Friday, September 1, 2017

British Fantasy Novelist Joe Abercrombie . . . sigh.

So, a whiles back during the writing of an article on Glen Cook (a personal favorite), I realized that I just didn't know much about fantasy lit written post-1980s and -1990s. Which makes sense -- that's around when my reading habits greatly diversified. Still, it was hard to make a case for Cook's uniqueness when I hadn't read several of the most recent writers he's been compared to, so I recently made a foray into Joe Abercrombie, known for writing a "grimdark" type of military fantasy.

Anyway, reading Mr. Abercrombie has caused me a severe case of eye rolling.

I've read Before They are Hanged (2007), the second novel in his First Law trilogy, and half of The Heroes (2011), a stand-alone novel set in the same universe. That was enough for me to get a sense of his style and literary character. My thoughts:


Sometimes, a writer simply tries too hard to be sardonic, cynical, and world-wise, and that's the impression Abercrombie gives. There's tons of observations of the sort, "war is awful, terrible, horrific, pointless, wasteful, devastating" and so on, but also a simultaneous sense that war is the one arena of human experience that gives its participants a special insight into How Dark Things Really Are. Neither Glen Cook nor Steven Erikson, for example, ever succumb to that temptation, but Abercrombie's books seem to revel in it. 

That ethos gives off the strong sense that Abercrombie's First Law books appeal directly to teenage boys struggling to form an identity amid a nascent sense of masculinity. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- since roughly half the world's population has to go through the experience of being a male teenager, a category that includes myself, that sort of fiction is useful. The problem that emerges, however, is when someone outside that very narrow age window tries reading the book. Unlike Cook or Erikson, I just didn't see anything that could potentially appeal to full-grown adults.

In fact, Abercrombie reminded me, not of any other fantasist I know, but of a very popular writer of military historical fiction: Bernard Cornwell. I once read three of Cornwell's Sharpe series of books, which were well-written and well-researched but which all followed the exact same formula. Abercrombie isn't a formula writer in that sense, but he made the same appeals: the knowledgeable and competent military male who has to wage a constant struggle of incompetent or clueless military personnel.


Really nothing to write Middle-earth about here. Only about a half dozen countries with pretty clear real-world analogues, whose sole purpose seems to be constantly at war with one another. The plot,  as well as the characters if they appeal to you, are the only sources of interest here.

Also, the names tend to suck. Sometimes I suspect him of delving into various central and Eastern European languages for his names. For example, my wife says that Crown Prince Ladisla is actually a Czech name ("Ladislav"), and some of the others suggest similar connotations, but I'm unfamiliar enough with those languages to really say for sure. Regardless, many of the names also just seem made up out of the blue.

Another thing of note. Abercrombie has his "Northmen," a standard fantasy analogue of Vikings and berserkers and whatnot, but his major country, loosely based on Western Europe, is called "The Union," which is as jarring a name as I could imagine. If that name sounds weirdly modern (and the technology in Abercrombie is all medieval), that's probably because it is. The Union's major military figures talk and act straight out of 19th-century military history -- just think of "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General." This may be entirely subjective, but Abercrombie's historical mishmash just constantly irritated me.


Once I got past all the irritating things, I did think quite well of Abercrombie's narrative skill. By the book's end, his literary mannerisms and cliched tropes still irritated, but Before They are Hanged is certainly not the slog it could have been. 

That said, you'd also have to accept that this book is all plot. Abercrombie doesn't seem to have anything interesting or worthwhile to say (or for a critic to write about), and I have a limited patience for reading plot-only novels. Hence reading 1 1/2 of his books seems enough for me -- if you've read one, I suspect, you've read them all, kinda like with Bernard Cornwell.

All in all, I can understand some of the popularity of Abercrombie's books, but he hardly seems to belong with the major modern fantasists.

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