Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Joe Abercrombie: doin' it right

A few weeks ago I read Joe Abercrombie's novel "Best Served Cold," which somewhere or other I'd heard reviewed as "blood-soaked fantasy." Or, maybe that's just the phrase I conjured up because the dustjacket was literally spattered with blood.

Alright, the blood spatter was graphical, but still. I loved the book. It was far and away one of the best and most original fantasies I had read in some time. Abercrombie writes some of the best characters I have ever read, his action is skull-gripping, and his humour hilarious. In fact, Abercrombie is so good that I actually bought his new tome, "The Heroes." I haven't bought a book in, like, a year. But I had to buy this one - because Joe Abercrombie wrote it.

What is particularly "original" about Abercrombie, though, isn't his settings, or his characters, or his stories per se. There's a lot more "creativity," anyway, in a weird fantasy like a Jeff VanderMeer or China Miéville book. The genius of Abercrombie's work is that it is in many ways entirely "standard," predictable fantasy, but the edge he brings to it is so much more modern than pretty much every other ("modern") writer of epic/heroic/sword and sorcery fantasy.

To wit: Having been greatly enamoured of "Best Served Cold," I was reading some interviews with Joe and discovered he'd contributed a story to an anthology by Lou Anders and Jonathan Strahan, "Swords and Dark Magic: The New Sword and Sorcery."

Whoa, thought I, I have stumbled upon a repository of literature the locus of which Joe Abercrombie falls beneath. This book will change my life.

NO IT DIDN'T. Let me disclaim that the next sentence is not a condemnation of the anthology or the editors in general, but: the phrase "The New Sword and Sorcery" is lies, drivel, poppycock. "Swords and Dark Magic" is an anthology of sword and sorcery. Really, really good sword and sorcery; I enjoyed, for example, C. J. Cherryh's contribution. But there is little in this book that's going to blow the hinges off the Moorcockian-Harrisonian paradigm (indeed, there's an Elric story in the anthology). There are but two exceptions, in my opinion; stories that really smell like "swords and dark magic." Namely, Abercrombie's "The Fool Jobs," and Steven Erikson's "The Goats of Glory."

What was different about these stories? There's true grit to them. Granted, there's a lot of true grit to Moorcock. But not quite so true. A lot of classic sword and sorcery has a fairy-tale quality to it. And what's strange is that this fairiness is quite peculiar to sword and sorcery, not being replicated by, say, epic fantasy: The Wheel of Time has much greater "truth value" as a secondary-world than Melniboné.

Anyway, the point is not to rag on sword and sorcery, which I enjoy (or at least have enjoyed), but rather to point out that an artist like Abercrombie has, in my opinion, overcome the tendency of much sword and sorcery to lend an air of unreality to its pages and thereby opened the door to a whole new way of seeing fantasy (granted, I haven't read any George R. R. Martin yet, so I may be, y'know, jumping the artillery piece). Abercrombie's characters and settings are intensely real; his characters do intensely real things. Magic, not surprisingly, plays a small - but insanely awesome - role in his worlds. Steven Erikson, though a much bigger fan of the "sorcery" side of things, nonetheless creates worlds that work in a similar way: if you drag your fingers across the pages, they might just bleed.

Granted, I am terribly biased: if Abercrombie is my new number one fantasy writer, he has displaced Erikson as my previously-number-one fantasy writer. But they are my favourites because they write so much awesomer (indeed, awesomest) fiction than other fantasists.

ALL THIS IS TO SAY: I'm looking for more swords and dark magic; or, rather, to follow up the specifically Abercrombian taste, "swords and split skulls" fantasy. I still like the old styles, of course; but I tend to get bored quickly.

Which is precisely why I must now depart and read some more Joe Abercrombie - before New Joe Abercrombie - Zombie Joe Abercrombie, as it were - appears on the literary scene.

Keep your swords sharp and your strife strifey,

-bn

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