"The Fall of the Master Maker, in three volumes. They say it's one of the great classics of history. Lot of boring rubbish," she snorted derisively. "Full of wise Magi, stern knights with mighty swords and ladies with mightier bosoms. Magic, violence and romance, in equal measure. Utter shit." She slapped the book off the table and it tumbled onto the carpet, pages flapping.
"There must be something you can find to keep busy?"
"Really? What would you suggest?"
"My cousins do a lot of embroidery."
[--The Blade Itself]
It's often said that what makes a story science fiction, as opposed to fiction with some fairly uninspired speculation about science in it, is the fact that it is in conversation with its genre forebears. Its author is aware of what has gone before, and (hopefully) seeks to build on it. Sometimes this occurs on the level of specific shared ideas, like the 'ansible', a device first imagined by Ursula Le Guin, and since borrowed by numerous other writers (and for the title of one of the genre's most celebrated fanzines). More generally, it's about a set of common assumptions and priorities, and a shared framework within which such stories are told.
One of the complaints directed at fantasy - by which I mean, for present purposes, secondary-world epic fantasy, of the sort that tends to come along in trilogies or, increasingly, longer series - is that it is always having the same conversation, with the same forebear. Namely, Tolkien. It's not really a tenable stance, for all that it's persistent; are, say, Stephen Donaldson, Robin Hobb, Patricia McKillip, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Juliet McKenna - to pick some authors I've discussed here in the past - all interested in the same things? Hardly. (Not to mention China Mieville, who, famously, didn't so much have a conversation with Tolkien as yell gleeful revolutionary slogans in the general direction of Middle-Earth.)
That said, I know I'm not the only one who found George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire a refreshing change when I first cracked open A Game of Kings, lo these many years ago. It wasn't really about the book's grittiness; it's true that the violence was visceral and its effects were not something easily brushed aside, things rather lacking in the likes of Raymond E. Feist, Tad Williams or (my personal introduction to the genre) David Eddings, but David Gemmell and JV Jones (amongst others) beat GRRM to the punch on both counts. It wasn't even that the story was driven by its larger-than-life characters, who were well-rounded and often deeply flawed individuals, as opposed to fundamentally noble types dancing to the strings of a quest plot; again, Donaldson and Kay already had that covered, although the runaway success of GRRM's series has certainly been hugely influential on subsequently published series fantasy, which has definitely moved in a more character-driven direction of late.
Three things, above all, made it refreshing for me: the unpredictability, the physicality, and the fun. The first hit me quite early in the first book, with one particular scene (the tower, the spy, the Lannisters, and a brilliantly capricious act; I nearly fell off my chair), which immediately left me feeling that anything could happen in this story. The second is what many of those inspired by GRRM tend to miss, homing in on the gore (and, less frequently, the sex) when in fact the sprays of blood are only a part of a wider concern with evoking the characters' daily experiences: what they eat, what they smell, what their clothes feel like against their skin, how much pain is involved in waiting for (un)heroically-incurred injuries to heal, how disabled Tyrion manages to use the privy, and so on.
The third, which again is often missed, is that many characters have a sense of humour, and aren't afraid to use it; while life may be nasty, brutish and short for most of them, it doesn't mean they can't also find enjoyment in the aforementioned daily experiences. Rather than treating everything with po-faced deadly seriousness, GRRM leaves himself room to be playful, and to explore characters because they're interesting and enjoyable to read about, rather than just because they're pertinent to the plot. Not everyone has remarkable powers, or great courage, or whatever; some are just ordinary people, who stay ordinary.
Which is a very long-winded way of introducing the first two books of Joe Abercrombie's 'The First Law' trilogy, The Blade Itself (2006) and Before They Are Hanged (2007) (I reviewed the final volume last month, and so thought I should really go back and discuss the rest).
These are books in conversation with the genre, all the way from the overt meta commentary of the exchange quoted at the top of this post to the very stories it gives to its characters: the damaged warrior with the violent past who doesn't find redemption, because he has never learned any other way to respond to things; the magic-user whose immense power doesn't so much save the world as freeze it in place, with all its injustices; the feisty woman whose unmarried independence is, because of the society she lives in, both a route to free-thinking liberation and a poisoned chalice of isolation, vulnerability, and self-hatred.
The Blade Itself takes time to get going - always a risk, I suppose with character- rather than plot-driven novels. While, by and large, Abercrombie is an extremely confident writer, we can perhaps read some first-novel nerves in the early chapters, as the character's personalities and quirks are established, re-established, and then directly stated, as if to make absolutely sure we've got the point. This is particularly so with chapters from the point of view of Glokta, a prominent and much-feared judicial torturer in Adua, capital city of the Union. The habit of having Glokta regularly break into the third-person narration to voice his own thoughts often works well (snarky commentaries on conversations, for example), but at times it leads to repetition of information we've already been given or inferences we've already made, as here:
It was hard to read the expression of Rews' bloody face, but his shoulders sagged. He dipped the pen in the ink with a trembling hand, wrote his name, slightly slanted, across the bottom of the paper of confession. I win again. Does my leg hurt any less? Do I have my teeth back? Has it helped me to destroy this man, who I once called a friend? Then why do I do this?
We have already been told, by this point, that Glokta once endured prolonged torture himself, which left him permanently crippled - like GRRM with Tyrion Lannister, Abercrombie explores every agony and indignity of the affliction - and a bitter shell of his former self. It's not much of a leap to imagine that he might feel a tad conflicted about making others suffer as he did, though, without needing to be told, and it's certainly something that comes across as the book unfolds; stating it quite so baldly, and quite so soon, feels unnecessary. Particularly when Abercrombie has such a good ear for in-character observation and dialogue. Still, and not entirely unexpectedly, Glokta's bitterness and intelligence make him the trilogy's prime deliverer of sardonic asides, so his overactive inner monologue does come in handy for some things.
When it works, though - and it mostly does - the technique produces vivid and compelling characters, the sort of people you could imagine having a pint with. Although, in most cases, you probably wouldn't actually want to. Take vain, arrogant, over-privileged swordsman Jezal dan Luthar, for example, who is given to gems of insight like this:
If he was being completely honest, he didn't really enjoy smoking. It made him feel a bit sick, but it was very fashionable and very expensive, and Jezal would be damned if he would miss out on something fashionable just because he didn't like it.
Jezal is an industrial-grade twit, a cowardly crowd-follower who has "no use for ugly people" and cares only about how people think of him - it doesn't enter his head, of course, that anyone might not be thinking of him. He has only the very barest sprinkling of self-awareness, which makes his chapters some of the more interesting to read - he's the closest we get to an unreliable narrator. (In another subversion of familiar character arcs, the growth of Jezal's self-awareness is ultimately a bad thing for him [spoiler]: it makes his tragedy at the end of the series all the sharper, because has to live with the knowledge of exactly how bad his situation is.)
Characters' interactions with each other are equally telling, and this is where the book really begins to spark into life. When Jezal first encounters the northerner Logen Ninefingers, a beaten-down veteran looking for an escape from his former life of brutality, he deems him a "hulking primitive". As we see repeatedly in reactions to Glokta, the assumption that physical defects indicate a moral deficiency is deep-rooted in this society; thus, Jezal takes the fact that Logen's "face was like a whipped back, criss-crossed with ragged scars. His nose was bent" as a confirmation that he is uncivilised. He speaks to Logen with a mixture of morbid fascination and exaggerated care, although he cannot possibly understand the response he gets:
"You've seen a lot of death, then?"
Logen winced. In his youth, he would have loved to answer that very question. He could have bragged, and boasted, and listed the actions he'd been in, the Named Men he'd killed. He couldn't say now when the pride had dried up. It had happened slowly. As the wars became bloodier, as the causes became excuses, as the friends went back to the mud, one by one.
As this suggests, while there's plenty of breathless, visceral action on offer, the point lies in how the characters respond to it, rather than in the mechanics of battle or blood for blood's sake. Fighting is never glamorous, whether it's Jezal's stunted show duels or the real thing:
There was no time to think about him. Logen charged at the axe-man with a roar, aiming the spear at his heart. He brought his axe up in time to nudge the point away, but not far enough. The spear spitted him through the shoulder, spun him round. There was a sharp crack as the shaft snapped, Logen lost his balance and pitched forward, bearing Boil-face down into the road. The spear-point sticking out of his back cut a deep gash into Logen’s scalp as he fell on top of him. Logen seized hold of the axe-man’s matted hair with both hands, pulled his head back and mashed his face into a rock.
Logen, for his part, treats Jezal with the sarcastic contempt he deserves (although this sails right over Jezal's head). He is much more discomfited by Adua itself:
It was never properly dark here, never properly quiet. It was too hot, too close, too stinking. Enemies might be terrifying, but enemies could be fought. [...] There was no fighting the faceless, careless, rumbling city.
It is through the characters' experiences, like this, that we are shown Abercrombie's world. Ardee, the sweary one in the conversation quoted at the head of the post, is not only a brilliant source of snark and irreverence, but brings home the reality of women's status when she tells Jezal:
"I've precious little money and no blood at all, and that makes me less than nothing to the likes of you. The men ignore me and the women cut me dead. I've got nothing here, nothing and no one, and you think you've got the hard life?"
Jezal's overwhelming snobbery is not unusual, and Jezal feels no need to justify such attitudes, even when his lower-class friend Collem West suffers from it. West is a skilled soldier and tactician whose career is blocked by both systemic and personal prejudice against his low birth. Glokta, meanwhile, has to listen his superiors in the Inquisition express distaste at the spectre of social mobility offered by the growth of trade ("The old order crumbles. Loyalty, duty, pride, honour. Notions that have fallen far from fashion. What has replaced them? [...] Greed. Merchants have become the new power in the land. Bankers, shopkeepers, salesmen"), and implement their plots to undermine important guilds and bankers. This is one strand that I would have liked to see better exploited during the trilogy; but the social dynamics side of the plot begins to fade in the second volume, and is largely gone by the third, except as a tool of certain powerful individuals' plots.
Before They Are Hanged takes these characters (all but Ardee) out of their comfort zones - variously, to war in the north, to a besieged city in the south, and on a quest to the edge of the known world - and holds out before each of them the prospect of change: of breaking destructive cycles of behaviour and finding a measure of redemption.
Or, in Jezal's case, being less of an entitled shit. For a brief while, he even manages it.
Abercrombie achieves the not-inconsiderable feat of making all three of these strands page-turning reads with plenty of meaty character moments. Glokta's adventures in vibrant, oppressed Dagoska ("a giant, boiling, dusty, stinking slum", as he calls it) bring another part of the world to life, as well as exposing Glokta's biggest weakness: a tiny, surviving thread of the desire to be liked, and a real blind spot when it comes to the few people who don't treat him as the monster he is convinced he looks like.
West's struggles against the Northmen in Angland, and the noble generals in his own army, suck the reader in to sharing his frustration and anger. The running theme of poking fun at the upper classes, which begins with the heir to throne, Prince Ladisla, turning up at the camp in "not so much a uniform [...] as a kind of purple dressing gown with epaulettes. Bedwear with a military motif", takes a darker turn when it becomes apparent just how much kneejerk snobbery from on high is hurting the Union war effort. Although he has been favoured in some quarters for his obvious skill, too many of the noble commanders assume that, as a commoner, West is not made of sufficiently stern and dashing stuff to understand vital military concepts like sending troops out to die for no better reason than pride. When West suggests that there's no reason to fight before they're prepared, he is told:
Smund snorted. "No reason except that this is a war, and the enemy stand before us on Union soil! You are always carping on the state of the men's morale, Colonel!" He jabbed his finger up at the hill. "What could be more damaging to their spirits than to sit idle in the face of the enemy?""A sharp and purposeless defeat?"
But the prize goes to the quest storyline, which forces together Logen and Jezal, and actually manages to make believable the growth of grudging respect and even something a little bit like friendship-forged-in-adversity between them. Jezal finds himself considering Logen "more [...] good-natured ape than crazed murderer", which I suppose is quite a gesture from the golden boy. All this is not, thankfully, without quite bit of humour at the expense of Jezal's pomposity:
He did not wish to make himself appear weak, but honesty might earn the trust of a simple man. If it worked with dogs, why not with Northmen? "I myself," he ventured, "have never fought in a full-blooded battle."
"You don't say?"
"No, truly. My friends are in Angland now, fighting against Bethod and his savages."
Logen replies "'Their loss is our gain'", which Jezal suspects might have been sarcasm, were it "from a subtler source". But Logen is equally out of his depth with some of the other members of the party: the inscrutable mage Bayaz (on whom more in a moment), and Ferro, the series' other major female character, who escaped slavery in the Gurkish empire and now spends her time being hard as nails and emotionally closed-off. Here she is in The Blade Itself:
"Is there anything but killing in you, Ferro?"
"There used to be," she muttered, "but they whip it out of you. They whip you until they're sure there's nothing left."
It all adds up to a highly involving romp. Again, the quest is entirely secondary to the bantering way the characters gradually come together, and learn and grow from their experiences, although - and this is characteristic of the trilogy as a whole - such learning and growth is not long sustained once the quest is over. People don't change, is the message; or rather, even when they do change, they rarely have the will to maintain it. Returning to old habits is easier, especially once (as they do in book three) they all return to the scenes of their old mistakes.
If there is one serious false note in all this, it's Bayaz. I found the grandfatherly mage figure more jarring in such an overtly 'gritty' tale as this, and a world so anchored in its ordinary social detail, than I do in more conventional fantasy novels. Although Bayaz does turn out to be substantially less nice than he first appears, it does not change the fact that his presence is an awkward one for much of the first two books, throwing off the down-to-earth, character-driven rhythm with both his twinkly Gandalf act and his more overblown smote-his-ruin-on-the-mountainside moments.
But while he's a failure as a character, on another level he's the embodiment of one of the trilogy's major themes, and a structural conceit all by himself. Just as none of the other characters really manage to change, so Bayaz uses his power - especially in the third book - to turn potentially revolutionary ferment into a tool, and ultimately to reinforce the stagnant status quo.
Which can be read, of course, as another meta commentary on genre fantasy: this time, its social and political conservatism. Why, with all its fabulous possibilities, do fantasy trilogies so frequently end with magic being used to restore the king to his throne, rather than to smash the pseudo-medieval hierarchy and try something new? Or at the very least whipping up some indoor plumbing? Here, in Bayaz, is an answer: because people with power are chronically averse to sharing its benefits, even at the expense of the suffering of others.
That, and - like everyone else in these marvellous, but rather disheartening, books - they're just too set in their ways.