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Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

I don’t think Joe Abercrombie really gets enough credit. In a relatively short space of time he’s published 9 novels and all of them have been great, some of them genuinely outstanding. I really liked the Shattered Sea books, but I’ve been looking forward to seeing him get back to the world of the First Law. Sharp Ends, a collection of short stories set in the world of the First Law, doesn’t quite scratch the itch, at times feeling like a collection of deleted scenes, but it sure as hell does whet the appetite for more.

Some of the stories in Sharp Ends follow major and minor characters from the First Law, such as an insight into the pre-torture Sand dan Glokta, or an insight into the earlier lives of Bethod and Logen Ninefingers. The best stories however follow a pair of new characters, Styrian thief Shev and a hulking warrior priestess on the run from her sisters: Javre, the Lioness of Hoskopp. They cross over with other characters from the earlier books, but they stand much better on their own. The stories span a significant range of time, from a decade before The Blade Itself to following the aftermath of Red Country.

Some of the stories which shed a light on the other sides of the novels are interesting, particularly one which follows the collateral damage of Monza Murcatto during her bloody vengeance in Best Served Cold. Some of them feel a bit inessential, being basically little fun slices following familiar characters which don’t exactly stand on their own. That means that the most substantial feeling are those following Shev and Javre. In fact, I would love to read an entire comic fantasy novel following those two. Abercrombie has a greater gift for comedy than many others in modern fantasy and I would love to see him write a full on black comedy, rather than a tragedy with comic elements that has usually been his forte.

Normally I review each story in a collection separately, but I have a job dammit and no time to do so. I can only give a vague big picture overview and that is to say that Sharp Ends is a great collection, one which leaves me hungry to see more of the First Law. Abercrombie is a unique writer in the modern fantasy scene. He’s often classed as cynical, but I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification. Sure, Abercrombie’s characters often revel in their basest impulses and desires, but many are unified by a genuine desire to be better. They don’t always succeed, in fact they usually don’t, but that desire to be better is the interesting part. That doesn’t sound very cynical to me. I’ve read everything Abercrombie’s ever published and don’t plan to stop any time soon.

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Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Red Country is the most recent of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law spin-off books, and I’m genuinely really going to miss this world. I wasn’t convinced at first, but as has often been the case with Abercrombie’s books there was a tipping point where I realised I was absolutely hooked, with the slower ground work at the beginning being all worth it. Red Country doesn’t quite top my personal favourite Best Served Cold, but it’s nonetheless a fantastic read and certainly one of Abercrombie’s best.

Red Country takes place in the Near and Far Country, a relatively untamed frontier between Starikland and the Old Empire. There are two main protagonists. Shy South is a former bandit who has given up her unlawful ways to return to her family farm, tended by her young siblings and her step-father, the gentle and cowardly Lamb. When returning from business in the town of Squaredeal, Shy and Lamb find their farm raided, and her siblings kidnapped. Shy embarks on an epic journey across the Near Country and into the Far Country, following the trail of the kidnappers. The other protagonist is Temple, an unreliable lawyer in the service of the Company of the Gracious Hand, led by none other than infamous soldier of fortune, Nicomo Cosca. With Union Inquisitors in tow, they are entering the Near Country is search of the fled leadership of a rebellion against the Union in Starikland. After a particularly brutal sacking of an innocent town, Temple flees the Company, eventually coming across Shy and a group of travellers who are making their way across the Far Country, to the town of Crease.

There’s an extremely strong Wild West influence in Red Country, with Abercrombie playing around with many Western tropes, but without resorting to cliché. Possibly the biggest difference between Red Country and Abercrombie’s other works is that, for once, his protagonists are actually fundamentally decent people. Where the trio of Glokta, Jezal and Logen of the original trilogy were all terrible people who flirted with doing good before returning to their nefarious ways, Shy and Temple are good people who have, in their past, fallen into evil and murderous ways. Although I liked Abercrombie’s earlier characters, the relentless pessimism of the series was getting a bit wearying, so Red Country’s slightly more positive tone in welcome. Of course, all things are relative, and by most people’s standards Red Country would be a deeply unpleasant, violent and dark book, but compared to his earlier work there in a streak of good at the centre of the whole thing. Red Country is also a much more personal book than the others. The First Law trilogy and The Heroes told of vital moments for The Union, and Best Served Cold started intimate but escalated to epic. The stakes are somewhat lower in Red Country, really only the lives of two children, with a much lesser focus on massive battles. There’s lots of action of course, but it’s grittier and more intimate than the great sieges in Best Served Cold or the Battle of Osrung in The Heroes.

Red Country is just as savagely funny as the rest of the series, and Abercrombie’s unique style has been so refined at this point to being instantly recognisable. He’s not afraid to leave the typical plain prose of the genre behind, and he does an excellent job of conveying not just the appearance of his settings, but the feeling behind them as well. The cess pit town of Crease is particularly memorable and well-drawn, showing Abercrombie’s impressive world building ability.

The new characters of Red Country are great; Shy is grizzled and tough, but with a heart of gold, and Temple is witty and charming. In some ways he’s similar to Jezal dan Luthar from the original trilogy, but where Jezal was a coward to the core, Temple is a good man buried under layers and layers of a bad man. I’m always happy to see more from Cosca, the Jack Sparrow of the First Law world, and he’s as amusing and likeable a monster as he ever was. There are some very nice appearances from characters in the earlier books, some as cameos and others with more extended roles. Caul Shivers appears briefly, but is given enough time to allow his story arc which has stretched between Best Served Cold, The Heroes and Red Country time to pay off and resolve in an extremely satisfying manner.

Now, I typically try to go fairly spoiler free in these reviews, and there’s one element of the book whose spoiler status is oddly nebulous. It’s an element which will be completely obvious to anyone who has read the original trilogy, but these books are also aimed at appealing to newcomers, and this part may give away key elements of a major characters history. I’m going to talk about that now, so don’t go any further if you’re not sure.

So, Red Country is the return of Logen Ninefingers. He’s never referred to by that name, not even the Bloody-Nine, but it’s him. Since plunging into the river following his betrayal by Black Dow in Last Argument of Kings, Logen moved south and helped raise a family, putting his bloody life behind him and taking the new name of Lamb. As the story goes on, Lamb is forced to become Logen again, and the steady stripping away of the pretence of gentleness and the re-emergence of the Bloody Nine is absolutely thrilling to read. There’s something tragic about it too; Logen had finally succeeded in putting his past behind him and building a new life, but the overarching theme of this novel is that nobody can really escape their past. I enjoyed Logen a lot in the original trilogy, but I think it’s in Red Country that I’ve liked him best.

Red Country isn’t necessarily the best received of Abercrombie’s books, but it’s certainly one of my favourites. I’m definitely looking forward to giving Half a King, Abercrombie’s new book set in a new setting, a go, but I’m also hotly anticipating Abercrombie returning to this world. It’s a good ‘un.Red-Country-book-of-2012

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Ok, I should be careful here, because last time I reviewed a Joe Abercrombie book he read it and tweeted out my comments on his sex scenes. Thankfully, I loved Best Served Cold so I pretty much only had nice things to say about it. So, for Mr. Abercrombie’s benefit…

THE HEROES IS A MASTERPIECE, BEST ABERCROMBIE EVER BEST FANTASY EVER BEST BOOK EVER. I CRIED THREE TIMES PER PAGE AND LAUGHED AT EVERY OTHER MOMENT. THE HEROES BOUGHT ME THROUGH THE FULL GAMUT OF HUMAN EMOTIONS JOY SADNESS MELANCHOLY HUMOUR ENNUI. MY LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.

Ok, is he gone? Cool. Well, actually, I really did like The Heroes a lot, but we don’t want it getting to Joe’s head do we?

The Heroes is the second First Law standalone book, although it’s significantly less stand-alone-y than Best Served Cold, which I imagine would have stood up pretty well even without having read he original trilogy. The Heroes feels much more like a continuation of the main series, picking up with minor characters from the original trilogy for a climactic battle in the North. Black Dow, King of the North after his betrayal of the Bloody-Nine at the end of Last Argument of Kings, has been waging war on the Union, with the two forces meeting in battle in a stretch of open land near the town of Osrung. The Heroes takes place over three days, focusing entirely on the battle itself. Our main protagonists with the Northmen are Curnden Craw, a Named Man who fights for Dow, one of the few honest men in the North, Beck, the son of the great warrior Shama Heartless who seeks glory in battle and Prince Calder, the Machiavellian son of Bethod, the former King of the North. With the Union we have Bremer dan Gorst, the King’s former bodyguard, dispatched to the North after failing to protect the King during the events of Best Served Cold. We also have Tunny, a comic relief war profiteer and Finree, the ambitious daughter of Lord Marshal Kroy.

With Best Served Cold and The Heroes, you can really see an author trying to challenge himself, to approach epic fantasy in a different way. The First Law book with the most typically ‘fantasy’ storyline was Before They Are Hanged, and in retrospect I think it is the weakest of the series that I’ve read so far. Where it’s become the norm to consciously reject Tolkein-esque tropes recently, with A Song of Ice and Fire being the most clear example, I can’t think of another author whose weaved that rejection so well into the actual structure of their works. By limiting himself to a three day scope, Abercrombie tells a different kind of story, one which doesn’t rely on the sense of epic which fuels so much fantasy, instead being significantly more grounded and gritty. This is also an extremely thematically tight book which, unsurprisingly, focuses on heroism. The question as to what makes a hero, what a hero even is and why anyone would want to be one is front and centre in this book, with every character grappling with this central question in some way.

The humour and brutal action are all there, with Abercrombie furthering developing his own vivid style. There are few authors like this in fantasy, with many going for the Brandon Sanderson approach of basic prose supporting the plot (which is not a bad thing at all, I love Sanderson), but Abercrombie is developing a voice of his own. The biggest irritation in The Heroes is Abercrombie’s slight propensity to repeat himself. There are only so many times that a character can muse on the ultimate horror and pointlessness of war without getting repetitive. Still, this is perhaps a necessary risk when writing a book as narratively and thematically tight as this one.

I really enjoyed the new crop of characters in The Heroes, as well as familiar faces from the previous books. I was particularly happy to see the return of Caul Shivers from Best Served Cold, having been a big fan of his character arc in previous books. Many of the main POV characters played minor roles in the previous books, and Abercrombie’s turnaround of these characters is fascinating to behold. The revelation that sneering bastard from the originals Prince Calder is actually quite likeable was as good a switch-around as the similar revelation George R.R. Martin made about Jaime Lannister in A Storm of Swords. Similarly, learning that Bremer dan Gorst is in fact a seething cauldron of rage and resentment was interesting as well. There is something of a lack of decent female characters, but given the setting that’s perhaps understandable. I just miss Monzacarro Murcatto, who’s seriously one of the best fantasy protagonists ever.

The Heroes is another great instalment in the First Law world and an interesting literary experiment to boot. Overall, I preferred the scale of the revenge epic Best Served Cold, which matched the epic with the intimate pretty much perfectly, but nonetheless it’s always a pleasure to dip back into Abercrombie’s brutal bloody world.download

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

As much as I enjoyed the First Law trilogy, I couldn’t really muster a huge amount of enthusiasm for this book. Perhaps it was the truly horrible title. Despite that old adage regarding books, covers and judging, it’s difficult to not get a worrying vibe from a book with a cringe worthy name like Best Served Cold, and the generic cover art didn’t exactly engender confidence either. I was seriously wrong. Best Served Cold isn’t just a gloriously entertaining novel, It’s comfortably Abercrombie’s best that I’ve read so far.

This novel takes place in Styria, which is essentially Italy, and takes place not long after the conclusion of The Last Argument of Kings. Although there are important links to the original trilogy, it is by and large its own beast. Best Served Cold is the story of Monzacarro Murcatto, a feared mercenary in the employment of Grand Duke Orso, who has been steadily conquering the lands of his neighbours to become the first King of a unified Styria in many years. Standing against him is the League of Eight, and Monza, alongside her brother Benna, has returned to Orso’s region of Talins after destroying one of them. Orso, fearing the popularity of Monza and Benna among the people, murders Benna and throws Monza from the window of his castle. She miraculously survives after being rescued and healed by a mysterious figure, and swears vengeance for her brother on Orso, and six others involved in the murder. Monza recruits allies and cuts a bloody swath across Styria in pursuit of her revenge.

Best Served Cold is one of the best structured and paced books that I’ve ever read. Fantasy is a genre prone to excess and unnecessary length, and whilst Best Served Cold is certainly a very long book, the sense of urgency doesn’t let up for a second. What Abercrombie does brilliantly is to continually raise the stakes as Monza moves from target to target, with early parts of the books having a distinctly seedy and grotty feeling, rendezvousing with the criminal undergrounds, before raising the stakes to entire cities and the nation of Styria. The message that the nobles who rule are equally terrible to the petty murderers in the streets is clear, making Best Served Cold one of those rare books which manages to have a great message whilst also telling a fantastic story.

As with the First Law books, Best Served Cold is savagely funny. Abercrombie has a really dark sense of humour, and although he’s very good at deploring senseless violence (and, my God, is there a lot of senseless violence), he is also willing to take a step back and simply marvel at the ridiculousness of it all. A brief mention has to go out to the sex scenes, which are magnificently terrible. They are seriously the most off-puttingly realistic and unpleasant sex scenes which I have ever read. I don’t know if this was intentional, but every single one had me in peals of laughter, so it doesn’t really matter, I enjoyed them either way.

Although the struggle to be a better person is one of the central themes of the book, with almost every protagonist musing on their own morality, there’s a good lack of authorial judgement on these characters. We’re not invited to hate them, or judge them, but simply to enjoy them as brilliantly rounded characters. Monza is a fantastic protagonist, and helps to make up for the shortfall in good female characters in the original trilogy. I also enjoyed the Northman Shivers, who fans of the original trilogy will remember, who travelled to Styria in an effort to become a better man. Although he swore vengeance and hated Logen Ninefingers of the original trilogy, he steadily becomes more and more like him, and it’s fascinating to see. Of course, the standout character is Nicomo Cosca, who is rightfully promoted from his supporting role in the original trilogy. I love characters that are gleefully unhypocritical, who know exactly who they are and have no intention of improving. Cosca is gleefully entertaining in this capacity.

Best Served Cold is one of my favourite books in a long time, a gloriously entertaining read which happily justifies its length. If you enjoyed the First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold is even better.BestServed.jpg.size-230

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Last Argument of Kings is the third, final and best instalment in Joe Abercrombie’s enjoyably dark and twisted ‘First Law’ trilogy, although in many ways it feels like the beginning of a larger story. If all you want is plot resolution, there’s a huge amount left hanging, but it wraps up many of the arcs from the first two books beautifully and is overall a hugely satisfying and enjoyable conclusion. Endings are hard, and few completely nail them, but Last Argument of Kings really does.

Last Argument of Kings picks up just as Jezal, Logen, Ferro and Bayaz return to Adua after their failed journey to the Old Empire to recover The Seed in Before They Are Hanged. Logen makes his way back North, re-joining his old crew, now under the leadership of the Dogman, to ally with the Union (and Collem West) in their war against Bethod. Jezal’s epiphany after his scarring in the Old Empire has led him to seek a simple life of happiness with Ardee West, but the machinations of Bayaz leave him with a greater role to play. The murder of Prince Reynault has caused an election for the heir to the throne, and Sand dan Glokta uses his terrible skills to ensure the election of a candidate who is amenable to his master, Arch Lector Sult. With a war in the North, the threat of Gurkish attack and a fermenting peasant’s revolt, Adua and the Union is in an extremely precarious state.

After the wider focus of Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings is a much more focused and tightly structured book, with the lion’s share of the story taking place in Adua. Although I enjoyed seeing more of the world in the previous book, I did not enjoy how both the Old Empire and Dagoska storylines ended with a whimper. In many ways, they felt like time filling, but that is certainly not the case with this book. It’s a long book, but fast paced and compulsively readable. I enjoyed the first two books, but it’s Last Argument of Kings which has thoroughly cemented me as a Joe Abercrombie fan.

One thing that I really like about Abercrombie is his twistedly dark sense of humour, which crops up at the strangest moments. Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t any belly laughs, but it’s not uncommon for things so horrible to happen that the only way response is a grim chuckle. He switches over to tragedy well though, and the dialogue is naturalistic and strong. He’s improved hugely in action scenes. The scene in The Blade Itself where Logen and Ferro were chased by the Practicals of the Inquisition through Adua was pretty painful to read, but things improved in Before They Are Hanged and have reached epic status in Last Argument of Kings. Abercrombie’s writing has improved with each book, and it started in a pretty strong place to begin with!

Abercrombie has an interesting approach to characterisation. The only protagonist that could truly be called a good person is the Dogman, with each of his protagonists containing at least one massive flaw. Before They Are Hanged flirted with the idea of redeeming his awful characters. It suggested that the twisted Glokta may still have some humanity in him, that Jezal was capable of more than his pathetic selfishness, that Logen could stop killing in droves. Last Argument of Kings is less optimistic, and generally the characters fail to redeem themselves fully and revert to their own ways. All of the characters are aware that they are bad people, and seek to be better, but none of them are brave or strong enough to do it. Redemption is something which, if handled well (think Jaime Lannister), can be so fascinating, but if handled poorly can be confusing and unnatural (Thomas Covenant, or to an extent, Darth Vader). Abercrombie offers a sort of anti-redemption for his characters, that doesn’t take away from the complexity and nuance of their personalities, but refuses to give his readers a simple waving-away of his characters darker sides.

Last Argument of Kings is a brilliant ending to a series which I haven’t always been completely sure on. He’s announced a second trilogy, which I can’t wait for, but until then I have the three spin-offs set in the same world to tide me over. download (3)

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