Musings on writing, lessons learned by an aspiring professional, book reviews, movie reviews, an occasional t.v. show review, and unashamed opinion.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Joe Abercrombie, and the gritty fantasy trend

I finished listening to The Heroes the other day, the latest from rising fantasy star, Joe Abercrombie.  I'm still chewing over what to think about it.  I've read every one of his books--there's only five, so it isn't some huge accomplishment--and I certainly feel that Heroes is the weakest to date, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the book.  I did.  Let me tell you why I'm still trying to sort out exactly what I think about it, though.

To do that, I'll have to talk a bit about his previous four novels.  I thought about reviewing each of them here individually, but it's been more than half a year since I've read some of them, so I'll just give my general impressions of each.

I really like how Joe is writing his stories.  He started off with a trilogy, known as The First Law series.  The books, in order, are: The Blade Itself, Before they are hanged, and Last Argument of Kings.  And then he did two "standalones" Best Served Cold, and The Heroes (they take place in the same world as the First Law trio).  I've read through all of them in a six month period, so am still quite familiar with each.  Anyway, back to a review (sort of).  I loved the trilogy.  I finally found books as good as--or as close to as good as to make no difference to me--the first three books in George R.R. Martin's massive epic, A Song of Ice and Fire.  Abercrombie's characters in the First Law series have such distinct voices, interesting pasts, and human flaws, that I think they are among my favorite to read about.  Abercrombie's humor is dark, yet poignant; charming, yet frightening.  He has such an understanding of the gray areas of morality that I find myself more than a little uncomfortable at imagining myself doing similar things as his characters, if placed in similar situations.  If you haven't read any Abercrombie, start with The First Law series, and treat yourself to some amazing dark fantasy.  You deserve it.

Abercrombie's first standalone, Best Served Cold, went too far down the dark road for my taste.  It is a revenge tale all too comfortable with the idea of killing people to feel better.  It is set five or so years after the end of Last Argument of Kings.  Some of the minor characters in the trilogy are now the major ones in this book.  I think it's cool when authors do this, though David Farland/Wolverton advises against it.  Dave has said that an author will likely lose readers if he/she writes books in the same world with different viewpoint characters.  (He did the very same thing in the later Runelord books and claims the drop in sales was noticeable).  Abercrombie, however, is only gaining in popularity, so I hope that he is able to continue to pull it off the way he is doing it.  I prefer shorter series (I blogged about this a few weeks back) but enjoy returning to familiar worlds.

In the beginning of Best Served Cold, there is a character who is trying to be "a better man."  (SPOILER ALERT) I thought he gave up too easily on his goals.  The main character, a woman who is trying to kill seven men responsible for her brother's death, seems too unchanged by the murders she commits throughout the story.  My personal favorite revenge story is The Count of Monte Cristo (the book, not the awful Hollywood trash made into a movie ten years ago).  Edmund really struggled with the man he was becoming in that book, and in the end, decided revenge wasn't what he wanted after all.  Now I'm not saying every character who sets out for vengeance should make this decision in the end, but I wish Abercrombie would have shown his characters struggle a bit more.  Okay, a lot more.  But that's just me.  I was just expecting different outcomes from the story.  Not because he promised me a different outcome, though.  He does a wonderful job at fulfilling every promise he makes to the reader in Best Served Cold.

On to The Heroes.  It took me a couple of months to get to this one.  I read Best Served Cold the week after I finished The First Law trilogy, thinking it would be more of the same Abercrombie, but was so put off by it that I didn't want to dive in to another one of Joe's books for a while.  I read (listened to, really.  I don't read much these days) ten or so books between BSC and Heroes, giving myself several months off of Abercrombie.  (Aspiring writers, keep this in mind.  Don't write a book that will turn readers off to your future stories!)  I always knew I'd get to Heroes, however, because Abercrombie kicks ass.  I just had to distance myself from BSC for a while.  I'm happy to say that Heroes is nowhere near as dark as BSC, but it wasn't as memorable, either.  The one good thing I can say (there's several good things, but I won't get into all of them right now) about BSC is that I reacted very strongly to its characters (just in a negative way).  Only the best of writers can make me do this.  Anyway, I'm getting off track.  Heroes doesn't have any characters that are memorable.  Oh sure, I remember all of them today.  But that' s because I just finished the book last Friday.  A month from now I'm betting I'll have forgotten half of them.  By next year, probably all of them.  I really wish there had been someone to latch on to in Heroes, but there just wasn't.

Because of this, I had a hard time getting into the story.  Heroes is about a three day battle, and is more medieval military fiction than fantasy.  This didn't bother me at all, since I love Bernard Cornwell's novels, which are almost always focused around one big battle.  Some reviewers on Amazon complained about the lack of reason behind the battle in Heroes, but this didn't bother me either.  Sometimes war is pointless.  It happens because one guy says he's got bigger balls, and another guy disagrees.  Sometimes it happens because one guy looked at another guy's sister the wrong way.  War sucks, no matter how it starts.  I do feel that individuals in war will have a clearer sense of their own goals, though, than the POV's in Heroes.  Several of them seem to just wander aimlessly through fight after fight.  Others don't seem to have important enough goals to earn the place of viewpoint.  Also, none of the POV's in Heroes had the wit or charm that Abercrombie's characters have had in the past.  This made me sad.

So, yes, Heroes is the weakest of Abercrombie's work.  That isn't to say that it was boring, though.  I still enjoyed the listen.  And I'll still eagerly buy his next.  Everyone writing fantasy today should read Abercrombie.

The Heroes gets 3 out of 5 stars.

Okay.  Abercrombie was only half the reason for this post.  I wanted to bring up some things that I've noticed about fantasy literature, post George R.R. Martin.  Hopefully, we can have a discussion on this--which means you have to leave comments!

During the last decade there has been a slew of gritty, amoral fantasy.  (I am in no way saying it didn't exist before then, only that I wasn't aware of it until reading GRRM about 8 years ago).  Authors that I would consider to fall under this category are: George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Ari Marmell, Daniel Polansky, and many others.  These I've listed I have read, and so can reference their work.  George, Joe, and Scott are quite popular, Ari and Daniel less so.  (I'd never heard of either until recently).  My question, that I hope to have some answers on, is do you think that this trend--gritty, violent, gray fantasy--is healthy?  R rated fantasy, if you want a movie rating comparison.

Personally, I like the darker tales best.  As long as they have a good ending.  What constitutes a good ending differs from reader to reader, of course.  But in my opinion, it has to include one very important thing: someone, whether protagonist, antagonist, or villain, has to become better by the end of the story.  Better meaning good, or on the path to being good, or they've redeemed some past deed in some way.  Who decides what is good or not?  I do... for the books that I read.  For example, (possible spoilers if you haven't read the third book in GRRM's series... or any of them for that matter.  Skip the next paragraph if you wish to avoid them). Jaime Lannister.

Jaime begins A Song of Ice and Fire as one of the vilest, despicable characters I've ever read.  He is in an incestuous relationship with his sister--who happens to be married to the king--he throws a child off the top of a tower, causing the child to be paralyzed from the waist down, he murdered the king he was sworn to guard 16 years in the past... the list goes on and on.  He is seen as a villain in the first couple of books.  Well, he gets captured in a battle, gets thrown in a dungeon, and eats a few slices of humble pie.  In the third book, A Storm of Swords, he (BIG SPOILER) gets his sword hand cut off and can no longer act as a knight.  At this point, he starts turning into, if not an honorable character, a sympathetic one.  By the end of book 3, I was liking him more than any other character in the series... because he was on the path to becoming good--by trying to regain some of his spoiled honor.  He was still a cocky jerk, but was starting to realize he didn't like being the cocky jerk.  So for me, he had started on the road to redemption.

Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastard sequence (only two have been written, with five more planned) is another dark fantasy that I love (no spoilers).  The first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, is about a group of thieves out to screw the rich in their city.  Their underground world is gritty, full of violence and filthy language.  However, the main characters themselves are extremely likable because of their loyalty to each other, and their highly entertaining heists.  I didn't have to get to the ending to like the characters in this book.  I feel that this series so far is a lot more black and white than others mentioned, but the heroes are still thieves, so the grayness is still in evidence.

Okay, I've listed some books that I like.  Now back to my question.  Is it healthy for fantasy to become more edgy.  In my opinion, yes.  It is.  I have to admit, I find it hard to defend this opinion with my background.  Being a member of the LDS church, I am expected to stay away from certain types of entertainment.  Nowhere is it stated in church doctrine that we can't watch R rated movies, or read certain types of literature (except pornographic... that is a no, and has been stated as such many times).  Members of the church have been cautioned to "leave the obscene unseen."  Because of this, the majority of church members are uncomfortable with, and avoid altogether, anything with adult themes of violence, sex, drugs, language, etc.  I have no problem with this.  I think it's great that people have personal standards that they stick to.  It doesn't stop me from suggesting certain movies or books, though, because I do have a different view on the subject than most.

For me,  a story is much more powerful if it begins in a dark place.  And this is easily done in film and literature by showing certain content.  I don't think it is the only way, or even the best, but it is effective.  For me, if the story has the good ending I've already talked about, the payoff--emotionally, spiritually--is so much more powerful if a character has had to get through hell in order to succeed.  This is why I love George R.R. Martin's books so much.  His characters suffer through so much, that when they accomplish something good, it makes me want to pump my fist in the air for them.  It literally lifts me.  Another example is the Kite Runner. (the book, not the movie).  The light at the end of the tunnel in that story was when a suicidal kid smiles because the main character says a line to him, I paraphrase: "for you, a thousand times over."  If you've read the book, you know what I'm talking about.  That line has such a punch, and that novel was so dark... you can't help but feel positive about the story as a whole.  I do not believe the ending of Kite Runner would have been anywhere near as emotional and uplifting if the tale hadn't been as gritty and dark as it was.

The one big problem I have with The Wheel of Time series is that it isn't dark enough.  It never quite grows up with its characters.  In my mind, it will forever be a YA epic.  That doesn't tarnish it in the least.  I love Robert Jordan's world.  The WoT is what got me into fantasy.  But I can't ever get as excited about reading it as I was in high school, because my taste has changed so much in the last ten years.

Again, it is hard for me to defend why I think the gritty fantasies are healthy.  There's no question that some of them go too far, and I've felt dirtied by reading them.  But I made the choice years ago that it was worth some of those stinkers in order to find the truly beautiful stories.  I don't know if I made the right choice, but I do know that I've read and seen a hundred stories worth reading and seeing.

So, what do you think?  Does fantasy need to take a step back from realistic world and character descriptions--gritty violence, language, and other dark themes, or is it healthy for the genre to grow into adulthood, where there is room for all types of storytelling?

That's all.  

(The covers I posted for Best Served Cold and The Heroes are the new paperback covers coming out from Orbit sometime in the future.  I love them!  Wish Pyr would put new covers on the trilogy).


  1. Like you, I appreciate darkness in books more if there is light as well. I think adding grit adds depth to books, which is a good thing. (That said, I have a certain squeamishness threshold that bars me from some books that go too far. I can't actually define what "too far" is though; it's a personal gauge of how sick I feel reading it.)

    On the other hand, I think calling dark fantasy more "realistic" is a bit misleading. Yes, it more realistically portrays darkness. But that isn't all of reality. That's my issue with the dark trend--the belief that it is more realistic than other types of fantasy. Yes, there are some stories that are unrealistically light. But I do think stories can be realistically light as well. What I want in my fiction is complexity, which requires a blend of dark and light. Something that has nothing but dark and rot is just as flat as something that has nothing but sunshine and bunnies.

  2. I agree with the "realistic" tag being misleading. Even though I used that phrase, I am with you that darkness isn't the only reality. That is why the dark fantasy that doesn't have a good ending gets under my skin.

    If it doesn't end well, it isn't worth slogging through hell. (Just made that up, for anyone wanting to quote me).