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.