Tag Archives: joe abercrombie

Reading Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

Another review from Vector, circa 2011. (I will compile a proper bibliography one day, honest!)


The Heroes Joe Abercrombie
(Gollancz, 2011)

Earlier this year [2011], in a blog post entitled ‘The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists’ Leo Grin rounded on Joe Abercrombie, accusing him of belonging to a group of writers who were ‘clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage’. For Grin, ‘our mythic heritage’ comprises the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, both of whom he considers to be vastly superior to Abercrombie. Grin claimed not to be interested in fantasy per se, but in ‘something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old’. Clearly, Grin has a very particular view of what should fantasy consist of, and equally clearly, Joe Abercrombie’s writing doesn’t fit that template (although Abercrombie himself acknowledges Tolkien and Howard as influences, to which I would add Fritz Leiber’s Fafrhd and Grey Mouser stories). However, it is surely going too far to suggest that Abercrombie is contributing ‘another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing’, employing ‘cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism’.

In fact, Abercrombie is doing nothing of the sort. Instead, I would argue that he is doing something that Tolkien simply couldn’t, given the social mores when he was writing and his own literary background as a medievalist, and that is to provide the authentic voices of the ‘poor bloody infantry’ and the villains, voices that are crucially missing from Lord of the Rings except in the crudes of examples. Tolkien does not glorify war but he does ennoble it; after all, it provides the refining fire for many of his characters. They are also positioned within a clear moral framework which shapes their behaviour throughout. There is little room for moral ambiguity, which mostly manifests itself in unwise decisions made for what appear to be the best of reasons. However, with the exception of Sam Gamgee, moral angst is the province of the burghers and the nobility.

One of the most striking things about Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy was his ability to persuade the reader to take a sympathetic interest in the most unlikely people, a prime example being Sand dan Glotka, the swordsman turned torturer. Most memorable of all were Logen Nine-Fingers and his group of mercenary fighters, Named Men such as the Dogman, Harding Grim and Rudd Threetrees, hardened by years of fighting for whoever would pay most. They are skilled fighters who approach battle simply as a job to be done but they have a well developed if idiosyncratic moral code.

In The Heroes, Abercrombie tightens the focus, concentrating on the three days of battle that ensue when the King of the Union goes to war against the Northmen, now led by Black Dow, another former member of Logen’s dozen. The Dogman, meanwhile, is fighting on the side of the Union. And if reference to the Union prompts thoughts of the American Civil War, the model for this engagement would seem to be, in part, Gettysburg, with the Union forces, confusingly, taking on the Confederate role in this fictional encounter.

Abercrombie’s war is anything but glorious spectacle. Instead he gives the reader a polyphonic account of battle, with voices and thoughts from all levels of the two opposing armies, woven into an extended meditation on the nature of warfare itself, and the different ways in which it is fought. The Union forces are run according to a strict hierarchy and fights in a highly structured way that cannot react easily to sudden changes in the battle plan. The army’s leaders have been appointed not according to their abilities as soldiers but through patronage. As a result the men are ill-led and the army makes many avoidable mistakes. The Northmen’s army has a loose-knit structure, with small groups of men who can respond quickly to a situation but who are less easily controlled as a large group. They are, however, led by men who have earned respect, and indeed fear, for their fighting skills. There is a clear sense that Black Dow and his cohorts have some idea of what they’re supposed to be doing.

Yet, Abercrombie shows that the warriors of both sides are beset by similar doubts and worries. Corporal Tunny has learned to survive by getting the raw recruits to do his work and would never dream of admitting that he cares about them, yet poignantly we see him writing secretly to the families of those who died to assure them their sons died good and noble deaths. Beck, son of a Named Man, goes to war filled with high hopes of earning glory, only to realise that he simply is not cut out for the fighting life. Craw, Black Dow’s Second wonders if he is growing too old to fight; Prince Calder, who seeks peace, discovers he has a talent for strategy and treachery, and Bremer dan Gorst is heedless of danger as he expiates his sins through battle. The inept are often rewarded for their stupidity while the competent remain unnoticed. And fighters like Craw and the other Named Men know that the next battle will look pretty much like the last one.

Once again, Abercrombie challenges the received notion of what a fantasy epic ought to look like in what is his darkest novel so far. There is little glory to be found in this epic battle, only profound gratitude at having survived. Abercrombie’s characters continue to find a cynical humour in their situation, not to mention looking out for those closest to them. Abercrombie’s war may be less ennobling than Tolkien’s but his portrayal of it possesses an honesty that Tolkien himself would, I think, have recognised, even if Grin continues to dismiss it as unacceptably nihilistic and inappropriate material for a fantasy novel. I for one am happy to skip the ‘mythopoeic subcreation’ in favour of this stark portrayal of the consequences of war.

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Archive – Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold
Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 654pp, hb)

A man gets off a boat in a southern port. He was once a mercenary, but the war is over and he’s sick of violence. His friends are dead, and no one needs a fighter in peace-time. He wants a clean break with the past, a better life – food in his stomach, money in his pocket, a place to stay. He’s sold most of his gear to pay for his passage, but now he’s arrived, he finds that his friend, the merchant, has lied to him. There are no jobs for the taking, no one wants to know about a poor man from the north. He can’t even speak the language. He’s trying hard to lead a good life, but the odds are stacked against him. He steals to live, he fights to protect himself. When someone finally offers him a job, doing the only thing he really knows how to do, what alternative does he have but to say yes?

The economic migrant’s story is a familiar one; the news is full of people who have tried to make a better life for themselves, only to run into trouble because someone lied to them. Do they continue trying to make a new life, or do they stick with what they know? This is the dilemma that Joe Abercrombie presents the reader with; realistically, we know that Shivers will make a deal with the mysterious stranger, in part because this is what inevitably happens in fantasy novels, but as Abercrombie shows, Shivers’ hand is forced, because, however much he wants to lead a better life, the odds are already stacked too high against him, and he needs to survive. Thus, this transaction becomes not simply a fictional calculation, but an indication of an author’s awareness of how life moves beneath the surface of a novel, something that Abercrombie is very good at representing.

In some respects, Monza Murcatto is no better off than Shivers. While he was a Named Man who fought alongside Rudd Threetrees and Harding Grim, Murcatto has earned her own kind of fame as a mercenary in the south, acquiring the soubriquet, the Snake of Talins, for her perceived treachery and brutality. Her victories have made her too popular for her employers’ liking, and thus they sought to dispose of her. Impossibly, she has survived being stabbed and thrown down a mountainside. Her beloved brother, Benno, was less fortunate, and Monza is seeking revenge – no less than the deaths of all those involved in his murder. However, as quickly becomes apparent, Monza is driven as much by her childhood experiences, trying to bring up her younger brother after her father’s death, and the loss of their crops to raiders. Killing for food and money was easier than working the land. Again, there’s the calculation in the face of heavily stacked odds, and the inevitable decision about the best way to survive. Monza’s life as a mercenary may have so far been rather more glamorous and profitable than Shivers’ but the motivations are very similar.

If Abercrombie cuts across the grain of fantasy characterisation by loading Shivers and Monza with realistic emotional and economic problems, he also seems to enjoy undermining some of the dominant genre tropes. Thus, Monza and Shivers set off on their quest, in almost picaresque fashion, with only the vaguest plan, and a set of less than ideal companions. These include Friendly, the mass-murderer with an obsessive-compulsive fascination with numbers, and Morveer the dandyish master poisoner, in his own way as mercenary as the rest of them, but as he always insists, the best at his craft.

Morveer is a particularly interesting character for a number of reasons. Alongside his insistence on artistry – set against the brutality of some of the killings in the novel, it is difficult to argue against Morveer’s elegance in killing, but the end result is much the same – he is a man who represents himself as a rationalist. He strongly dislikes anything that smacks of magic, although in the eyes of some his remarkable feats as a poisoner make him appear to be a magician. He is, to all intents and purposes, a scientist, convinced that everything has an explanation if he can only reach it. Although he possesses a certain kind of imagination, developed to a high degree when it comes to solving certain problems of his craft, he lacks the rather more open mind of Shivers, who welcomes logic as much as the next man, but who is prepared to accept that some things defy rational explanation, and to deal as he finds, without worrying about an explanation. In the end, a failure to accept what he can’t explain is what will let Morveer down, but he provides another useful counterpoint to the traditional epic fantasy’s belief system.

Clearly, only their very peculiarity as a group saves Monza’s crew from early detection, and Abercrombie extracts a great deal of wry entertainment from their incessant squabbling as they travel. Abercrombie’s earlier novels were notable for their rather enjoyable dark humour – one thinks particularly of Glotka, the torturer, and his deliciously cynical outlook on life – and in this novel, his eye for absurdity persists. This in turn ensures that the reader is ill-prepared for what happens as Monza carries out several theoretically set-piece revenge killings.

This is intended to be a stand-alone novel, but Abercrombie reintroduces several peripheral characters from the First Law trilogy, again reinforcing the sense of a life beyond the page. These include Vitari, Glotka’s one-time assistant. The ‘cripple’ himself, alas, does not make an appearance this time, but instead, and almost shockingly, we catch a glimpse of Vitari as mother alongside Vitari as killer. Again, Abercrombie reminds us that killers have feelings too, though it seems difficult to imagine that a torturer might harbour such tender feelings towards her lover and her children. More significantly, we also become more deeply acquainted with the flamboyant and perpetually drunk Cosca, mercenary and conman, and one-time father-figure to Monza and Benno.

Cosca’s reappearance shifts the mood of the novel as if reminding Monza of her true vocation, and the nature of her desire for revenge changes as she begins to realise how much she has been misled. The question remains as to how much Monza is being manipulated by those around her, how much she allows herself to be manipulated ,and how much of it is unconscious acceptance of her due, so to speak. Monza’s life as a mercenary has been as much about glamour and about visibility as it has been about excellent fighting skills. There is no doubt that she is a brilliant swordswoman, but politics was her undoing the first time, and the suggestion is that it will be her undoing a second time. For Shivers, whose only desire as a fighter has ever been to get the job done and go home, this jockeying for political position remains mysterious and unpalatable. Even his own revelation about his relationship with his brother, while it mirrors Monza’s new recognition of the kind of man her brother was, is a more sturdy and practical understanding. It by no means gives away the plot to say that the couple’s ways will diverge, but the nature of that divergence says much about the ways in which they need to survive. In such a situation there are, and perhaps mercifully, no true happy ever afters, merely compromises of greater or lesser magnitude.

Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy was, I felt, fantasy with a difference, in that he didn’t so much reinvent familiar tropes as skew them, showing their flaws while also playing with them to produce something at once affectionate and respectful but at the same time refreshing old ideas, as if saying ‘we know how this works, but let’s enjoy it and see what else we can do with it’. It was rather like being at a family reunion where one has to deal with all the more dreadful tics of one’s relations’ attitudes and behaviour while recognising that they are doing their best, and anyway they’re still family and they mean well. Best Served Cold continues in the same vein. Abercrombie’s narrative twists and turns, playing with but also against the reader’s expectations. His characters do likewise; as a result it is easier initially to identify with them, but their realistic unpredictability means that it’s almost impossible to determine what will eventually happen. Rather, in fact, like life, and for me, one of the great pleasures of Joe Abercrombie’s fiction is that his characters are lifelike.