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Friday Reads: Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

About this time last year I reviewed the first volume in Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself, having enjoyed it immensely. However with all the other demands on my time since I signed my own book deal, it’s taken me since then to get around to the second volume, Before They Are Hanged.

Warning: some spoilers!

Picking up where the first book left off, Before They Are Hanged follows four storylines: Bayaz’s expedition into the far west, accompanied by Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar and Ferro Maljinn; Glokta’s posting to the southern frontier city of Dagoska, under threat from being retaken by the Gurkish; Major West’s campaign on the Union’s northern border, as the warlord Bethod pushes south; and Logen’s former companions travelling south into the Union, trying to avoid Bethod’s armies. It is very much a middle volume of a trilogy in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings, with the main purpose of moving its characters around on the map, presumably towards a final confrontation. Only Glokta’s storyline is neatly self-contained, bringing him back to Adua after the fall of Dagoska.

As before, Glokta is still my favourite character; he’s as cynical and self-deprecating as ever, unable to accept that he retains some shreds of decency even though he behaves in a decidedly chivalrous manner towards the women he encounters. I also enjoyed Jezal’s character arc, as the privations of the trek across the western continent beat this spoilt city-bred brat into a humbler, more mature man—albeit still with enough vanity to be mortified by his battle scars! Logen and Ferro are growing on me, as is the Dogman, but Bayaz remains an arrogant, unknowable figure who leads more through abject fear of his powers than from any inspirational qualities. Abercrombie’s prose is ironically at its most shaky when describing his best character: Glokta is sometimes little more than a collection of mannerisms, only rescued from tiresomeness by his dry wit. In contrast, the narrative voice of this novel is at its strongest in the chapters from the point of view of the Dogman, perhaps because the northern warriors are closest in speech to Abercrombie’s native Lancashire accent/dialect.

Whilst this is mostly an open-ended narrative encompassing several entirely separate storylines, there are little touches that tie it all together, such as the contrast between Jezal’s ability to grow and change versus Prince Ladisla’s total, tragic inability to do so. Another thematic link is how impulsive acts that make a lot of sense at the time can turn out to have unexpected consequences way down the line. I won’t spoil the major plot twists but in Abercrombie’s world, as in Middle Earth, the fate of thousands often rests on the decision to kill or spare an individual. In fact in this volume I felt Tolkien’s influence very strongly; we have a wizard leading a disparate group of adventurers across a continent, a beseiged city, ancient ruins, a mage-created race of violent humanoids who can be slaughtered with impunity…the parallels are numerous and sometimes a little too obvious.

Whilst both Abercrombie’s and GRRM’s books are often described as “gritty”, I for one find the former far more palatable than the latter, largely because of the difference in attitudes to women characters. In A Song of Ice and Fire, rape and other violence against women is commonplace and (more importantly) rarely punished; in The First Law, the opposite is true. Of course bad things sometimes happen to good people, but the overall tone is upbeat. For all their violence, Abercrombie’s novels are not “grimdark”, at least not in this reader’s estimation—and for that I’m heartily grateful.

Given the length of my TBR list, it will probably be another year before I get around to reading the final volume in the trilogy, but since that’s about the same pace that Joe’s books are being published, it’s not really a problem. On the contrary, it’s something to look forward to…

Book review: Songs of the Earth, by Elspeth Cooper

I like to vary my reading diet a little, and having come across the charming Ms Cooper on Twitter and discovered her to be a fellow aficionado of the blade, I couldn’t resist her debut fantasy novel, Songs of the Earth, published earlier this year by Gollancz.

Gair has been raised by the Church to be a knight of the Goddess, but when he is discovered to be hiding magical powers, he is sentenced to death as a witch. Fortunately for Gair he has an unknown benefactor amongst the religious leaders; instead of being executed he is branded on the hand and banished, though not without one of the more fanatical churchmen setting a witchfinder on his trail…

Songs of the Earth is very traditional high fantasy, a tale of a young man who is taken under the wing of a kindly (if sometimes overly secretive) old wizard, comes into his magical powers, and helps to save his new wizarding community from an attack by a psychopathic former pupil of his master. So far, so Harry Potter meets Star Wars. What lifts this novel above such simplistic comparisons are the vivid descriptions of the natural world: this is a writer whose love of the wild places of Britain shines through in many a scene (Cooper lives in Northumberland). The clean and cosy island community of gaeden (wizards) reminded me a great deal of Earthsea, and also of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar, and I think fans of those books will find a lot to enjoy.

For me, though, it was a little too black-and-white. The protagonist, Gair, is a naive 21-year-old who comes across more like a teenager than a grown man (understandable, perhaps, given his literally cloistered upbringing), and of course he just happens to be great with a sword as well as the most powerful magical talent his tutors have seen in many years. His nemeses, meanwhile, are blacker than black: an irredeemably twisted mage whose motivation seems to be to destroy the world just because he can, and an equally twisted cleric with a taste for torturing young men. Some of the scenes with the latter show that Cooper can write dark and cynical when she wants to, and I for one would have liked to see more of this side of her work.

As a debut novel, Songs of the Earth shows an impressive talent for writing description and action somewhat hampered by a predictable story, and I hope that having tested her fledgling wings, Cooper will gain the confidence to tackle something more demanding in subsequent books.

Book review: The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

Back in 2007, when I was starting to revise what would become The Alchemist of Souls, I picked up a couple of books that sounded from reviews like they were in a similar vein. One of these (The Lies of Locke Lamora) I read straight away, the other – The Blade Itself – sat neglected on my shelf until a few weeks ago. I am now regretting that delay.

The thing that put me off for a long time was that one of the viewpoint characters, Glokta, is an inquisitor. A torturer, not to put too fine a point on it. And having been so grossed out by a torture scene in The Lies of Locke Lamora that I had nightmares, I wasn’t about to launch into another book that might do the same. Thankfully Abercrombie has a much lighter touch than Lynch, and it’s a credit to his writing ability that Glokta is one of my favourite characters in the book.

Spoiler note: I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers, but it’s proved impossible to explain why I like this book without at least a little detail!

The Blade Itself is in some respects a typical first volume of an epic fantasy. It introduces a cast of colourful characters, including the obligatory white-bearded wizard, a huge “barbarian” and a handsome, sword-wielding nobleman, and ends by sending them off on a quest – but none of these characters is much like the clichés you’re familiar with. Also, the wizard and his quest are practically a subplot in this first volume, most of which is taken up with the political machinations in the city of Adua, as the Union (a large kingdom somewhat resembling Georgian England) teeters on the brink of war.

To be honest, it was the main plot that really caught my interest and attention; it’s a dark fantasy-of-manners – think Jane Austen meets The Borgias – packed with intrigue and humour. This part of the story rests on the shoulders of two very different characters: the aforementioned Glokta, and Jezal dan Luthar, the self-centred young nobleman who is destined to be dragged into the magus Bayaz’s quest.

Sand dan Glokta is a lonely, broken man, a former fencing champion who, during the last war against the Ghurkul Empire, was captured and tortured beyond the endurance of most men. Faced with a choice between going home to his doting mother’s country estate, or working for the Inquisition using the skills he learnt from his tormenters, Glokta chooses the latter. He is set by his superior to root out corruption amongst the merchant class, and uncovers a conspiracy that could threaten the fragile peace with the Ghurkul Empire to the south, even as the Union is about to go to war with the northern barbarians.

Jezal dan Luthar is one of the latest hopefuls entered into the same fencing contest that Glokta won in his youth. Unfortunately Jezal would rather drink and play cards with his fellow officers, to the despair of his trainers. However when Jezal falls in love with the sister of his friend Major West, he discovers new motivation…

Abercrombie’s strength is most definitely in his characters, all of whom are complex and, in their own way, sympathetic, despite some pretty deep flaws. I particularly liked Jezal’s objet d’amour, Ardee West, who starts out as a vivacious cross between Lizzie Bennett and Mary Crawford, but is revealed to be a much more complex (and, somewhat inevitably, tragic) character. And then of course there’s Glokta, whose dry humour and stoicism in the face of constant pain (both physical, from his war wounds, and the emotional impact of the contempt of others) makes him totally sympathetic despite the horrible things he has to do for his job. Thankfully Abercrombie skips over the gruesome details, knowing how to give you just enough information to be creeped out rather than nauseated – something I wish Lynch was better at!

If anything, the Adua sections were so enjoyable that I found the more traditional epic fantasy parts rather dull in comparison. Maybe I’m just jaded by a lifetime of reading such things and, more recently, seeing amazing CGI in movies, but for me the Big Magic felt at odds with the gritty realism of the rest of the story. I suspect I’m out of tune with the majority of the fantasy audience, however, who seem to demand this kind of thing, since practically every epic fantasy has this kind of buildup from the mundane to the ZOMG SFX’n’dragons!!1! (Not that there are any dragons in The Blade Itself, thank the gods.)

Some readers may find the complex, multi-threaded narrative hard to follow, and I confess I found the conspiracy plot particularly hard to keep a handle on because of all the switching back and forth, but on the other hand the writing was so assured, it was that rare kind of book where I could just sit back and enjoy the ride, without worrying where the author was heading.

In conclusion: excellent stuff, and I’ll definitely be picking up the second volume – whilst hoping the epic doesn’t overwhelm the intrigue!

Torture in fantasy – how much is justified?

Last week I blogged about fantasy noir, mainly in the context of it epitomising the 21st century love of the mashup. Noir brings in themes and tropes from other genres, particularly crime and thrillers, so it’s inevitable there should be a thick strand of violence in the mix. Worryingly though, at least for me, is the preponderance of torture in many of these books.

Firstly, let me say that I understand that fiction cannot shy away from the ugliness of life altogether, otherwise it would be bland, undemanding fluff, suitable only for very young children and those of a nervous disposition. And in far too many human cultures, torture and cruelty are, and have been, rife. Note also that I’m not saying such material shouldn’t be published. Each to his own, and all that. What does bother me as a reader is when writers take evident and frankly unhealthy relish in that ugliness.  So, if we cannot avoid the topic altogether, what is the role of torture in a supposedly escapist genre like fantasy?

For my examples I shall (coincidentally, perhaps) take the two books I mentioned last week: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn. Note that there will be minor spoilers in the following discussion!

The former book contains (IMHO) a brief example of what is often known as “torture porn”. The hero, Locke Lamora, is visiting the headquarters of the big crime boss of the city, and to show us how utterly despicable the fellow is, Lynch proceeds to describe the torture and death of a minor criminal. The process involves a bag of ground glass being placed over the man’s head and its contents rubbed into his flesh, and is dwelt on in such vivid, excruciating detail that I literally had nightmares after reading it. It’s the only really gruesome scene in the book, and is there purely to raise the stakes by making us fear that something similar might happen to Locke. I suppose it served its purpose, but frankly I would have enjoyed the book more if the details of the torture had been left to the reader’s imagination. I think what really irks me, though, is the extreme change of tone in a book I was previously enjoying. The blurb and opening chapters promised Oliver Twist meets Ocean’s Eleven, and suddenly I get sadistic horror instead.

Contrast this approach with that of Chadbourn, in his book set in Elizabethan London. His hero Will Swyfte attends the torture on the rack of an enemy and is shown as complicit in the man’s torment, even though he is not personally responsible for it. Swyfte himself is later tortured by the fae, using a form of waterboarding (who knew the Unseelie Court were so forward-looking?). The former event shows us the moral depths to which Swyfte has sunk in his fanatical pursuit of those who stole his beloved Jenny, and the latter puts his devotion to his cause to the test – but in neither case is the torture described in such gruesome detail as to be distressing to the reader.

Apart from this one difference, the two books are not that dissimilar in tone. Both are pitched as ripping yarns, a series of high adventures by less-than-perfect heroes in a flawed society. In other words, pure entertainment. And torture porn is not entertainment, at least not to this reader. It makes it difficult for me to recommend Lynch, particularly to female friends (many of whom are a great deal more squeamish than I am), and reluctant to buy any more of his books. By contrast, Chadbourn maintains the delicate balance between historical reality, noir grittiness and tasteful writing; the result is a much more enjoyable read, and I look forward to the publication of the sequel.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve taken Chadbourn’s lead in my own novel. I needed my hero to be interrogated by the bad guys, and I had already hinted that their methods were brutal. So, I had to come up with a way to cause great pain to the hero whilst making readers (and myself) wince in sympathy rather than turning stomachs. As for how I did it – you’ll just have to wait until the book comes out!

In conclusion, I think torture (like rape) is a sensitive subject that, treated well, adds depth to a realistically gritty novel. But it needs to match the tone of the rest of the book, otherwise it comes across as gratuitous and self-indulgent, and can lose you readers.