Culture & Criticism Since 2003
I’ve been working my way through the collected works of Joe Abercrombie over the past few months, starting with the two books that begin his ongoing second trilogy, The Age of Madness (A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace) and his First Law Trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings).
I’ve also read two of the stand-alone novels that bridge the gap between the first and second trilogies (Best Served Cold, Heroes), while I’m half-way through Red Country. Abercrombie also has published a collection of short stories – Sharp Ends – which predates the first trilogy.
From the onset, Abercrombie’s writing reminded me of someone. It wasn’t that he was imitating anyone or doing a pastiche; instead, his style is utterly unique and original. Nonetheless, he tugged at memory strings. The darkness and humor, grue and humanity, realism and absurdity; I have been here before. But when?
I nearly had the answer while reading Last Argument of Kings. The Union Army is at war with the North (obviously this is not American history!), led by the ailing but still capable Lord Marshall Burr. Under Burr are two generals, Poulder and Kroy, who are incessantly squabbling and working to curry favor with Burr, hoping to eventually replace him. Poulder is larger-than-life, a bit reckless, slightly slovenly, with a gift for self promotion. Meanwhile, Kroy is fastidious, careful (sometimes a bit too careful) and very by-the-book – in love with order and precision. It occurred to me reading of him that he would be much better suited to running a military parade ground than a battle front.
In one of the most hilarious passages in the series, Burr dies, and Kroy and Poulder immediately rush to fill the vacuum. However, the newly crowned King sends a friend (Colonel West) to assume control of the Army. Kroy and Poulder are flabbergasted – not only is West just a mere Colonel, but he’s an untitled commoner! West, however is very shrewd, and he immediately begins leveraging the two generals against one another to ensure his undisputed control. It’s hilarious and at the same time so very, very much like the military.
Eight novels in, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Abercrombie is an absolute genius, one of England’s greatest fantasists ever. Absolutely unique. Yet nonetheless, he reminds me of someone, another truly great author. But who?
It was early in “A Beautiful Bastard” when the epiphany struck. The central character in the story is a young version of the second most arresting character in Abercrombies’ menagerie, Sand dan Glokta, a gorgeous monster who eventually goes on to become a hideous monster. In this passage, we see Glokta, from the viewpoint character in his introductory scene:
“Glokta had everything, and what he didn’t have, no one could stop him from taking. Women adored him, 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 self-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 with, 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 flattened friendships, crushed careers and mangled reputations in his heedless 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.”
Suddenly I see that this excerpt is immediately reminiscent of the brilliant, self-contradictory, absurdist and utterly realistic humor from Catch-22 that had captivated me some 50 years ago.
Joseph Heller! That’s who Abercrombie calls to mind. Same brilliant descriptions, tone, color, mood, humor and dark realism. Same ability to make the authoritarian mind both repellent and engaging at the same time. Same ability to take Dante’s Inferno as arranged by “The Joker” and describe it through fresh and credulous eyes, rendering the horrible almost heartwarming.
Catch-22 was a stand-alone novel, of course, and Abercrombie is painting on a much broader canvas, with hundreds of significant characters spread across some 150 years. And where Heller had one viewpoint character (Yossarian), Abercrombie has several dozen, in addition to vignettes with dozens of minor viewpoint characters. He is Heller writ large (literally!), and with no loss for genius or thematic integrity and tone.
Heller was a genius. I find Abercrombie even better.
Bryan Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Canada and raised in London. He has lived in the Mount Shasta area since 1990, which he regards as the finest place on earth. Jamieson has spent the past 25 years as a graphic layout technician, web designer and writer, with over a thousand essays, a dozen short stories, and two novels – Ice Fall and Snow Fall – to his credit. In addition to his wife of 30-plus years, he normally lives with a dog and several cats, none of whom are impressed by him. Reach him through The Electric Review.