Why so Cynical?

March 25th, 2013

Back to the Inquisition, and I’m working my way gradually through the many questions would-be Inquisitors have left there.  So without further ado, Pierre Colinot wanted to ask:

“why you chose the ultra-cynical angle to write your books. Is it because you think it makes for better stories, is it because it is coherent with your worldview, is it just because you enjoy writing characters in such a merciless world, or another reason altogether?”

Interesting, and somewhat relevant to recent discussions on the value of gritty fantasy.  There’s a degree to which many of the things that emerge when you start writing aren’t particularly thought through in advance, they’re not things you choose, exactly, they’re the natural direction the story takes you in.  It’s often not until long after the event that you start to wonder why you wrote what you did, sometimes with a smug nod, sometimes with a shamed wince.  But when it comes to cynicism I guess the reason comes down to something like – because I’d read a lot of very predictable, repetitive, morally simple and entirely uncynical fantasy and I wanted to write something which would sit on the other side of the scales.  I wanted (and I’m not saying I achieved it, how badly I failed is for others to judge) to do with fantasy the sort of thing that Unforgiven does with the western – a modern updating of a form, a comment on a form, but ultimately a great example of the form.

PREPARE FOR MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST LAW, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

For me, that meant including a lot of the classic tropes (or cliches, if you’d rather) and then putting a twist on them, inverting them, subverting them, whatever.  Leading people to expect what they’d always had before then giving them something different, in order to make them think about their expectations.  Sometimes it was about looking at a more ‘realistic’ version of a trope.  Sometimes it was about presenting a pessimistic mirror-image of a trope, or a complicated version of a simple trope.  The fact that these were often morally simple, heroic, optimistic tropes led inevitably to morally complex, unheroic, pessimistic inversions.

So I had a boy with a special destiny, but he was an arrogant coward whose special destiny was invented by a puppet master as a means of control.  I had a perfect royal couple, but rather than finding love they came to despise each other.  I had a world-weary man of violence, but his violence was explosive, directionless and horrifying, as destructive to himself and his friends as to his enemies.  I had a wizardly mentor who claimed to be the one man who could save the world from evil, and proved to be that evil.  I had a couple of used-up, bitter people who found some comfort in each other but in the end couldn’t get over the damage in their pasts.  I had an epoch-ending war for control between right and wrong, except both sides proved to be about as wrong as each other, and the new epoch was very much like the last.

Having written all this, I suppose it would still have been possible to end the series in an entirely uncynical way. Logen and Ferro could have found happiness together. Jezal could have resisted Bayaz and married Ardee and together ushered in a new age of prosperity and equality. Glokta could have been healed by magic and found peace.  There could have been a neat tying off of plot threads, minimal examination of the consequences and the aftermath, and the dawn of a wondrous new era THE END.

Fuck that shit.

I felt that it was necessary to see it through. To provide an ending like an avalanche, as it’s been called.  An ending that some people were sure to dislike, but that they’d find difficult to ignore.  To look at the consequences and the disappointments and the failures.

Occasionally I hear people say that the world is full of light, humour, and love, and books that don’t include those things are just as unrealistic as those which feature nothing but.  Well, no book contains every aspect of life, they all emphasise some things over others.  But I think it’s fair to say that commercial epic fantasy in the wake of Tolkien, through the 80s and 90s, was generally very much on the simply heroic, trope-filled and predictable side of the scales (with some important exceptions, of course, with gaming stuff written in the Warhammer world and Martin’s Game of Thrones being important influences on me).  It seems to me that some books which examine those tropes and present a different take on life are not only unsurprising but deeply necessary.

And, honestly, out of a scale of 100 with everyone dies at 0 and everyone wins at 100, I wouldn’t put the First Law any lower than, what, a 30?  It’s dark, yeah, but it’s also pretty mixed.  Some people die pointless deaths, but most of the principles live.  Some end no better than they started.  Many struggle to become better, some have limited success, some fail, some realise they are helpless tools in great events.  Some are revealed to be far worse than we hoped, some are revealed to be better.  Some try to do good, some fail, are frustrated by the harshness of the world, others succeed in small ways.

You know what, sometimes, that’s life.  Wonderful royal couples can turn out to be shiny distractions held up to the public that are hell for those involved (Charles and Diana, anyone?)  Wise old leaders who claim to have our best interests at heart are often more interested in their own interests, thank you, and those held up as noble heroes often have a skeleton or two in the cupboard, if not to say an attic full of the bastards.

Of course the world is not nothing but bleakness, darkness, horror but my books, in common with a lot of epic fantasy, cover great upheavals, wars, collapses of society, struggles for power.  Those kind of events do come with moral challenges, with disappointments, with failures, with deaths and horrors, with ragged consequences.  I wouldn’t want to become predictable for horrifying cynicism any more than for cloying optimism, so I doubt I’ll always be as cynical as I was with the First Law.  Despite some people saying that Red Country is the most witheringly cynical of my witheringly cynical oeuvre, I thought it was much the least cynical of my books to date.  You write the end the way that feels right, that feels true, that feels honest.

Occasionally I hear people say that it’s actually way easier to write a grim ending than a happy one, and I just don’t see that. Certainly the commercially easy thing to do is happy endings. Even in this age of more cynical entertainment, the vast majority of stories still have overwhelmingly happy endings. It’s what most people want from their entertainment, most of the time. So no, cynicism is not the easy way, that’s crap.

Sometimes it’s worth doing, though.

 

Posted in opinion, The Inquisition by Joe Abercrombie on March 25th, 2013.

52 comments so far

  • Patrick Lundgreen says:

    Cool cool cool.

    Very interesting to read. And like the best fanboy i completely agree with all that you say.

    Though a couple of painkillers for Sand Glokta would not have ruined my read 🙂

    -patrick

  • Jens B says:

    Good read,

    with only reading the First Law trilogy I can of course only comment based on my experiences with those. I for myself like endings which are not the typical “Everything will be fine”-ending. What I seek for when i finish a book is this feeling inside me that all what I read wasn’t for nothing. This somehow might seem counter-intuitive, but it feels weird, if the world I developed in my head for so long is basically forfeit in the end, since that what a happy end most of the time does. It changes the world so drastically, you won’t recognise it anymore – most of the time.

    What i want to know is how the world functions, not how all evil and bad things can be defeated (some might say thats a childish approach). That for me is the most important aspect of reading fantasy – the world and its rules.

    This got more of a rant than i wanted (with bad English – I apologize).

    -Jens

  • David Munro says:

    Having just finished the triology I think my only problem with the ending is exactly how utterly shafted Jezal got in the end. Poor bloke finds out that he isn’t the rightful king after all, he’s the son of a whore…on top of his wife loathing him and his love being married to Glokta (I like the implication that they could work together in the final conversation between them though). I would have liked him to find out WHY his wife hates him…at least let him know its not really his fault at all. Overall I enjoyed the fact that the tropes were left unsatisfied.

  • Jared says:

    I don’t think The First Law is cynical at all… hell, I’d give your ending a perfect 50. Everyone gets *exactly* what they deserve, which is absolutely brilliant.

  • George Bracken says:

    I hadn’t thought of your writing style as “cynical” before, but after having read this article, I suppose it is.
    A couple of chapters into The Blade Itself, I fully expected Glokta to be the principal villain, but in the end I loved that character. Would like to see a lot more of him. Prequel maybe?

  • John says:

    I thought there were some incredibly satisfying and cathartic moments in almost every one of your books (minus, perhaps, Best Served Cold) Glokta kinda sorta wins the day in Last Argument of Kings (finds a girl, winds up as the top frog in the well, etc), Curmden Craw finds comfort in the brotherhood of men, Beck goes home to his mother and realizes what’s what, and Gorst kinda sorta makes peace with how much he likes whacking people with swords (kinda sorta) in The Heroes. Shy and Temple find a little bit of happiness and Shivers forgives Logen in Red Country. I dunno… I love these novels because they’re dark, but because they’re so dark even a little win here and there is super awesome.

  • Thanks Joe! Great answer to all the cynics of cynicism… I love it. Great books that are a refreshing change from the same old, same old. Even though sometimes we love the same old, same old. There is plenty of room for darkness and a bit of reality. Keep up the great work!
    Since Sand Glokta was mentioned, he was one of my favorite characters. I winced at every agonizing step he took up a flight of stairs. He never gives up… He is a great character and I hope he appears in some other books. I loved “Best Served Cold”. You’re just a great writer… nuff said.
    All the best to you and your family.

    ~Geoff

  • Cara(Eli) says:

    I don’t find your books cynical. I find them to be realistic and to reflect life. Life isn’t black and white, it is more gray and I think your books show this perfectly. Weather you find something morally good, or bad, is a matter of perspective, more than anything else.

  • Only finished Last Argument of Kings last night (I know, I know, I’ve been busy!)and so the ending is very much in my mind.

    Personally I loved the ending. It was that moment Glokta made his discovery about his practicals that I thought “Oh crap, we’re not coming back from here”. I didn’t find it cynical, I found it honest. As surprising as some twists were they were always true to the characters. Genuinely loved it

  • Eric sean says:

    Who said they’re cynical? Let’s get them. There’s a lot of jealous critics out there.

  • Paul Hartwell says:

    Just that one remarkable bit at the end of LAoK between Jezal and Glotka (“perhaps we can find some small ways to do good” – or words to that effect) was the perfect counter-weight to the permeated cynicism. IMHO.

  • Steve K. says:

    Not sure why everyone is trying to spin cynical as such a bad thing. Joe’s books are wonderfully cynical, much akin to human nature.

    And for the record, loved the ending to First Law (though I did like Ferro as a character and wanted to see more of her). I hated the ending to Best Served Cold, though I do see the importance of it. I really, really enjoyed watching Shivers develop. Or contract or recess rather?

  • Gordon says:

    Interesting stuff.

    “because I’d read a lot of very predictable, repetitive, morally simple and entirely uncynical fantasy and I wanted to write something which would sit on the other side of the scales”

    As the trend at the moment for a lot of fantasy writers is similar to this, is it just a matter of time before we have all read too much cynical stuff and long for a return to simple happy stuff again?

  • Jason Scott says:

    These books are almost everything I look for in a fantasy novel now. They have set a new standard of realism in a fantasy world that I just cant get out of my head. When I try to read my old favorites, except for George R.R. Martin and David Gemmell, they are too childish and unreal. That might seem like a funny criticism for a fantasy novel, but its true. Thanks for some great stories Joe A.!!!

  • Karen says:

    I am currently in the process of re-reading the First Law, I’m at LAoK now. The least satisfying thing with the trilogy when I first read was, as someone mentioned, Jezal’s fate. I’ve always hoped to see more of him in your subsequent books because I truly loved him as a character, I agonized with him through his development and I raged on his behalf at the end.

    I love your books, though sometimes I get a tad too attached to characters and want to come and whack you over the head for what you did to them. That is, however, the staple of a wonderful writer. Your words are strong enough to inspire us to feel for your world.

    Still, I’d love to see Jezal again. Or maybe, considering he would probably be broken and bitter, I don’t.

  • brady says:

    I’m not sure what definition of cynicism is being used here. It’s not a word I’ve ever considered in relation to your work. Really, just the opposite. The leads in First Law really and truly are trying to be good people; it’s just so damned hard. Which is what makes them such emotionally engaging characters.

    If the book’s approach to the characters were cynical, I wouldn’t give two shits if Logan & Ferro end up together, or if Glokta ever manages to let go of all the awful things that have happened to him. I do. Which is what makes those moments that they succeed so powerful, and their failures so devastating.

    Frankly, I’m much more ready to apply the term “cynical” to a novel in which there are good guys and bad guys and the good guys cut the bad guys to pieces with swords and that’s great because they were bad or whatever and it’s fantasy so who cares it’s supposed to be FUN.

  • Will says:

    I have just finished Red Country. I have very much enjoyed all six of the books, and while, like other commenters I would agree the ‘cynical’ fantasy style is in fashion, some authors will kill characters off for effect, rather than the good of the story. I don’t think Joe does this. Sometimes the bad guys get away and the good guys end up dead. I also have to say that Ninefingers is my favourite character for a long time and I would welcome another book featuring him!

  • Chad says:

    I love your books and agree the Red Country was the happiest yet. Keep it real Joe. Keep it real.

    I just read JOURNAL OF THE GUN YEARS. Awesome.

  • dan halen says:

    Cynical or otherwise i’d love to see Glokta feature again in some capacity Joe…

  • bobbby says:

    What your books have in abundance is people who dont consider themselves to be evil. They just try to survive, and dont take pleasure in it.
    Contrast this with the laughing evil maniacs of Tolkien-ish fantasy’s who gloat in what they do.

  • Brian Turner says:

    SPOILERS!

    Glotka the Torturer was the only protagonist at the end who cared about anyone but himself. Delicious. 🙂

  • badger says:

    Right up to the end of The First Law I was still rooting for the wise old wizard – sure he’s a bit grumpy etc. It was only right at the end that I realised…

    For the record I thought Best Served Cold’s ending was the least cynical. Though bloody, it was nice and tidy.

  • Luke Scull says:

    I thought Best Served Cold had the most happy endings of any Abercrombie novel to date. I mean, Monza got her revenge; Friendly got to go home; Shivers learned to be true to himself; even good old Morveer eventually gained the respect and infamy he deserved.

    😀

  • Sidney Harbour-Bridge says:

    Joe…

    Ahem. It’s _principal_ not principle.

    You’re good, I’ll grant you that, but not perfect. Not yet, anyway xD

  • Georgia Riddle says:

    I always thought the end of the First Law was quite happy, if for no one other than Glokta. He gets the girl, he gets an epic Crowning Moment of Awesome taking down Severard and Frost, he’s the Arch Lector, the Shadow King of the Union… the list goes on and on.

    TBH I’ve never thought your books were -that- cynical, mostly because they make me laugh a lot. They’re violent and grim, sure, but they don’t constantly beat the characters down with endless problems, and the people you hate usually get their just desserts and then some. But maybe my view of cynicism isn’t the same as everyone else’s.

  • Eric Sean says:

    That’s why he has an editor Sid.

  • Mark says:

    I say get MORE cynical, get even darker and more gritty. I’d love a “prequel” about Ninefingers. He mentions his father so often, I’d love to see a book about Baby Ninefingers. I can almost imagine how satisfying a chapter describing his first toddler temper tantrum would be!

  • Kyle Loechner says:

    I love Mark’s comment so much it hurts. I hereby command Joe Abercrombie to write us flash fiction about the baby Bloody Nine. Please and thank you.

  • AntMac says:

    Insightful, interesting, entertaining.

    Great Post, Joe.

  • ColinJ says:

    I dunno, Joe, I still can’t quite forgive you for what you did to poor, noble Collem West.

  • Danny M says:

    It was the cynical endings that really did it for me with your books, Joe. For me the best end to any film ever is invasion of the body snatchers with donald sultherland pointing and screaming. Just chilling. Athough your books endings dont quite match that for bleakness, they have a similar sense of emptiness for the characters. Love It!

  • Knappos says:

    West’s alive though, Colin.

    Just in a rest home for the chronically knackered.

  • Blizzaro says:

    I think The First Law Trilogy has to be the most realistic fantasy series i have ever read.

    Anyone who disagree will need to take a long hard look at reality especially with the world the way it is now.

    Keep it up Joe !

  • Josephine says:

    First of all, the brand of bleakness I saw in your books is a big part of what attracted me to them. They’re violent without glorifying violence (on the contrary in my opinion…) and I always thought they were dark without being cynical. Sure there’s people who turn out to be far worse than they seemed, but there’s also those who are much better than one would originally think.
    I’m not going to spoil anything but I have to admit thought that when I read the end of Red Country (not all the way at the end, I think those who read it wil know what I mean) I had to put down the book a couple of times to collect myself. But when I get that invested in a book it’s still usually a great sign.

  • Sam says:

    Ok…

    No Doubt the 1st 4 Books are an awesome read ….

    But I felt after Best Served Cold you become a tad defensive of your work cause people were saying it was too Dark too Gritty too Cynical.

    Then when The Heroes came out I was expecting more of the same, cause nothing says dark gritty & cynical like a battle … An opportunity to cast a light on the worst of humanity via wholesale slaughter… & yet I felt this was muted almost in response to your critics….The message seemed to be yes war is bad & no one wins…& that was very sunny & optimistic… (a classic trope especially in fantasy)

    I was hoping you’d come back at your detractors with a sledgehammer rather than an olive branch….If there’re some who dont like your work who cares… you’re published .. you have a voice … let your voice be heard!

  • AntMac says:

    How was Gandalf the Black developing firearms, in any way a sunny and optimistic thing, can you explain that to me please?.

  • JamesM says:

    This reminds me of one of my favourite moments from A Song of Ice and Fire. This exchange between Sansa and The Hound.

    “There are no true knights, no more than there are gods. If you can’t protect yourself, die and get out of the way of those who can. Sharp steel and strong arms rule this world, don’t ever believe any different.”

    “You’re awful.”

    “I’m honest. It’s the world that’s awful. Now fly away little bird, I’m sick of you peeping at me.”

    Quit peeping little birds.

  • Thomas says:

    I guess both of the following aspects of cynicism is a big part of why we love the books.

    1. showing contempt for accepted standards of honesty or morality by one’s actions, especially by actions that exploit the scruples of others.

    2.bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic.
    -From dictionary.reference.com

    It would also be interesting as a contrast to hear more about “the pearl” as a contrast to the gritty cynicism. What is the definition of beauty in literature?

  • Patrick says:

    Joe, I don’t think your books are as cynical as you make them out to be. After all, every main character in the third law ends up with a happy ending of sorts.

    SPOILERS

    The bloody nine became King and then got overthrown. He would have just been bored as King anyway.
    Glokta leads the hidden council as the most powerful man in the Empire.
    Jezal becomes King, a puppet king maybe, but still a King. So his wife hates him, who cares, he couldn’t have loved her really anyway after such a short time. I’m sure as King he can find himself a good woman or three.
    Bayaz does actually save the empire from conquest and brings about Peace. Just as he said he would.

  • CDK says:

    The ending, while entertainingly unconventional, seems rushed in places, specifically the Terez/Jezal story. My biggest criticism of the trilogy as a whole is that while every other character seems well rounded and complicated, Terez is very flat. I cam also understand why some people find her portrayal and what happens to her as misogynistic. Can you address that?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    CDK,
    Sadly, I can’t disagree with you. I’ve addressed that at some length in a discussion on a forum somewhere… http://asoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/topic/60165-violence-rape-agency-the-rapiness-that-comes-before/
    There ya go.

  • JamesM says:

    ‘I cam also understand why some people find her portrayal and what happens to her as misogynistic.’

    Why shouldn’t it be misogynistic?

    Shit happens.

  • Ted Cross says:

    I skipped part of your post once it began going into books I have only just begun to read. I finished The Blade Itself two days ago. The one question I had when I finished was why Bayaz picked a ‘champion’ who only won because of Bayaz’s magic? Why would he not have chosen the guy who not only would have whipped his champions butt 4-0 but turned out to be a good sport as well? Since that never gets explained in the first book, it left me wondering…

  • Thile says:

    Spoilerish possibly

    West is dead, baby, West is dead.

    (I think it was mentioned in Red Country.)

    I hope Joe handles any future appearances of Glotka or Jezal as he did with Lamb, that is, not letting us in their head but seeing them through the eyes of another. While I think part of me would love to be back in Glotka’s head, it goes along the lines of reinventing the wheel, and I am glad Joe does recognize that. JMO.

  • Kevin says:

    Like many others in this comment set, I don’t consider your books cynical at all, but maybe that’s because my conception of the word has been coloured by so many proudly self-proclaimed cynics who sympathies are actually more nihilistic or libertine (“do as thou wilt”).

    No – I think your work follows the simple tenet of a long suffering warrior; You have to be realistic …

  • Andrea Paventi says:

    But, in your word it seems to me that the great part of the characters is aware of the fact that good values exist; these values, in the end are shared universally even thought some people seem to be doomed and unable to live according to them. So, in this respect I don’t see a hopeless bitterness.

  • Sean Fear says:

    The message I got from The First Law and Best Served Cold is that absolutely no good deed goes unpunished. Jezal, Carlot, and Foscar really did get shoved done the drain, despite (because of) their efforts to do good. And yet, I loved all four books.

  • Ursus says:

    Caul Shivers has to be one of the most interesting characters I have come across in fiction. I read Best Served Cold half expecting him to ‘come good’, despite the horrific event he suffers in the novel. The fact that he does not experience the sort of unconvincing, third act redemption that I almost come to expect, made me believe in the character that much more. I have just finished The Heroes and Caul Shivers remained a cold hearted bastard throughout. I still hold out some hope for his redemption (forgive me if it occurs in Red Country, I’m not there yet) , but I’m not convinced that will come, and that’s why I think Joe Abercrombie is the best author I have read in a long time.

  • Jo Heled says:

    “… .And I wouldn’t worry too much about Hollywood. I’m already pitching a version in which Logen sacrifices himself to defeat Bayaz, Jezal sheds a tear at the funeral, marries Ardee and they have a load of kids and he becomes like the bestest king everer. And West and Ferro live happily ever after on a houseboat. Obviously, this is summed up in voiceover by the Dogman afterwards, at the ripe old age of 103, bouncing his great grandchildren on his knee.”

    Joe Abercrombie, September 2008

  • Bobni says:

    Thanks for sharing your insight into the characters you created and the end to their stories in the first law trilogy. Now I have closure

  • Ben says:

    Sometimes bad things happen to good people. (and vice versa)

    Aside from your humor, that’s really what sets your stuff apart from other authors imo.

    I get the same feel from Martin’s SOFAI series. (except he doesn’t normally have me lol’ing at inappropriate times)

  • CDK says:

    Thanks for the reply Joe, just finished Best Served Cold and I think you redeemed yourself regarding flat female characters with Monza Murcatto.

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