considering the degree to which I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I wrote these books I must say they come together pretty astonishingly well, and the fundamental voice, though rough round the edges, perhaps, is there from the start.
I actually enjoyed the standalones a lot more, mostly because it’s a good old while since I’ve read them, and the Heroes especially was pretty fresh.
Best Served Cold: Hard to believe I absolutely hated writing this book and was sure it would be a career-ending disaster. Reading it was a lot more fun, thankfully. The writing has become much more assured, on the whole. It may not have a real killer character like Glokta or Ninefingers but the six points of view are pleasingly distinct and the settings actually come across nicely and give each part its own flavour. Friendly, Morveer and Shenkt are vivid and interesting support, and all have their own little stories and surprises to unfold. Monza and Shivers’ complimentary arcs are effective. Cosca’s dialogue, is, forgive me for saying, fucking great. The structure, with the seven episodes and the little flashbacks at the start of each really works. The section in Sipani may be the best thing I’ve written. Downsides? Too long. It was supposed to be my shortest book to date, and ended up nearly my longest. Probably should’ve organised it into five or six parts rather than seven but, as with Monza’s quest for revenge, once I’d started there was no going back. The last section is not the best and perhaps it doesn’t all pay off as well as it might. I was delighted with myself over the resolution to the Cosca/Morveer feud at the time but reading it again it felt like a bit of a fumble.
The Heroes: Without doubt my most thematically tight book, with everyone’s stories and concerns playing into different notions of what it is to be a hero (or of how it’s impossible to be one, at least in every way and at every time). Probably my most original, too – fantasy so often concentrating on huge stories in terms of time and distance it’s interesting to see one that all takes place over a few days in one valley, and the frequent crossing of paths of the various characters creates all kinds of interesting interactions. The chapters of interlinked minor points of view work really well, I must say, and massively help in illustrating the breadth and complexity of the huge event, and the helplessness (or sometimes enormous importance) of the little individuals caught up in it. The length is a lot better than Best Served Cold, it feels tight start to finish, and given there is by its very nature a lot of similar stuff and, you know, fighting, going on, changes in weather, terrain and point of view keep it pretty fresh throughout. If there’s a downside it’s that in tackling such a broad swathe with so many different characters on both sides, it’s hard for the individuals to make the same kind of impact they do in some of the other stories.
Red Country: I don’t know whether it took me a while to get into the writing of this one, or into the reading of this one. Little bit of both, maybe? The tone felt a bit off initially, trying to hard for that western-y vibe in Shy’s chapters, maybe, while in Temple’s, I dunno, the characters in the mercenary company just weren’t distinctive or appealing as some similar groups I’d done. But from the scene where we see what Lamb is capable of it all starts to pick up, and the stuff with the Fellowship and Crease is all great, I think. There’s a good range and variety of female voices, which is nice. Shy and Temple and their developing relationship are strong, and Lamb lurks suitably terrifyingly in the background. The fourth part, then, feels a little less assured – the stuff with the Dragon People just doesn’t feel as convincing as it might and the mosaic sequences of many extras just don’t feel as relevant or striking as they did in the Heroes. Despite my best efforts it may just be that the Union and the North feel like natural settings and cultures for me whereas the American West is that bit more of a stretch. Still, I do feel it comes together well at the end, with that bittersweet, elegiac quality you hope for in a western, and having two central points of view rather than the usual six or more does give it a focus. At the end of the other books I had a feeling of, grand, job done. At the end of this one I actually missed Temple and Shy and, rather pathetically for someone who wrote the book, sorta wanted to know what happened next in their lives…
Sharp Ends: Collections are, of course, collections, and there will always be better and worse stories therein but by and large I enjoyed these. The Shev and Javre ones are probably the best, and it definitely helps that they interweave through the other stories and provide a kind of unifying thread. Felt more cohesive than I would’ve expected, actually.
And with that, time to leave yesterday’s victories, look forward to tomorrow’s defeats, and do some work…