When I first started reading The Blade Itself, the first novel in The First Law trilogy, I wasn’t sure whether Joe Abercrombie was a genius or the worst writer ever. Then he introduced Sand dan Glokta, the bitter inquisitor who is a victim of torture himself, and I was an instant fan.
Along with Mark Lawrence, Abercrombie is probably one of the best known, and best-loved, writers of grimdark, that sub-genre of fantasy fiction that revels in mud, blood, violence and swearing. Done badly, grimdark is horrible. It becomes an exploitative excuse for extreme violence, including sexual violence depicted in a titillating way, and often comes with very poor characterisation. (See my earlier review of Andy Remic’s The Dragon Engine for an example of how bad bad can get.)
But Abercrombie’s grimdark is different. His characters feel like real people. Albeit people who are often living in pretty horrible circumstances, and trying to make the best of a bad lot. They are flawed but well-rounded characters that you cannot help but feel a bit of sympathy and empathy for. Even the ones that should, on the face of it, be profoundly unlikeable, are compelling people you come to care about. Most of all, these are people who find wit and humour in their lives, even if it is often a very black sort of humour.
And rather than glamourising war, Abercrombie shows it in all its uncompromising horror and does not seek to draw a veil over its consequences. Yes, people can and do show heroism, but they are also cowards, the victims of accident and misadventure, and suffer injuries and psychological damage that persists through their lives.
Sharp Ends (published by Gollancz next week, review copy through NetGalley) is a collection of short fiction set in the same world as Abercrombie’s First Law books. There are some treats for long-term fans – particularly the first story, which shows a young Sand dan Glokta at the height of his fame, talent and arrogance. There are a lot of cameo appearances from major and minor characters from Abercrombie’s work. But one doesn’t have to be an Abercrombie completist to read and enjoy this collection (even if it helps). Each story in this highly enjoyable collection stands alone. If you’re not sure Abercrombie’s writing is for you, this would be a fantastic introduction to his work. If you’re a fan, you will love it.
Goodreads rating: 4*