When I was younger, I went through a phase of reading nothing but Fantasy novels. I devoured them ferociously, Sanderson, Rothfuss, Brett, Lynch, Martin. I became blood-drunk on fantasy, gorging my young mind and tossing the ravaged paperback carcasses onto the ever growing charnel heap. I look back on those days with no small amount of fondness. The red haze cleared eventually as I desired to leave my literary comfort zone. Now, when I return to some of those books I read as a teenager, they can seem clichéd or dull. However, the best authors from my those days stand tall in my mind still, as shining paragons, masters of the fantastic. Authors like Joe Abercrombie.
His writing is grim, but relatable. His characters witty and entertaining. His books don’t focus on epic deeds or intricate world building, but that’s the point. Abercrombie avoids the cliche that so much fantasy falls into by playing with it, twisting it with an irony and black humour that’s all his own.The young hero with a great destiny is also a self-serving little shit. The wise old wizard may appear kindly, but secretly he’s a scheming and manipulative villian. Deeply cynical and dripping with wit and irony, Abercrombie’s work is always a pleasure to read. As an example, let me quote this description of Union Military Officer Glokta from the beginning of Sharp Ends:
“Glokta had everything, and what he didn’t have, no-one could stop him from taking. Women adored him, and men envied him. Women envied him and men adored him, for that matter. One would have thought, with all the good fortune showered upon him, he would have to be the most pleasant man alive.
But Glokta was an utter bastard. A beautiful, spiteful, masterful, horrible bastard, simultaneously the best and worst man in the Union. He was a tower of self-centered obsession. An impenetrable fortress of arrogance. His ability was exceeded only by his belief in his own ability. Other people were pieces to be played, points to be scored, props to be arranged in the glorious tableaux of which he made himself the centerpiece. Glokta was a veritable tornado of bastardy, leaving a trail of battered friendships, crushed reputations and mangled reputations in his wake.
His ego was so powerful it shone from him like a strange light, distorting the personalities of everyone around him at least halfway into being bastards themselves. Superiors became snivelling accomplices. Experts deferred to his ignorance. Decent men were reduced to sycophantic shits. Ladies of judgement to giggling cyphers.
Rews once heard the most committed followers of the Gurkish religion were expected to make the pilgrimage to Sarkant. In the same way, the most committed bastards might be expected to make a pilgrimage to Glokta.”
Sharp Ends is a collection of short stories, and Abercrombie’s seventh work of fiction set in the world of the First Law. If you haven’t read any of his previous First Law novels, don’t let that put you off. Sharps Ends works well as both an entry point and a continuation for the setting. The focus remains on character rather than world-building, so anyone can jump right in without needing to read up on any backstory unless they want to. For long time readers such as myself, there’s still a plethora of references to previous work, returning characters and important historical events scattered throughout the book, but all are handled with care, none feeling forced or clumsy.
For anyone interested in giving it a try, one of the best stories from the collection is available to read for free here on TOR: http://www.tor.com/2016/01/12/twos-company-joe-abercrombie/
Essentially, Sharp Ends is a collection of stories about futility. Characters are swept up in the current of grand events, carried away into adventure they never fully understand. But this isn’t frustrating. I’ve always believed that the best works of Fantasy use magic and extraordinary situations as a cipher through which to view our own humanity. Though he may be king or beggar, every man answers to someone or something greater than himself, and Abercrombie writes the struggle of life in a way that is joyously cathartic.