Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Sharp Ends" by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie has a reputation as one of the grimmest, darkest, most brutal figures in modern heroic fantasy.  His debut effort, the First Law trilogy, opened up readers to characters with deep-seated psychological flaws, empires which were not so much led as jerked in varying ineffectual directions by competing political factions, and utter ambiguity as to who might be the hero or the villain.  After a brief and mostly successful sojourn in Young Adult literature, he has returned to the world of his original fantasy novels, and seems to be seeking to make up for lost time.  Sharp Ends offers up all of the sex and violence his YA Shattered Sea trilogy couldn’t, with a few dollops extra to spare.  With Abercrombie, that’s very much a good thing.


*VIOLENCE!!!  If there’s anybody writing who’s better at portraying graphic violence on the printed page, I don’t know who it might be.  Abercrombie’s battle scenes are brusque, direct, and precise; the action is smooth and visceral, playing out in continually imaginative and surprising ways.  His style is more hyper-realistic than strictly realistic, which is a bit of a surprise from an author who confines himself so rigidly to realistic motives in his descriptions of human behavior; his point of view characters have always had a capacity to absorb damage or evade blows that verges on the superhuman, and here he goes even bigger, with characters occasionally plucking arrows from midair and the like.  The important thing is that it works.  It works like all hell.  Abercrombie is a very rare author in that he can alter his use of violence to suit the tone of the story, from horror to disgust to ennui even to outright comedy.  If there’s an objection to be offered here, it’s that violence seems to be a lot more “fun” than used to be the case in Abercrombie’s work.  Previous entries consistently kept careful track of the emotionally stunting effect of violence upon its practitioners; this time out, both old characters and particularly new ones seem to be pretty comfortable shrugging off the disembowelments they impose upon others, with the notable exception of old favorite Bremer dan Gorst, who appears to be headed in the opposite direction.  In any case, readers who don’t care for violence should steer well clear.

*PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHT.  Abercrombie’s point-of-view characters are consistently complex and intriguing.  Every action that takes place in an Abercrombie story proceeds realistically from the motives of the participants; there is rarely anything forced or any need of a plot McGuffin.  People don’t always know what they want, let alone what’s best for them, and even those who get what they want often find that maybe they didn’t want it after all.  Abercrombie understands both at an intellectual and an intuitive level the many ways in which we disappoint both ourselves and others.  And yet…for all that Abercrombie is celebrated for his grim, dark style, he understands joy and satisfaction equally well.  His characters change and grow; they experience wonderful friendships, achieve impressive things, are celebrated for what’s best in them (though not perhaps as often as for what’s worst in them).  Some may call Abercrombie grim; I call him insightful.

*DIALOGUE.  I maintain that readers don’t want characters that talk like real people; they want characters who talk the way they WISH real people talked.  Well, here are those characters, in great numbers, spouting quote-worthy quips left and right.  Everyone will have a particular favorite, I suppose; of the members of the author’s rogue’s gallery represented herein, I’ll opt for the autistic henchman Friendly and the newly introduced Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp.

*FRITZ LEIBER LIVES!  Abercrombie’s newest revelation, and the best reason to publish this book, is the partnership between the aforementioned Javre, a human wrecking machine and creature of insatiable appetite, and Shevedieh, a master thief who’s never happy unless she’s miserable.  The two of them have a distinct Fafhrd/Grey Mouser vibe going, and a series of short stories is EXACTLY the right manner in which to keep them moving forward together; we’re presented in Sharp Ends with a series of adventures spanning fourteen years of common history, and there’s plenty of room for Abercrombie to fill in blanks with more stories later on.  Two of the Jav/Shev stories, “Skipping Town” and “Two’s Company,” run neck-and-neck for the best thing in the book.  This is fun, fun stuff.


*POUNDING CONCEPTS INTO THE GROUND.  Yes, Shev, we get it, you’re a lesbian.  It’s not necessary to remind us every third page (and hey, Joe, whatever happened to "show, don't tell", wink wink, nudge nudge).  By the same token:  the “sidekick” gag is very, very funny when it’s first introduced, then gets worn out through repetition--Abercrombie uses it to suggest that Javre is subtler than she appears, but in this case I'd prefer more subtlety from the author as opposed to the character. 

*INACCESSIBILITY.  There is some stuff in here that fans of Abercrombie’s early work will absolutely ADORE but which will completely confuse anyone who hasn’t read the antecedent work.  Notable on this score is the opener, “A Beautiful Bastard,” which provides some very, very revelatory context for the relationship between Salem Rews and Sand dan Glokta (the single greatest character Abercrombie has ever created, and one who I’d love to see get more attention).  It’s impossible to imagine, though, that people who haven’t read the First Law trilogy will get anything out of the story.  The same is true of the last story, “Made a Monster,” which explores the history of Abercrombie’s most popular character from the perspective of an antagonist.  For those familiar with how their relationship ends, the story makes sense.  For an outsider, though, I have to think that there’s not much satisfaction to be gained here.  If you’re having a banquet of Abercrombie, treat “Sharp Ends” as the dessert rather than the appetizer.

*HARD TIMES ALL OVER.  This worked, mostly, as a stand-alone story in George R. R. Martin’s “Dangerous Women” anthology.  It doesn’t work here.  It PARTICULARLY doesn’t work in that it rewrites the dynamic between Shev and supporting character Carcolf which Abercrombie has spent the past hundred and fifty pages establishing.  And no, an “unreliable narrator” isn’t sufficient to explain the differences as they’re presented here.  I’m guessing that Abercrombie wrote this story first, had second thoughts about who Shev was, and wrote her team-ups with Javre later on, then felt compelled to include this story in the volume anyway.  It was the wrong decision.

*COLLECTIONS OF TICS MASQUERADING AS CHARACTERS.  This isn’t really a weakness in Abercrombie’s writing so much as an offshoot of his strengths.  We see so much depth in his point-of-view characters that some of his less developed secondary characters come across as more two-dimensional than they otherwise would.  Carcolf falls into this category.  If we’re being completely honest, Javre does as well, at times, but Abercrombie is clearly having so much fun writing her that the reader won’t care.


It’s Abercrombie.  It’s the First Law.  Nobody else does the stuff he does as well as he does it.  Of COURSE you’re gonna want to read it.  My advice, though, is to read it last.  If you haven’t already, go buy “The Blade Itself” and work your way in the direction of this book.  You don’t, after all, begin at the Ends.

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