Yes.

Yes.  With his First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie easily became my favorite fantasy author currently writing.  With Best Served Cold he entertained me tremendously but left me wanting more.  Now, while I know there are some who will disagree with me, I feel that with The Heroes, Abercrombie has published his best work.

The First Law trilogy had its flaws, that I will admit, and I think Joe Abercrombie would agree.  Even with them, though, it was far and away my favorite piece of fantasy writing from a contemporary author.  He matured in BSC, but there was nothing particularly original about the tale – though a darn good revenge tale it was with despicable and memorable characters.  The other night I was flipping channels and Robocop came on.  The original.  Before I knew it, I was 11 years old again watching a forbidden movie and loving it.  BSC is a fantasy version of Robocop.  Lots of fun; not particularly original.

The Heroes, however, I think is very original, well conceived, well executed, with amazing characters, fantastic scenes, unstoppable action, and a harsh gray morality.  I read it slow at first to savor it and because I didn’t want it to end.  I kept waiting for the Bloody Nine to show up.  Then I couldn’t put it down and when it was over…I was sad and elated.  It was awesome!  I love how Abercrombie takes fairly minor characters from other books and turns them into major characters in each new book.  That really adds depth to his world, as well as realism.  Each of these people have a story.  I appreciate how King Jezal was a character through Bremer’s letters, but that was it.  (I didn’t particularly like Jezal by the end of the FL trilogy.)  And the flip side, I love how Bremer came into his own as a character.

But the real joy, for me, in reading Abercrombie comes from the stories of the Northmen.  I think a lot of people would probably agree.  I’m not sure how he visualizes them, but to me, they’re a cross between everything ferocious and everything sad about the American Indians and the Vikings.  The batch we get the pleasure of reading about in the Heroes only solidifies the Northmen as probably my favorite people in current fantasy writing.  I love them!  Their brutishness, their humor (Whirrun of Bligh?  I mean, come on, that dude is awesome, scary, and hilarious!)  I love how flawed they are, how real.  I love how they all put on a bold face but inside they’re wondering: Is all this shit worth it?  I love the coward Beck and how he earns his name.  I love how you have to earn a name!  I could go on…

The writing has matured with this one, for sure.  It’s like he knows where he’s going with each character and each scene more than before.  It’s as if he’s living into these characters skin more, getting to know them more.

The battle descriptions: the best I’ve read in fantasy recently.  No long, drawn out death scenes; just blunt and to the point descriptions: he swung his mace and dented his helmet.  Everyone know a dented helmet means a dented head, but Abercrombie doesn’t have to say it.  He makes you feel it.  Ouch. And only a good writer can write a war book from opposing POVs and make you want to root for the one you’re currently reading about each time.

I thought the despair of Black Dow and Kroy at the end over the question of what the hell the whole thing was for anyway was very well executed.  Made me think about our wars, I’ll say that.  His refrain that all war is only a prelude to peace talks was haunting.

My one complaint was I wish there had been more ado made about Bayaz and Ishri’s surprises.  By this point I hate Bayaz, but I want to read more of him so I can hate him more.  He’s a great, I mean a fantastic character, and I think he and (even more so) Ishri go the short shrift this go around.  To me, they almost didn’t have a point in this story the way it was written, so I’d say either get them out of it, or do more with them.  Minor complaint, though.

If you’re not sure about Abercrombie, this might actually be a good place to start.  Sure, you’d learn some stuff out of order, but you wouldn’t have to commit to a trilogy.  And this is a damn good read.  It made me want to read the others over again, I’ll say that.  So, if you’re not sure about Abercrombie – why?  Get reading or go back to the mud.

Well done, Joe – I can’t wait for A Red Country!

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Pyr Sends Me Back to Epic Fantasy

It’s been over a year since I read any “epic fantasy” – you know, the stuff that comes in lengths no shorter than trilogies, has sweeping geographical locations (and always includes a map!), far reaching consequences to seemingly inconsequencial actions, grand characters with grandiose plans and a diabolical enemy with connections, likely connections, to dark magic?  Well, I could go on, but you get the idea.  The last series of epic fantasy I read was Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law Trilogy” and not only was it epic but it was fantastic as well.  Brilliant stuff.  His blog turned me on to Scott Lynch, and I devoured those books.  I copied down several more names and this past week, while convalescing from some surgery, I started a new one by an author he recommended, published by Pyr (they are putting out amazing stuff, folks, check them out!), and was immediately confronted with mixed thoughts.

Right off the bat, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue, but bear with me as I did with this book, because despite the following gripes, I’m loving it right now.

Gripe #1: On the first page of the first chapter we meet a character known only as “The Unknown Warrior.”  Groan! It’s sooooo cheesy.  But at least he’s the biggest, baddest warrior of the group because otherwise I would think any other character would beat his ass until he gave up his name or laugh him out of the room.  Caveat:  After a while, I kinda got into the mystery behind the Unknown, but it still had elements of cheese.

Gripe #2: Why elves?  One of the main characters is an elf.  Why?  No one knows why this world has elves (at least I don’t yet).  He appears to be absolutely no different than his human counterparts.  I always thought a cardinal rule when writing speculative type fiction was if you can pull something off with out introducing the speculative element, you should, otherwise it leaves readers asking, Why?  If you’re going to have an elven race, at least describe them, make them markedly different from humans, and give the reader a plausible reason for why they are there.  i.e. Tolkien – Elves were the first race created by the deities and the most beloved.

Gripe #3: The map.  Ok, one of my favorite parts of epic fantasy world building is the geography and the map that accompanies it.  You have a blank sheet of paper and free reign!  Go to work!  Draw a creative world.  Splitting your world vertically right down the middle with a mountain range and calling everything on the West side evil, desolate, and degenerate, and everything on the East side good, civilized, and educated is a cop out and a disappointment.  Why not just draw a rectangle:

Gripe #4: Magic.  Again, another amazing opportunity for some creative world building and neat ideas to develop in epic fantasy.  Smushing capitalized, pedestrian words together does not a creative spell system make.  Examples: CloakedWalk.  HellFire.  WarmHeal.  Come on!  Do something neat with your magic system!  Please….  Or at least do what Abercrombie did and make it so ridiculously chaotic and powerful that when the magic user sneezed, walls blew up.

Gripe #4: Pedestrian words.  Nothing spectacular about Barclay’s writing; nothing extraordinarily bad about it either.  It’s just average.  But I am disappointed that he relies solely upon the groundwork of others for some of his fantasy words. Magic users are called “mages.”  Thank you D&D.  Their source of energy is called “mana.”  Thank you every other fantasy book and video game ever.  One of the characters is called a Barbarian, yet there is no mention of what that means, what kind of “uncivilized” society he comes from, why others think of him as a barbarian and if they do, why they accept him in polite company.  Again, please see how Abercrombie did it.  The Bloody Nine was a barbarian-like character but I don’t think the word barbarian was ever used, or if it was, not so often that I remember it.  Show don’t tell.

Now, like I said, gripes aside (and I’m sure there are more), I am really enjoying this book.  The plot is engrossing, the characters I’m starting to care about, the political world is fun and creative and I really, really like how Barclay sets up his opposing magic schools and the history behind it that lurks beneath every seething glance one mage gives to another of a different school.  This is Barclay’s first book ever.  I’m betting he gets better at writing with experience and critical feedback.  Even if he doesn’t this is a fun read and a good tale.  It’s not spectacular like Lynch or Abercrombie, but you can’t get that all the time.

I titled this post “Pyr sends me back to epic fantasy” because I just ordered a bunch of books (half.com of course) in the epic fantasy genre all published by Pyr.  I’m excited by what they’re doing and if you like fantasy, you should be too.

Fantasy Revival

I grew up on Fantasy novels.  When I was in the third grade, my Dad gave my a hardback, illustrated version of The Hobbit, without much preamble.  I read it and liked it, but felt I didn’t really understand it.  I read it again the next year and fell in love.  The following year, the 5th grade, he gave me his hardback Lord of the Rings and asked simply if I wanted to know the rest of the story.  I replied increduously, “There’s more?!”  And I ate it up, even setting my alarm clock to an hour earlier than normal in order to get more reading time.  For a while there, I read it every year.

Then I turned to the DragonLance novels and enjoyed most of those, but there was no denying the qualitative difference.  Over the years I’ve read a lot of the big names in fantasy – Jordan, Goodkind, Martin, etc. – and a few of the smaller ones, too.  But I’d say most of the fantasy books I’ve read in the past decade have been piss poor.  I pretty much gave up.  I never finished the Wheel of Time.  I agonized over the fact that Martin’s books weren’t finished yet.  I devoured Harry Potter just because it was well written sorcery, but I wanted, I don’t know, more adult depth of character.  I wanted shit to go wrong, because it does.  I wanted to see a character make a poor choice and then have to live with the consequences not get out of it with a deus ex machina.  I wanted…more. And no one was giving it to me.

Then I picked up The Blade Itself on a total whim, because I liked the cover and I’d never heard of Abercrombie or his publisher, Pyr.  Abercrombie, in a word, delivered.  Delivered everything I’d wanted out of my fantasy.  He reinstated my love of the genre and my belief that great fantasy could still be written.  I think people had to throw off Tolkien, I don’t know.  People, for ever in a day, couldn’t write fantasy without thinking of or being compared to Tolkien and I honestly think (as much as I love Tolkien) that kinda killed the genre for a while.  No matter what press praised a book on the cover as being “as good as Tolkien,” or, “the next J.R.R.!” the fact of the matter was that it simply wasn’t.  Couldn’t be.  And didn’t need to be.  Thank you Joe Abercrombie!

I’ve read all four of his published novels now and loved them.  The First Law trilogy better than Best Served Cold but we’re talking matters of degrees of greatness here, not leaps and bounds.  I’ve visited his website and gotten his list of recommendeds.  I bought a few this weekend.  I stopped reading a piece of shit Eberron novel because I got to the middle of the trilogy and realized I didn’t care.  And now, I’m excited and am not looking back.  Goodbye, shit fantasy.

Hello to:

Scott Lynch, James Barclay, Patrick Rothfuss, Steve Erickson, Richard Morgan, Alex Bell, R. Scott Bakker, Tom Lloyd and whoever else is putting out great stuff.  Basically, if Joe Abercrombie has said on his blog it’s good, I’m going with that.  Because right now, he’s the platinum standard.

I’ve started with

and so far, I can’t wait to read more.  There’s so much awesome fantasy out there right now.  Put down the shit you’re reading and go get some.

Chapter Titles

I really like how Abercrombie titles his chapters. I have to admit, when I first saw that he employed chapter titles, it felt a bit juvenile, but when I read how he used them, I loved it. Each chapter title seems to say one thing and then as the chapter progresses takes on an entirely different meaning than what appears at face value. For example, one chapter title was “How to Train a Dog” – and it dealt with an inquisitor torturing a prisoner so that the prisoner would testify “correctly” at the trial. Over and over and over again. He asks the prisoner if he knows how a dog is trained. The answer? Repetition. And the torture begins afresh.

Or another example, the chapter title “Means of Escape” – wherein you know the guards are coming for the criminal and the title leads you to believe the criminal will escape. But then the criminal hangs himself. An altogether different kind of escape.

Anyway, they’re very clever and this book is very dark, and that works well together.

The First Law: The Strong Will Take from the Weak

I raced to the finish of Duma Key at the end of last week and I have to say that while I loved the book, I found the ending to be a bit weak, unusual for a King book.  I think he fell to much into the trap of showing too much of the “horrible thing” and thereby robbing it of some of its power to terrify through being unknown.  Take, for example, the scene where the two drowned twin sisters appear at the bottom of the stairs in Big Pink, where they do and say nothing just stand there, but only for a moment in which the main character questions his sanity.  That’s terrifying.  Now compare that to the scene where the drowned man is in the kitchen with the main character, grabs him and begins to drag him away, trying to put him in manacles.  To me, that scene was just silly and not scary at all.  The monster became too real, and by becoming real it became weak, vulnerable, and easily beatable.  The last scenes in the original Heron’s Roost house were not as scary as they could of been and I felt they were a bit rushed.  Was a deadline approaching, Mr. King?  But, overall, this was a great story and one of my favorite King books.  It was engaging, interesting, a (sort-of) fresh idea, and fast paced.  A more than excellent beach read – for at least two reasons.

Now, I’ve moved on to my next book.  It was with grave amounts of hesitancy that I picked this book from the bookstore’s shelves.  I had a gift certificate and was ready to use it.  The first book I bought with it was the first book in the Prince of Nothing trilogy by R. Scott Baker, a novel that comes with a strong recommendation from a trusted friend.  Then my eye was caught by this other fantasy trilogy by new author Joe Abercrombie.  Two things attracted my immediate attention: one, as a trilogy, it was completed, and two, the binding and cover art were unusual.  On the first point, I cannot stand reading serial books if the series is not completed.  I waited until Book 7  was out before picking up Harry Potter, for example.  I will bear a grudge to the grave with me against Robert Jordan, and George R.R. Martin is is serious danger of falling into that abyss as well.  But this trilogy was completed.  The second point goes again the adage of never judge  a book by its cover, but I do that often.  The truth is, you can do that, if you’re careful.  This cover was unusual, and interesting.  Interesting enough to make me read the back.  The back was interesting enough to make me read the first chapter there in the store to get a feel for the writer’s style and and sense of diction and syntax.  The danger: it’s a fantasy book – you can pick up ten fantasy books you’ve never heard of and they all will very likely be terrible.  The good fantasy book is a gem and difficult to find.  So, that was my hesitancy.  But I liked the first chapter and I liked the description from the back of the book, so I jumped.  The Blade Itself

About 150 pages into the story now, I am glad I bought it.  It is excellent, engrossing, with wonderful, flawed, human, and ambitious characters.  So far, it is the best fantasy story I have read since A Game of Thrones (finish the damned series, please, Martin!) though it lacks all the political intrigue.  This book is definitely character driven so far, with political intrigue as the backdrop.  I appreciate the complexity of the characters themselves and look forward to a growing complexity of political relationships, some of which is slowly manifesting.  One of the interesting things about the story so far, and the characters who propel it, is the sense of over-ripeness.  This is an empire past its prime with characters who are either also past their prime or who are in danger of never realizing their potential.  Among certain minor character there is a sense not of over-ripeness, but of rottenness.  And I like that.  Nobody here is innocent.  Nobody is clean.  And the place is going to rot from the top down.

The other thing I really appreciate is Abercrombie’s facility to imbue his world with a tremendous sense of history without droning on in a lecturer’s voice.  “Ok, and then the 4th king after the reign of ….  in the year of…. following the great drought of….before the battle of…”  No, that’s boring.  What he does is inject the history of the world into his descriptions of the contemporary setting or into the mouth’s of the characters.  It’s well done.  You don’t feel like you have to learn an encyclopedic amount of information to appreciate the story; it is not a novel requiring a guidebook.

The final thing I want to comment on is how I appreciate his sense of boundary breaking and cliche avoiding.  No where was this more apparent (though it certainly is throughout the story so far) that in the part when Logen approaches the old, wizened man with the long flowing white beard and the voluminous robes and comments to himself that “…the First of the Magi, Bayaz, certainly looked the part,” only to quickly discover that that man was not Bayaz at all, but a librarian.  Bayaz was the powerfully built bald man who was currently engaged in butchering a cow.  The Butcher draws near and introduces himself as the First of the Magi.  I darn near applauded!

This is a good book so far and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it as it goes on.  I’m glad I got it and if the only complaint I saw in other reviews is that the book ends in a cliffhanger (duh…trilogy) why then I will look with eager longing to a new, well executed, high fantasy trilogy.  They are so good, and so, so far and few between.