Saturday, 16 March 2013

You Have To Be Realistic

Joe Abercrombie is one of my favorite fantasy authors of the last few years, as anyone who's followed this blog would probably be unsurprised to hear. I picked up his first book, The Blade Itself, back in 2009 and have been hooked since then. More than that, I created another fan - my dad - when I gave him my copy of the book; after reading that one, he bought the two sequels, Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings, for himself. I've received each of Abercrombie's subsequent books for Christmas from him since then, including his latest, Red Country, which I just finished this afternoon. Out of courtesy, I'm going to signpost now that there are spoilers in this post, so read on at your peril.

The Man Himself

With each book, though, my dad and I have diverged in our opinions of Joe Abercrombie's storytelling. It's probably a truism to say that his books fall under the "gritty fantasy" subcategory that's gained in popularity since George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, as they tend to depict violence and depravity to a degree that some have started to find objectionable. My dad happens to be one of those who find it all a bit much.

I'd argue, though, that Abercrombie focuses on that side of fantasy fiction for more than just titillation or "showing things as they are". Gritty fantasy has become the dominant paradigm in the genre, to the point that it's getting to be something of a cliche - everything's dirty, smelly, bloody, encrusted with shit and offal and so on. You can  rely on the good guys to be just as bad as their enemies, and for the bad guys to be harboring a lust for violence that frequently verges on the sexual.

However, ironically, I wouldn't call Abercrombie the worst for this kind of thing. Strange as it is to say for an author whose main characters are either torturers or bloodthirsty maniacs, I never find the bloodshed in his books to be gratuitous. Sure, he doesn't flinch from gore, but it's always pretty clear that the people causing the bloodshed aren't to be admired.

Case in point is Logen Nine-Fingers, also known as the Bloody-Nine, one of the protagonists of Abercrombie's opening trilogy, the First Law. Logen is effectively a split personality - usually he's a good POV character to follow, but when the bloodlust comes over him, the Bloody-Nine comes out and becomes a threat to his allies as well as his enemies. The first time the Bloody-Nine comes out in The Blade Itself, you're rooting for him, because he's just dispatched half a dozen or so bad guys on his own.


But then he comes out again in the subsequent books, and he slaughters indiscriminately, even to the point of killing children because they happen to be in his way. It gets to the point where instead of hoping the Bloody-Nine comes out again, you worry about what kind of atrocity you're about to read. And some of it can indeed be tough to read.

I was thinking about this while reading Red Country, which happens to be Logen's first appearance since Last Argument of Kings. As I mentioned in a previous post, this fact was spoiled for me, so I spent the book in anticipation of the big reveal. But it hit me that the reason Abercrombie writes this way is because he's writing about the consequences of violence, rather than because he really likes decapitations.

You can see this theme running through each of his standalone books, from Best Served Cold, which is about the corrosive effect of seeking revenge, to The Heroes, which is about the consequences of two enemies not being willing to back down, even when their confrontation is over something completely irrelevant.

Thinking back over the other "gritty fantasy" authors I've read, none of them - including GRRM - takes this approach. I'm not taking shots, as books like Game of Thrones and its sequels are amazing; but it was actually in reading A Feast for Crows that I started to weary of all the sociopaths and deviants crowding Westeros. And while my dad sees only nihilism in Abercrombie's approach, I'd argue he's way more willing to let his characters find redemption than GRRM is - witness the final confrontation between Logen and Caul Shivers, contrasted with the fact in Game of Thrones that the only truly honorable characters, like Ned Stark, end up with their heads on pikes.

"Wait, what happens to me at the end?"

And in the end, I think Abercrombie's stories end up being more true to life because of that. Depictions of life being nothing but nasty, brutish and short end up being just as unrealistic as those suggesting that heroes are always perfectly virtuous and villains always irredeemably bad. It takes a brave writer to show us that a person can choose to stop making bad choices and act altruistically, much more so than reveling in how flawed that person is.