July 7th, 2008

As though Publisher’s Weekly’s review had burst an internet dam, or were a necromancer invoking the restless corpses of the web community, or were a great king of yore calling his shining cohorts to battle (work with me here), a spate of First Law-related activity this past week.

Like Sergio Leone, whom I try to imitate in all things, let us begin with the good, and work our way steadily towards the ugly, though this time, alas, without the comic talents of Eli Wallach. A review of Last Argument of Kings from Paul at the rather nicely designed and fearsomely titled Blood of the muse (I like it, literary, but violent):

“Last Argument of Kings is the best fantasy novel released so far in 2008 … Abercrombie brings the trilogy to a rousing and very satisfying conclusion, peppering the novel with incredible battles, grim humor, and many unforeseen twists … the characters become even more nuanced and complex, fighting hard against the reader’s expectations of them. It is as though a new light has been shined upon them, making for stunning transformations.”

He awards me 94 out of 100. Have at you now! It’s like 94 fingers in the eye for the doubters. John D. Borra has also been reading LAoK at Flowers from the Rubble, and he thought:

“The concluding book of The First Law trilogy could not have been more exhilaratingly, subversively, compulsively delightful. A tired old genre, populated either by the doddering remnants of formerly great writers, or sadly bereft of truly inspired creators, is suddenly fresh again.”

Fresh, inspired, and delightful? Oh, don’t! Oh, stop! I’m blushing! My face is on fire! Alright, carry on. What do you think of when you picture readers of epic fantasy? My guess is that would vary, but it is extremely unlikely to be this. At all. But the world is jam-packed with surprises, folks, because vintage pin-up model Fleur de Guerre (nom de plume?) has apparently been tearing through the filth, betrayal and carnage that is Last Argument of Kings. No, really, I’m not making this up. My imagination is nothing like that powerful:

“Anyway, suffice to say it is an absolutely cracking read. It’s a fantastically well-written series, and the characters are so … full of character! They have both good and bad sides, and unlike some books, there were no character chapters that I wanted to (or *gasp* did!) skip through. The battle scenes were particularly epic, and suitably bloody. My only niggle is the ending!”

Bah! Dah! We’ll forget that last sentence ever happened, shall we? Ably assisted by an overview of the entire trilogy from Australian webzine The Specusphere (although does it have a nationality if it’s on the web? A question for another day…):

“In The First Law, UK fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie has produced one of the most impressive first trilogies ever to hit the market. It is remarkable not only because of its brilliantly complex plot and characters, but also because of its fearless investigation of the dark labyrinths of the human condition. Here be no dragons, and hardly a mage or a McGuffin is in sight, either. Instead, we have a blood, sweat and tears tale of the first water … If you like your fantasy harsh and gritty, can stand a great deal of death and destruction, and if you don’t want everything tied up in neat packages with “happy ever after” stamped on them, you must read this trilogy.”

See? See? They liked the ending! “But Joe!” I hear you cry, “if your admirers span the entire gamut of persons from vintage pin-ups to … Australians, from where oh where will the dodgy reviews that we all love so much appear?” Ah, from none other than sometime-absent but long-established internet reviewer Gabe Chouinard, who has some thought-provoking issues with the level of originality displayed in The Blade Itself:

“For all the talk of innovation, The Blade Itself is still generic epic fantasy. While it is a rousing good read, for me it is also a disposable read; the genre equivalent of a few hours spent watching television.”

As disposable as time spent watching The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos or Battlestar Galactica? Wasted hours indeed, I hang my head in shame…

“In hindsight, I find it difficult to distinguish Abercrombie’s characters from other generic epic fantasy characters. Logen Ninefingers could as easily have been the equally-reluctant berserker Barek from David Eddings’ Belgariad sequence. Bayaz could just as easily have been any number of mysterious mage figures; making him bald and sarcastic does not make him unique.”

Now Gabe’s only read the first book, and I’d be interested to see what he made of the whole series. I think if The First Law has any insights to offer it’s as a whole. The Blade Itself was always intended to introduce the characters, to set the scene, but also to firmly anchor the trilogy as being part of a familiar brand of epic fantasy in which readers might think they could guess all the outcomes, such that, as the series then later ingeniously flips those notions on their heads and reveals the characters to be other than expected, readers are double shocked and amazed, squealing with delight at the cleverness of the merry dance on which they have been so entertainingly led.

Or perhaps not. It don’t work for everyone, that’s for sure. But I’d argue the number of people disappointed, dismayed, or even utterly crushed by the ending would seem to support the idea that it’s not entirely formulaic. Still, having been underwhelmed by book one, Gabe might well not have the patience for two more doorstoppers. That’s fine. And even if he did, he might well consider the whole approach ill-advised, ineffective, or even mildly ham-fisted. Certainly he found the first book ‘entirely undistinctive’, and is forced to meditate on the shortcomings of the critical community these days:

“And so I wonder… what is it that compels reviewers to laud The Blade Itself as innovative, ground-breaking, and all the rest? I believe reviewers are responding to the surface gloss of The Blade Itself, which is foolhardy. Bloody fights, sarcasm, the “gritty” addition of a few fucks and shits and damns… these are a mere veneer of coolness, not signs of real innovation. And so, when some reviewers use books like Abercrombie’s to suggest that epic fantasy has, at last, “grown up”, I find myself cringing in dismay.”

Exactly what people respond to or not in a book is an area of some fascination for me, as you can imagine. I think the single biggest lesson I’ve learned since getting into the game (writing, not prostitution) is that the difference in the ways different readers look at a text, the differences in what they expect, what they want, what they value, in every area, are unimaginably vast. But my impression is, when people do respond well to my stuff (the aforementioned John D. Borra above being not untypical), what they find original is the relatively small twists on the familiar, though growing as the series progresses, the sense of humour with which it’s delivered, the relatively unpretentious style from the extremely pretentious
author, the vivid characters and the emphasis on those characters rather than the world. What you might call relatively basic virtues, really.

I disagree that those things constitute surface gloss, necessarily, that all depends what you’re looking for. I disagree also that something needs to be wildly innovative in order to offer something that a lot of readers will find fresh and interesting. Honestly, I think unique-ness can sometimes be a bit over-rated. Much beloved of critics, but perhaps not so much of the great body of readers. You can be unique and still be, for want of a better word, shit. A man with an arse for a face is unique, but I don’t know that I’d want to be him. To write an appealing story, I think you need to balance the original with the familiar, and for me, quite small nuances of style and approach can be enough to make some familiar components fascinating all over again, especially if they’re components much beloved of the readers in question. Familiarity might repel some readers, but I think it draws far more in, providing you don’t get stodgy and boring (don’t you dare even think it), creates expectations and allows you to pull tricks that would be impossible on much less familiar ground.

So I’m not sure I’d ever claim that my stuff is particularly groundbreaking, beyond being my own particular take on the classic fantasy trilogy, emphasising my own concerns and trying to be as honest and realistic as possible. To quote myself from an interview, which you’ll be surprised to hear I kind of love doing:

“I’d like to think of what I’m doing as standing in relation to Lord of the Rings (and the classic epic fantasy that’s been strongly influenced by Tolkien) in the same way as – if I can use a cumbersome extended metaphor – Unforgiven stands in relation to High Noon. A slantwise look at the cliches of the form from a more modern, cynical, realistic perspective, perhaps even a bit of a satirical riff on the form at times, but first and foremost a strong example of the form. I hope that I’ve got something to say about the ways that good and evil, power and violence are traditionally represented in fantasy, but at the same time I hope that above all what I’ve written is a cracking fantasy tale, and can be enjoyed purely on that level.”

Man, that Abercrombie can turn a phrase. And so when Gabe says, in order to sweeten the bitter pill of criticism:

“Abercrombie has a slick, active style that aids in propelling the reader along. Everything about The Blade Itself is crisp; the dialogue is excellent, the pacing is excellent, the characterization is excellent. In truth, while reading The Blade Itself I enjoyed myself.”

I think I probably find most of the praise I’d ever want. In the end, if given the choice, I much prefer things that are good, to things that are original. Both would be best, for sure, but hey…

Either one’s something.

Posted in opinion, reviews by Joe Abercrombie on July 7th, 2008. Tags: ,

14 comments so far

  • isis says:

    Hell, yes, being good certainly is better than being original.

    Being good AND original is exceptionally impressive, but it’s also very rare.

    Okay, so you’ve now snubbed my birthday two years running and I believe that the time has come to take offence. If you happen to be in Denver in August, watch your arse. That’s all I’m saying…

  • Paul says:

    Hey Joe,

    Thanks for pimping the review at Blood of the Muse.

    I started your books, of course, for the gratuitous sex scenes (didn’t we all?), but little did I know that I’d get a fantasy with such kick-ass-ed-ness (cheers to defiling the English language) and bowel-bursting goodness.

    Keep on doing what you do!

  • Jason says:

    Hang on, did i miss something. He doesn’t like it but enjoyed reading it?

    And kudos for the original v’s good argument, whats the point being wildly original if its shit

  • Gabe says:

    “Hang on” indeed, because I did not say that I ‘did not like’ the book. In fact, I explained the exact flaws that I did not personally like, but did actually praise the book as well – for what is was, which was (for me, anyway) a quick fun read that was soon forgotten. And the fact that I liked it enough to re-read it to figure out what was wrong with my reaction should go far in showing that I wasn’t out to dismiss the book.

    As Joe has intimated, my problem was less with the book than with the reaction to the book, and this broader idea of “innovative” “ground-breaking” epic fantasy. Hopefully I made it clear that I was speaking through the review to the wider practice of reviewing, and in particular this brand of reviews-as-proclamation. Though many of you are probably unaware, this action of reviewing is a subject I’ve examined at length.

    I actually sent Joe a heads-up to my review, as I wanted to save him some time Googling himself… and also because I was genuinely interested in his response. I’ve followed this blog for a long time, and I knew he would bring up interesting points – which he has, with his distinction between “good” and “innovative”. That thar is good stuff, Joe!

    In the end, my judgment against the book is colored by a long history of reading. I think it’s fascinating how expectations for a work can color the reaction to that work (along the lines of Pat’s odd post on “hype” over at Fantasy Hotlist), and it’s something I’ll surely examine in the future.

  • Larry says:

    Should I be honored or dismayed that whenever you cite a not-so-positive review of LAoK, you cite mine, Joe? 😛

  • Isis,
    You’re the one who started on the whole birthday snubbing thing. Where’s my presents?

    Well if sex and violence are your thing, you’ll probably like my new book. It contains in one volume probably more of both than the entire trilogy.

    Cheers for stopping by, and for the comments on the book. I like me a thought provoking review. And a knee-jerk response, of course. Expectations are key, and I’m fascinated by how opinions of the books change as they become more established and less a well-kept secret. Interesting that you mention Pat’s hype-post, though. Dare I draw attention to a similarity between it and your review whilst maintaining the highest respect for everyone involved? He seems to think a lot of other reviewers got fooled by hype, you seem to think a lot of other reviewers got fooled by surface gloss. Is it only the two of you that see to the heart of things…?

    In the interests of balance, I feel it’s only fair to occasionally cite a negative review of LAoK alongside all the glowing praise.

    And yours is the only negative review.

    In answer to your question, you should be honoured to be mentioned, but dismayed that you misunderstood the book so badly.

    A ha ha.

  • Larry says:

    Pfft! 😛 It wasn’t even a fully negative review, but rather a mixed one!

    But just you wait…by the time your next book comes out, I could have worked my way into reviewing it for PW…or not 😉

  • Gabe says:

    Ahhh, Joe. I have the utmost respect for you, please!

    I think it’s unfair to draw parallels between my review and Pat’s bit-about-hype, though. I should have been clearer in my review, though, and stated the first time I read the book, I didn’t go in to it with any expectations of grand genre-altering genius being on display. It was only in retrospect, when I wondered that I didn’t have a clear picture of the book in mind, that I went back and thought about the claims made for the novel.

    Which you, in your wisdom, did not make. Much. You know. Grandiose egotism aside.

    But I dare say that long experience has taught me to read a book on its own merits. I just wanted to use my reading of your book to show that grand claims made for these (and other) books aren’t necessarily warranted. (And I *will* reserve total judgment, as I’ve not read the other two.) My point is less a criticism of The Blade Itself than it is a criticism of shoddy reviewing.

  • Hello Joe,

    I just did a blog search on myself and found your post about me posting about you! I was going to come and protest that you cut off the end of my ‘review’ … but then I read it back and realised how badly written the next sentence was! That’s what I get for spending a week in Maidstone, brain rot. I would just like to publicly protest that I didn’t dislike the ending per se, I just enjoyed the series so much, I want to know what happens to everyone!

    Keep up the good work either way, I can’t wait to read your next offering.


    PS, yes I might look glamorous, but I’m just a big nerd underneath it all!

  • Larry,
    I shall look forward to PW’s mixed review of my next book. PW is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get…

    How could you put my grandiose egotism to one side? It’s my defining quality.

    Cheers for stopping by. Ah, a nerd underneath all the glamour? Ask anyone, I’m just the same way myself.

    Except without the glamour.

  • daft sod says:

    This reviewing stuff certainly worked for me. The more reviews I read the more I wanted to read the second two books. I liked THE TRILOGY because it offers humorous dialogue, distinguished inner monologues, a twist on the standards of the genre and skips the boring stuff (worldbuilding, epic scale, dwarves&elves; ect.). The ending was great too of course…

    PS needless to say that I frequently recommend THE TRILOGY for aforementioned reasons 🙂

    PPS …it blew me out of my socks

  • Larry says:

    Well Joe, I’ll try…but what if I *gasp* like it and others give mixed reviews to it? Would Hell have frozen over then?

  • Yagiz Erkan says:

    Hi Joe,

    I absolutely loved the trilogy. I read the three books back to back and I read it pretty fast given my busy schedule these days. Well… I had to sleep less but we all have to make sacrifices for the things we love, don’t we?

    I loved the characters, their sarcasm, the twists in the plots and the fighting scenes.

    I’m shamelessly recommending the trilogy to my family and friends (still haven’t been able to convinced my wife to read fantasy). I held my breath and I’m waiting for “Best Served Cold”.


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