Category Archive for ‘reading’

2013 in Review

Posted on December 31st, 2013 in film and tv, games, opinion, process, progress, reading, reviews

Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday dear MEEEE-EEEEE.  Three cheers, anyone?

Yes, indeed, another year has flowed beneath the bridge at ever-increasing speed and I am 39 today.  It’s round about 12 years since I started writing The Blade Itself back in 2001.  Some 9 years since I signed my first book deal, and 7 and a half years since The Blade Itself was published in 2006, would you believe.  Got a feeling it’s hard to argue that I’m new on the scene any longer…  An interesting year this has been.  Didn’t publish any new novels, but I made some big deals for three and wrote most of two of those.

Let’s break it down a little, shall we…?

A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – In spite of all my complaints, I really can’t complain.  No new novels published, though I did have short stories in a couple of anthologies: Legends and Dangerous Women.  The Blade Itself continues to come out in languages and territories that have yet to be exposed to the sunny radiance of my literary presence – I think we’re up to nearly 30 translation deals now.  Partly due to the huge success of GRRM’s Game of Thrones, I’m sure, The First Law books, especially the trilogy, would seem to be selling better and wider than ever.  Which is nice.  I’m told all six books, in all languages and formats, have sold somewhere around 3 million copies now, which really does beggar belief for stuff I dreamed up in the middle of the night for my own amusement. Less travelling this year, but a much enjoyed second visit to my pals at Celsius in Spain, and my first trip to Russia saw 250 people in a bookstore in St. Petersburg and a sleeper train back to Moscow with a very nice man who works in oil and gas called Mikhail.  I spent most of June locked in negotiations for the publishing of my new YA (ish) trilogy which will be starting in July in the UK and US with Half a King, more detail on all of that over here.  It looks as if 2014 might be a very big year for me…

A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – A strong year, especially at the start and end.  Quite possibly my most productive ever, certainly since 2007ish when I was finishing the First Law, long before I was a full-time writer and there were so many child-based and administrative demands on my time.  I wrote the second half of Half a King, revised and edited it, planned Half the World and drafted three quarters of it, and wrote three short stories.  Overall the move to a (slightly) different style of writing does feel like it’s done something to refresh my interest and recharge the batteries though, you know, it’s amazing how fast work becomes work again…

BOOKS – A level of reading that makes last year’s pitiful level look amazing, and most of what I did read was non-fiction about vikings. One thing that I did very much enjoy was Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles starting with The Last Kingdom.  Strongly written adventure stuff with some great battle scenes and a feeling of authenticity.  I burned through four of them while in Russia, then got stalled on the fifth.  Perhaps a slight sense of diminishing returns when read back to back.  Otherwise, my tottering to read pile just gets ever higher.  Don’t think that bad boy’s going to get any smaller, now…

TV and FILM – Boy it’s been slim pickens film-wise, I have to say, adding considerably to my ongoing conviction that the interesting stuff mostly happens on the small screen these days.  Can’t think of anything that really did much for me at the cinema since I squeezed into the most packed viewing ever to see Les Mis back in January.  Those big scifi and superhero blockbusters I saw didn’t do masses for me.  I liked Star Trek Into Darkness a hell of a lot more than its predecessor, but that isn’t saying all that much.  Kick-Ass 2 was entertaining but not exactly deep.  Pacific Rim I thought was mostly nonsense and, no, geekdom, not in a good way.  Man of Steel I didn’t even enjoy thinking about watching.  The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a good deal better than the first instalment but a long way short of the Lord of the Rings, with the story bloated up like a steroid-popping body builder losing all charm and personality in favour of ACTION and SPECTACLE.  Ah, well.  TV was a great deal more promising.  Breaking Bad got better and better (or possibly worse and worse) though I haven’t yet seen the final episodes so SHUT UP SHUT UP.  Game of Thrones Season 2 was good, sometimes very good, after a slightly wobbly oversexed start.  Hannibal was largely riveting stuff with some awesome design and some great performances, Vikings was an interestingly off-beat and authentic-feeling effort that I look forward to the continuation of, Hell on Wheels 1 and 2 were also promising.  Justified Season 3 continued to improve on the sparky character-led police hijinks of the previous two series.  Spartacus Vengeance was more of the same brilliant/awful lurid schlock.  The Danes offered us a great final season of Borgen, and a not-so-great final season of the Killing.  The French offered us the initially gripping and ultimately baffling The Returned.  Sons of Anarchy I find watchable enough in the main but I wouldn’t be that bothered if I saw no more.  Dexter still offers a few things to like but is really dribbling away by Season 6.  I enjoyed Season 2 of the Walking Dead in spite of many issues, however they’ve sorted out most of those by a storming Season 3, the end of which I haven’t quite got to.  Probably the most pleasure I got out of TV was soaking through my t-shirts with tears watching the full five season run of Friday Night Lights.  You wouldn’t think a show about a Texas High School football team would be my cup of tea at all but, heavens, the acting, the scripting, the storytelling, the commentary on american life, the raw emotions.  Brilliant Stuff.  I’m tearing up again!  Help me, coach, teach me how to be a man!  Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose…

GAMES – After a slightly disappointing 2012, 2013 will be remembered as an absolutely vintage year.  Good stuff often happens at the end of a hardware generation and some of this year’s releases were particularly noticeable not only for their technical strengths but for their strengths in character and narrative.  The White-Knuckle Tomb Raider Reboot then the Mind-Bending Bioshock: Infinite both delivered powerful central story lines.  For me, in spite of a far smaller budget, Telltale’s harrowing Walking Dead video game got closer to the holy grail of interactive drama than the fascinating yet flawed Beyond: Two Souls.  Grand Theft Auto 5 was pretty triumphant however you look at it.  The one player campaign may not quite have had the depth and thematic cohesion some of the previous outings offered, but for sheer quantity of content and realisation of a living, breathing, beautifully detailed free-roaming game world it is untouchable, and its multiplayer incarnation was rich and varied enough to get me finally playing something online for a significant chunk of time.  In spite of the fierce, fierce competition, though, my game of the year has to be the magnificently stark and uncompromising The Last of Us, which for boldness, characterisation, detail of setting, richness of experience, seamless fusion of action and story and sheer narrative drive from first frame to last set new standards for scripted games.

BEST REVIEWS – No new books means no significant splurge of reviews, and I must confess that I’m finding reviews as a whole just a lot less fascinating than I used to.  Partly it’s that you see the same points and arguments repeated over and over, partly it’s that I’m just not as fresh and interesting and review worthy as I once was, partly it’s that when you put together a hundred reviews of a book you tend to see pretty much every viewpoint expressed somewhere, and partly it’s that there seems to be less and less connection between the critical and commercial spheres and, I dunno, the commercial sphere just interests me a lot more.  It seems more honest in the main.  I get bored by the contempt for success and the celebration of obscurity you seem to get from a lot of ‘serious’ critics.  Still, no doubt when people start to react to Half a King I’ll be glued to the interwebs for every grain of opinion once again…

CONTROVERSIES – Ongoing criticism of cynicism and darkness in fantasy, not to use that elusive term ‘grimdark’, caused me to write a post on The Value of Grit early in the year, which prompted a fair bit of response, but in a way it’s a reheating and re-examination of a familiar circular argument.  There’s a degree to which, once you’ve spent a fair bit of time about the internet genre scene, you start to see the same comments and controversies coming up over and over in one guise or another and you’re forced to wonder whether you have any further substantial contribution, or even frothy outrage, to offer.  That, and the fact I’ve talked about pretty much every aspect of the publishing scene at one time or another has caused me to cut back on the blogging slightly this year.  I’m still going to be talking about TV, games, whisky, publishing, my forthcoming work, and all the other stuff I’ve always talked about when there are substantial posts to make, but I’m also reasonably active on Twitter these days (@LordGrimdark), and some of the smaller comments and announcements (not to mention arguments) are happening over there…

Happy new year, readers!

Speculative Fiction 2012

Posted on April 24th, 2013 in news, reading, reviews

Two of my favourite sci-fi and fantasy bloggers, Justin Landon and Jared Shurin, have collected together some of last year’s best essays and reviews from around the blogosphere into a single volume, including Joe Abercrombie’s review of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself (I liked it, on the whole):

“Speculative Fiction 2012 collects over fifty articles from some of the top bloggers and authors in science fiction and fantasy, including over two dozen reviews. Contributors include Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Alexander, Kate Elliott, N. K. Jemisin, Aidan Moher, Abigail Nussbaum, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sam Sykes and Lavie Tidhar.”

You can find it in the US for $11.99 and in the UK for £8.99, with Kindle and other e-book formats to follow over the next week or two.
It’s an interesting project with a lot of great pieces, and proceeds from all sales go to http://www.roomtoread.org/.

 

Do You Read Lots of Fantasy?

Posted on April 19th, 2013 in process, reading, The Inquisition

Back to the Inquisition, and I get the feeling I’m going to be in the chair for some time.  Matt asks:

Do you read pretty much every new fantasy book that comes out and are their any current sf/f authors you regard as rivals of yours?

Ah, other writers, other books.  This one may land me in a little bit of trouble, but TROUBLE is my middle name.  Actually it’s Edward, but trouble would be cooler.

Do I read every new fantasy book?  I think it’s safe to say that I read very few, shading towards none.  I don’t actually read that much at all any more.  Partly that’s because a lot of my reading was done on the tube, commuting to work in London, and these days my commute takes me from my kitchen all the way into my office.  Partly it’s because after spending all day writing and reading your own work the last thing you want to do is read.  Partly it’s because what I do read is often more or less research for what I’m writing or planning to write at the time, and most of that research is history, and a lot of the rest is novels outside of the fantasy arena.  So for The Heroes, I read a lot of non-fiction about war, and some fiction based in the american civil war, the napoleonic wars, the vietnam war, etc. etc.  For Red Country I read westerns.

I read a whole lot of fantasy in my youth, but I’ve always read a lot of other stuff, and I think that’s probably important for a writer to do.  My own feeling has tended to be that original ideas and approaches are more likely to be found outside the genre you’re working in, than by exhaustively reading within it.  Sometimes I hear people express an attitude of – ‘if you aren’t totally aware of the field in infinitesimal detail, how can you write something original?’ which seems to me so arse about tit I hardly know where to begin with it.  For me, originality is in the authorial voice, the authorial attitude, the take on the material, rather than in the magic system or the shape of the continents or the arrangement of blobs of narrative.  Originality comes from an honest look inside, and a pulling together of disparate influences from all kinds of sources, rather than an exhaustive look outside.

In general, when it comes to other writers, as a venomously ambitious sociopath without the emotions of shame or guilt, I like to live by Gore Vidal’s maxim, ‘every time a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies.’  I therefore regard any and all writers as rivals to be destroyed.  But seriously *ahem*, I actually feel very lucky to be – however little it may have been planned – part of a wave, or a group, or a phalanx, or perhaps a fellowship, of writers of epic(ish) fantasy who appeared around the same time.  Rivals in a sense, I guess, but a little healthy competition is definitely a good thing, and I’d say that we’ve all benefitted a little from the presence of each other, and a general sense of excitement and development in the sub-genre that’s brought everyone some extra attention.  Also excellent people to get drunk with at a convention, on the whole.  So Tom Lloyd and Scott Lynch’s first books were published within a couple of months of The Blade Itself by Gollancz in 2006.  Pat Rothfuss, Brent Weeks and Peter Brett followed maybe the next year.  Richard Morgan began to pollute fantasy with the dangerous filth he had been polluting sf with shortly after.  Mark Lawrence, Doug Hulick, Brad Beaulieu after that.  There have even been many and varied contributions from *gasp* not white guys like NK Jemisin, Kameron Hurley, Elspeth Cooper, Saladin Ahmed, and David Anthony Durham over the last few years.  The time since I’ve been published has also seen GRRM go from very successful genre writer to spectacularly successful writer full stop with a massive TV series, and I’m sure that’s had, and will continue to have, a hugely beneficial effect for the rest of us.  Of course there are many, many other writers of all kinds newly appearing and long established writing an ever-expanding range of varieties of fantasy, these are just the first names that pop into my head as being rough contemporaries in terms of publication and in a similar arena to me.  My apologies to anyone I’ve missed out.  I guess my point would be, if I have one, that it seems to me a fine time to be a reader, or for that matter a writer, of fantasy.

You lucky bastards.

Maybe I should even be reading some of it myself…

2012 in Review

Posted on December 31st, 2012 in film and tv, games, Other Life, reading, reviews

Worst.  Christmas.  Ever.  I was hit with a stomach bug late Christmas Eve and only got out of bed all day to haunt the bathroom saying, ‘oh god, oh god, oh god.’  In total, I ate four shreddies.  Only member of the household to escape was my wife, and in a sense hers was the worst fate since she had to clean up after the three children, who all got it too.

But Christmas is past now, thank heavens, and New Year is upon us.  38 today, and blow me if that isn’t another year down the pan.  Last year I was talking about how the building project was finally dragging to a close.  I can happily report that it still hasn’t quite finished another year on.  Crazy.  I actually have a six year old daughter now.  When the hell did that happen?   And I published one more book.  That makes six altogether, over 1.2 million words of fiction out there in the marketplace.  So what’s been happening this year, then?

A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – Yeah, again, I really can’t complain.  Well, I could, and frequently do.  But I really shouldn’t complain.  Red Country came out in October in the UK, and though it only made no. 10 on the hardcover bestseller list, it was during one of the most competitive weeks of the year.  It sold slightly fewer hardcovers in its first week than The Heroes had done the previous January to make no. 3, but sold considerably better on export across Europe, and also a far greater number of e-books, demonstrating the shape of things to come, no doubt, with a dwindling hardcover market and a steadily increasing e-book one.  The US edition followed in November and, despite last-minute rescheduling, made the New York Times list for the first time.  No. 27 but, hey, still immensely pleasing, and I love room for improvement.  I’m an international Sunday and New York Times bestselling author, biatches, you can never take that away from me!  The other five books continue to tick over rather nicely too, and I’ve done more travelling and conventioning than ever this year, with visits to the US, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Australia as well as a goodly number of British appearances.  Need to scale that back a bit next year or I’ll get nothing done…

A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – Better than last year, certainly.  Wrote the last third of Red Country and edited it, obviously.  Also turned in a pretty substantial short story, about 12,000 words, which should appear in due course.  There’s actually another short story of some 8,000 words which I wrote not last year but the year before (end of 2010) which is still waiting for publication, more news on these when I have it.  The hefty touring schedule took out most of October and November, though I’ve still managed to make a fair bit of progress on a couple of other projects the details of which shall for the time being remain secret but will in due course be revealed to shocked gasps of shock, amazement, shock, wonder and delight.  Probably.

BOOKS – A pitiful amount of reading has been done this year, truly pitiful.  A few more westerns early on, some viking-related stuff towards the end of the year, the pick of it probably Frans Bengtsson’s classic The Long Ships which is well worth a look.  Other notable reads have all been by friends/acquaintances, so the usual disclaimers that I know these authors at least a little bit, but I thoroughly enjoyed all three.  Adam Nevill’s British Fantasy Award Winning The Ritual is survival horror with the edges left on, as a set of wayward weekend walkers fall foul of something hideous and unknowable in the primordial forests of Sweden.  Robert Low’s The Wolf Sea is the sequel to his excellent The Whale Road - savage, dark, authentic-feeling viking fiction.  Garth Nix’s Confusion of Princes is space opera with wit, wonder, pace and focus.

TV and FILM – I finally saw the first season of Game of Thrones, and thought they’d made an excellent fist of it, I must say.  I’m really delighted to finally see a gritty fantasy (THE gritty fantasy, some would say) so convincingly brought to screen, especially the small screen, as that seems to be where a lot of the exciting work is happening these days.  That exciting work for me this year has included the bleak and brilliant Breaking Bad season 3, the bleak and beautiful Mad Men season 5, the bleak and insightful In Treatment season 2, as well as a vintage season of Strictly Come Dancing. But I’m not sure the best thing I saw all year wasn’t the excellent Danish/Swedish thriller The Bridge, even better than The Killing, second season of which didn’t quite reach the heights of the first.  On the larger screen there were a clutch of interesting SFnal releases.  Prometheus I found a baffling mess.  The remake of Total Recall was pants.  The Hobbit was far from awful but also far from the heights of Lord of the Rings and could have shed a good half hour of self-important bloat.  In the increasingly congested superhero arena the new rebooted Spiderman reboot started well for me then middled badly and ended worse and probably the franchise needs another new rebooted reboot now, I shouldn’t wonder.  Iron Man 2 was pretty good, partly because of Sam Rockwell’s ace performance.  Avengers Assemble gave me mixed feelings, though.  The Dark Knight Rises wilted a little under the weight of its own unrealism and fell well short of its predecessor.  Pick of the SF for me was probably the stripped-down, tough and hungry Dredd, which hit squarely what it aimed at, and the interesting Looper, which had big ambitions it perhaps fell slightly short of.  A lot of people liked Skyfall but I found it very disappointing – a hodge-podge of bond-ish moments without much plot or coherent thread through the middle.  Having seemed to offer so much this latest Bond incarnation feels like it’s falling back on all the cliches, now, with only deliciously nasty Javier Bardem offering much zip opposite an oddly uninvolved and uninvolving Daniel Craig.  Perhaps my favourite film of the year was the stylish yet brutal, silent yet explosive Drive.  Hmm.  Bryan Cranston has been in two of my favourite things this year.  And one of my least favourite…

GAMES – 2012 promised much but there have been perhaps a few minor disappointments.  Stuff like Darksiders II and Kingdoms of Amalur passed hours but left little long-lasting impression.  Dragon’s Dogma was charming but sorta … odd.  I personally doubt that extremely violent games make you violent, but Max Payne 3 proved that they can certainly make you bored.  Dishonored looked like a real humdinger, and in many ways it is, with superb styling, original setting, and looks to die for but, I dunno, after putting a few hours in I haven’t felt hugely compelled to go back to it.  Instead I started playing Assassin’s Creed 3 which, again, looks like a real humdinger, with a huge world, some nimble plotting and loads of diverse content but, I dunno, there’s a LOT of running around, the resource management system is stunningly clunky and over-complicated and, lovingly rendered though its American War of Independence setting is, it lacks the pop and variety of Renaissance Italy.  Plus there seems something, I dunno, rather hamfisted and wilfully stupid in its treatment of the historical subject matter that either was done better or just didn’t bother me in the more distant historical material of the previous games.  So what was good?  Well, X-Com ticked most of the boxes with a good deal more depth and content than you’ll usually get on a Playstation and that’s my number 3 for the year, with a two way tie for number 1 between two very different beasties.  The ending of Mass-Effect 3 went down a storm with the gaming public.  A shitstorm, that is, unparalleled in its ferocity.  I was a little bemused by the reaction.  The series just didn’t have a heavy central theme that could produce a barnstorming conclusion like Red Dead Redemption, so I got pretty much what I expected – half an hour of incoherent hand-wavy nonsense.  But that by no means spoiled my enjoyment of what, up until that moment, had been a brilliant game.  Lacking the depth, edge, and subtlety of Mass-Effect 2, maybe, but with the game system, cutscenes and arcade elements better than ever before.  I don’t think there’s a better fusion of action, roleplaying and sheer filmic storytelling to be had in a computer game.  Yeah, crappy end, real crappy, but even so.  And sharing the laurel wreath, a late entry in the form of Borderlands 2, building on everything that made the first one such an unexpected treat and upping the ante in terms of looks, settings, humour, ludicrous quantity of guns, and delivering one of video gaming’s classic villains in Handsome Jack.  It’s just an awful lot of fun.

BEST REVIEWS – Quite a few nice ones for Red Country, if I say so myself.  Allow me to pick out a couple of highlights.  Publishers weekly said, “Terrific fight scenes, compelling characters, and sardonic, vivid prose show Abercrombie at the top of his game.” Jared at Pornokitsch thought, “Abercrombie is fast supplanting George R.R. Martin as the standard by which all contemporary epic fantasy should be measured.”  Phew, I don’t know about that, Jared, but thanks all the same.  The Guardian said, “Abercrombie writes fantasy like no one else: Red Country is a marvellous follow-up to his highly praised The Heroes.”  The Independent had it, “This is not the epic fantasy of your fathers … Red Country reads like neither a Western nor a fantasy novel, but something new, fresh and exciting.”  But I’ll give the last word to Niall Alexander writing for Tor.com, when he says: “Red Country is vile at times, and plain ugly most all others, but mark my words: from source to termination, you won’t be able to look away… because by the dead, this book is brilliant … the work of Joe Abercrombie is as blackly fantastic as it’s ever been, and markedly more approachable than before.”  Zing.

BEST WORST REVIEW – I’m a little surprised, actually.  There was, of course, the usual crop of amazon one-starrings, Goodreads-lashings, accusations of overratings and offhand chat-room pastings, but nothing really stands out as did Leo Grin’s existential broadside of last year.  Ah well.  Perhaps next year someone will really tear me a new one on the internet.  We can hope…

Happy new year, readers!

Westerns

Posted on August 1st, 2012 in reading

Red Country is finished!  Or at least my final changes are made.  Page proofs will no doubt appear some time over the coming weeks for a final read through, but basically it’s done.  One always feels one could perhaps do a little more, tweak something here, something there, but the last run through was mostly for tone and word choice and I didn’t make a great number of changes.  Too often found I was just slipping into reading without really concentrating on what could be changed, what could be improved.  Diminishing returns, and production want a manuscript, and so … adieu.

Thought this might be a good time to recommend a few westerns I’ve read and enjoyed, both while working on this book and before, and that have probably had some influence on one part or another of Red Country.  A lot of the influences, perhaps most, have been filmic ones, but I’ll stick to books for now:

Pete Dexter, Deadwood – I suspect the makers of the TV series owe a debt to this offbeat, dark and hilarious telling of the last days of Wild Bill Hickok.

A.B. Guthrie, The Big Sky and The Way West – Great novels of the early west.  Tough and authentic-seeming, it’s hard to believe they were written in the late 40s.

Richard Matheson, Journal of the Gun Years - If you only read one on this list, make it this one.  Very slim, very powerful story of the cost of violence, from the man who brought you I am Legend.  I’d never heard of it before plucking it at random from a bookstore shelf but I’m mighty glad I did.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian - The west as hell.  The crazy, unpunctuated biblical style and searing bleakness won’t be for everyone, but you can’t ignore the power.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove – Superb stuff.  Tough, moving, packed with memorable characters.  There’s a brilliant TV adaptation as well.

Charles Portis, True Grit - A classic, with brilliant voice and style.

Elmore Leonard, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard – He’s a master at characterisation, is Leonard, and can sketch a vivid character with a few words of description and a line of dialogue.  I read a couple of his full-length westerns as well (I say full length, they’re barely more than novellas, really) and I thought in the end his stuff worked a lot better short form.  Valdez is Coming is an extension and elaboration of one of the stories in this volume, and he actually takes a fascinating, surprising, and hard edged short story and spins a rather predictable novel out of it.  The shorts are fantastic, though.  Amazing how many memorable characters he produces in these thirty stories, and never seems to be treading the same ground.

Hampton Sides, Blood and Thunder – The only non-fiction I’m putting in here.  Rousing account of the conquest of the west centring on Kit Carson.

I read an awful lot of other stuff too, but these are the ones I’d unreservedly recommend…

Best Served Cold – reread

Posted on June 19th, 2012 in reading

And so we come to Best Served Cold, which is the last of these rereads I’ll be doing for the time being.  The Heroes was pretty recent and I feel it’s still pretty firmly in mind, and the nominal aim of this exercise was to familiarise myself with past characters and events while finishing work on Red Country rather than only to heap glory upon myself.  That said, Best Served Cold is fucking excellent, which is nice.

Huge Spoilers!  Those who haven’t read Best Served Cold look away NOW!  And indeed buy and read it NOW!  Or at any rate buy it.  Reading is optional.

Some background may be helpful.  This was my fourth book, but in many ways my difficult second project, as Before They are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings obviously continued with the same characters and plotlines as The Blade Itself.  Plus it was the first book I started work on with books out there in the marketplace and therefore with (at least a little bit) of expectation from readers and critics.  I’d written Last Argument of Kings in fourteen months, with relatively little blood, sweat and tears, and I expected this to be that little bit more straightforward again as I devoted more time to my writing, my craft improved and so forth.  How wrong I was.  Probably this was my most difficult book to write, I was crippled with doubts and worries about it pretty much from the start.  It’s hard to put myself in that mindset now, but I think I considered giving up on it a couple of times.  Certainly the challenge of coming up with new characters, new voices, new locations, a new style of storytelling approach, on a schedule and with people waiting, was vastly much more difficult and pressurised than I’d expected.  In the end it took about 20 months to write, I think, and for a great deal of that time I was deeply worried that it would turn out … let’s say a little bit shit, and indeed that I’d never write anything as good as The First Law again.  ‘Well, not every book can be your best…’ said with a mournful shrug of the shoulders was a frequent refrain of that time, as I recall.

Partly I think that was entirely inevitable having, against any expectations, finished “that project I’d always dreamed of writing since a young lad”, and having used up a lot of the ideas I’d come up with during, well, my life (alright, stolen from other writers) in writing The First Law.  Partly it was difficulties with making the central character, Monza, work.  Even back then (I was starting to plan this book probably around the time Before They are Hanged came out) I was a little dissatisfied with what I’d done with the women in The First Law, and I wanted to try my hand at a woman in the lead role.  One would desire that the writing of a female character should be identical to a male one (not necessarily that the characters should feel identical whether male or female, but that the writing process should be the same with the same aim of producing the most vivid, interesting, authentic, multi-dimensional character possible), but I think there are actually a whole range of factors that make writing women more difficult than writing men if you’re a man.  There are elements of the female experience you’re always going to be slightly guessing at.  Just as one example, you’re probably going to have a lot of direct experience of how groups of men behave, you’ll hopefully have at least some experience of how men and women behave around each other, but by definition you probably won’t know much directly about how groups of women behave.  The likelihood is extremely high that you won’t personally have had to deal with sexism in the same way.  Stuff like that.  And then you’ve probably read, watched, absorbed a shit-load of male-centric media of one kind or another as well, and not a lot of female-centric.  You can research, you can ask questions, but watching How to Make an American Quilt just ain’t much substitute for, you know, being a woman.  Plus you’re probably aware that your women characters are going to be exposed to a kind of scrutiny your male ones probably won’t be.  If you’re writing tight point of view that slight distance, that slight doubt, perhaps a tendency to over-think and over-worry, can amount to some significant trouble in making a female character effortlessly pop in perhaps the way your male ones do.  I’m by no means saying that it’s not possible for men to write good women, but for me, at least, I think it adds a level of difficulty – it’s definitely been something I’ve had – and continue to have – to work at.  Anyway, Monza was difficult, and there were a lot of exacerbating factors: she was a central character in a way that I hadn’t had before, Glokta, Logen and Jezal had pretty much equal screen time in The First Law but here Monza’s PoV accounted for not much less than half the whole book, so the stakes were high.  She was entirely the driving force of the book as well – Glokta, Logen and Jezal had minimal agency, they tended to very much react to events being directed from elsewhere, whereas Monza’s quest for vengeance was the engine from which all the events in Best Served Cold had to flow.  And she was fundamentally not particularly likeable, especially to begin with, she’s cold, tough, calculating, ruthless, ultra single-minded.  It wasn’t until I got to the end of my first draft that I really felt she resolved in my own mind, and I got a handle on how to make her work, mostly through a lot of cutting and streamlining.  I think she does work, but doesn’t necessarily offer that immediately likeable, relatable, vivid central thread that Logen, and maybe even Glokta, give you in The First Law.

Best Served Cold certainly got good reviews at the time, not least from GRRM who described it as “a kind of splatterpunk sword n’ sorcery Count of Monte Cristo,” tee hee, still pleased with that one three years later, but looking at reader sites it’s probably my least liked book.  Or at any rate my most divisive one.  The most often disliked.  On Goodreads it scores 4.06 compared to an average for me of 4.14, on Librarything 3.98 compared to 4.15 overall, on Amazon UK 3.8 compared to 4.2 for The Blade Itself and, for instance, a whacking 4.5 for The Heroes.  Not massively significant, but noticeable, I’d say.  Out of 69 reviews on amazon UK, it has 10 three star, 10 two star, and 4 one star.  The Heroes has 56 reviews, with just 3 three star, 1 two star, and no one star.  Obviously how a book scores on amazon is far from the only method of assessing its success, but still interesting.  Some common criticisms, then, and whether they struck a chord with me having reread:

It’s not book four of the First Law.  Well duh.

Monza isn’t likeable.  As detailed above, there’s certainly some truth to this, but the degree of her unlikeability, as well as whether an unlikeable protagonist is necessarily a big problem, is going to depend on the reader.  I actually found her pretty likable this time, or certainly relatable.  She’s strong to a fault, savage even, but as the story unfolds we see she’s less evil than she seems, or even than she thinks, and not without her weaknesses, failings, guilt, occasional tendencies towards mercy for all they never do her any good.  I actually think the little flashbacks that precede each part work really well, not only in breaking up the story into episodes, but in drip-feeding the reader a different interpretation of the past, one she can never present to others, or perhaps even to herself, she’s so trapped behind her own image of ruthlessness.  It’s not necessarily that she improves so much as we come to see her differently as the story goes on.  She gets no better than ambiguous, I guess, but she does at least get that far.  More subtle than the way I usually tend to do these things, and asking more of the reader to rehabilitate an unlikeable character than to make them doubt a likeable one, but I still liked her and, much more importantly for me, since I’d much rather find a character interesting than likeable, found her deep and relatively convincing.  I guess you could say she’s very masculine, fitting unapologetically into the hole that an ultra-macho male lead could occupy in this kind of story.  She’s tough, self-reliant, hard-headed, ruthless, single-minded, decisive, arrogant, risk-taking, suspicious, manipulative, prone to verbal and physical violence, dominant in pretty much all her relationships.  A man with tits, I think I’ve seen her described as, but that’s always seemed a really strange criticism to me, as though there’s only a certain range of behaviour within which a female character can be convincing.  So Monza not likeable?  I’m not that arsed.

It’s too bleak and nasty.  Well, you can’t expect me to take this one too seriously, can you?  I mean, yeah, it’s dark.  The body count, certainly in the supporting characters, is way high, if not to say comprehensive.  It’s savage.  There’s a lot of intense violence and a fair bit of explicit sex and none of that is particularly … loving.  Nothing is sugar-coated, that’s for sure.  The scene with the eye may well be the most uncompromisingly nasty I’ve written, and Shivers’ plotline and descent into careless evil is, well, pretty horrible.  Certainly I think it’s fair to say that there’s not a lot of warm human emotion going on – everyone is treacherous, everyone’s after revenge, most relationships are ones of necessity between desperate people and end in disappointment.  But, you know, it’s about war, treachery and revenge.  What do you expect?  I actually think the ending is a good deal more positive than the First Law.  There’s every indication that Monza is going to be pretty damn successful as a ruler.  She ain’t touchy feely, but she’s pretty damn ruthlessly competent, that’s for sure.  Related is an occasional complaint that this book lacks the sense of humour of the trilogy, and I must say I don’t see that at all.  Cosca has some great lines but there’s also what I consider to be some funny stuff from Rogont, from Morveer, even from Shivers and Friendly, and Monza herself, though you wouldn’t call her jolly, can produce some acid laughs.  Overall I thought the timing had only improved.  So too bleak and nasty?  Nah, just bleak and nasty enough.

It’s too long.  I suspect this one somewhat depends.  If you’re loving it you might think it was too short.  The treatment had predicted a length of 150-175,000 words and the first two parts came in at around 25,000 words each, so had things stayed that way I would have hit the target with seven parts.  As I introduced other points of view, though, especially Cosca, and the murders became more convoluted and bound up in larger plots, the parts (perhaps predictably) started to expand.  In the end the book came in just a little shorter than Last Argument of Kings, somewhere around 228,000 words.  It might well have been better to go for six, or maybe five men to be killed and therefore five parts, perhaps trimming one or two of the points of view, but I’d have had to make that decision pretty early on.  Certainly I think, having gone with seven and worked out what the locations and content would be for each, I had to stick to the plan and let the book be the length it needed to be.  I certainly don’t feel it’s bloated myself, it feels tight in the writing.  I guess you could say that there’s always going to be a fundamental similarity between the parts – a man to kill, a plan to do it, the execution of it, onto the next, but it’s hard to see which part you’d cut – I made an effort to give each ‘episode’ a different tone, a different target, a different approach, a different backdrop, plus the broadening of the scale to finally bring in the whole politics of Styria works nicely, and the changing (or perhaps disintegrating) relationships within Monza’s dysfunctional fellowship move at the right pace.  So, yeah, maybe could have been that little bit shorter, but no huge regrets from me here, except of course that I could’ve been paid the same for less work, curse it…

Generally speaking, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The writing felt nice and tight.  A slight tendency toward listiness in some of the descriptions but overall I thought the settings came across vividly – worldbuilding ain’t especially my thing but I think I did reasonably well at it here, the cities are distinct and there are some very memorable scenes.  I also noticed, or perhaps was reminded of, a few neat tricks of writing that I’d forgotten about – the seven men to be killed all have an animal with which they’re metaphorically associated – Mauthis a vulture, Gobba a pig, Faithful an old hound and so on – then the different parts all have a different style of imagery that keeps coming up – Visserine is full of painterly or sculptural metaphors, Westport of financial ones, and so on.  Perhaps the first half of the book is a little stronger and more focused than the second, but I noticed nowhere where things really started to flag.  The sequences in and around Cardotti’s House of Leisure I think are some of my best, really good use of alternating PoV, nice building of tension, nice description, nice shocks and surprises.  That scene in which Cosca and Shivers select entertainers for the party I really enjoyed – funny, nimble, quick, delivering loads of information about the principals and their relationship while providing laughs and advancing the plot.  Cracking multiple action sequence at the end as well, and I felt in general the action was varied and punchy enough to keep interest where it slightly flagged at times in Last Argument.  Good pacing in this book, the seven episode structure worked well, there was a constant feel of cutting to the chase, the plot unfolds neatly and delivers surprises, the complimentary arcs of Shivers’ decline and Monza’s rehabilitation worked well for me, and there are some able supporting performances from Cosca, Friendly, Shenkt, Morveer, Vitari and others.  The dialogue really sings at times.  Of the four books I’d say I enjoyed it and Before They are Hanged the most.  Probably this one I came closest to simply reading as, well, a reader would.  I even felt that slightly mournful feeling when I finished it this morning.  Ooooh, though, I wish he’d write another….

Last Argument of Kings – reread

Posted on June 13th, 2012 in reading

My readthrough of the First Law comes to a triumphant close, and the trilogy as a whole stands undiminished as a cracking read, a redefinition of fantasy, the culmination of seventy years of development of the form and yada yada yada.  I can remember thinking this was way my best book when it was published.  It was certainly the easiest to write (only took about 14 months, my quickest to write despite being my longest), and probably had the best reviews to that point.  But with distance I’d have to say it’s slightly patchy, slightly uneven.  Some really excellent stuff, but also some slightly lazy, uninspiring stuff suffering from a touch of fatigue, and a few plot threads left undeveloped in the rush to pay off the main threads big, a few characters left neglected in the carnage.  That unevenness is a bit of a drawback, no doubt, and leaves me feeling that Before They are Hanged is the most assured of the trilogy, actually.  Apologies for this long and rambling post, but there’s quite a lot to cover…

Spoilers!  Spoilers!  Massive spoilers!

The writing seemed a little less polished than it had in Before They are Hanged, not always, there were some really tight scenes, but often enough.  A little bit of slightly lazy repetitiveness creeping in, some loose lines here or there that really add nothing.  Bayaz is frosty, then he’s icy a few sentences later.  People nod and frown and use rather bland gestures rather than doing things that feel new and arresting and illustrative of their character.  I actually spotted a couple of real howlers, as well – “he closed his eyes and stared numbly down at the polished tabletop,” was one I particularly enjoyed.  Or rather didn’t.  It’s incredible, you go through this stuff over and over with a fine tooth comb and they still slip through.  Minor though these things are, I think their cumulative effect on the overall sense of immersion and trust, if you like, in the writing, can be quite damaging.  Jezal and Glokta’s chapters in the first part were generally the worst offenders – the more ‘cultured’ voices, if you will, while the stuff in the north generally felt tighter.

Glokta’s thoughts became a little less nimble again, as well.  A little less sharp and to the point.  You can see it just looking at the pages, sometimes.  Rather than a comment here, an aside there, there are big chunks, whole paragraphs of italics.  Perhaps that’s because he has more lifting to do from an expository standpoint – he tends to shoulder the biggest burden in explaining the Union’s politics to the reader – but it could have been more elegant.  There’s also some occasional rather – clumsy isn’t the word – artless, perhaps, summing up of things at key moments in a voice that strays a little close to authorial insertion.  Jezal and Logen reflect to themselves in a very tell not show sort of way.  Tell not show is generally bollocks, of course, there are rubbish ways of showing and brilliant ways of telling, and these are sometimes very pithy and quotable, but, again, perhaps distract from point of view discipline, sometimes labour the point a little.  Overall there’s a slight sense of bloat at times, of slightly smug discursion – not so much at the scene and sequence level, but in the detail, which surprises me as Last Argument of Kings is my longest book, a good deal longer than the other two in the trilogy, and I felt as if I made heroic efforts to bring it in as tight as possible.  I think Before They are Hanged is a good deal tighter.

Obviously what you do get is conclusion, surprises, and big ass action sequences, so I think there are good reasons why people might like this book most of the three.  There are some very good twists and shocks – some you see coming from far off like a chugging freight train, others come from nowhere with suitable punch.  Especially since The Blade Itself can be seen as slightly diffuse and plotless, you can see that the work done there does pay off here, on the whole.  In general I feel the various endings are suitably tough, uncompromising, and genre-subverting, and I very much like the way things carry on beyond the natural endpoint to show the costs, consequences, and outcomes both political and personal.  People have occasionally complained that the book goes on after its natural end but I think those people are a little bit silly, actually, as it’s in this extended end that I think much of the best stuff and the tightest writing is concentrated.  I really like the way that most of the characters in some way come full circle, their last chapters echoing their first.  It’s an ending powerful, spicy, and long, like the finish on a good whisky.  Nice metaphor, I should consider being a writer.  The ending, or perhaps the various endings, are pretty dark, no doubt, and that ain’t going float everyone’s boat but I don’t regret it in the least, I think it’s entirely fitting and sits well on the opposite side of the scales to some of the blandly predictable positive outcomes or bittersweet heroic sacrifices epic fantasy as a whole has spooned up over the years.

There’s perhaps a little too much action, though.  A slight feeling that, having turned it to ten in Before They are Hanged I needed to turn it to eleven twelve times in this book.  That exploding, splinter-flying, gut churning stuff is kind of my trademark and a lot of it works well, but I think there’s a combined slight fatigue in the writing – oh my god, how am I going to make this fifteenth scene of mayhem distinct – and just a cumulative loss of impact with some of the big, extended scenes.  The siege in the mountains comes in three big ass chunks, the final battle in Adua is massive and, I dunno, I can remember feeling slightly out of ideas at times when writing it and I think as a reader the eyes occasionally glaze over a little.  Like chilli sauce, it’s the sort of thing that’s perhaps better used sparingly.  It’s actually some of the smaller, more distinct action scenes which work better.  Logen’s duel with the Feared while the Dogman creeps into Carleon, the battle inside the House of the Maker, both the appearances of the Bloody-Nine.  Some of my best, so far as that goes, though I can’t help thinking they’d work even better if the overall pacing and tightness was quite as assured as it was in the previous book.  It’s actually the personal things that I think deliver most – the conversation between Logen and Bethod which puts the past, and therefore the reader’s whole understanding of Logen, in an entirely different light works very nicely.  Likewise Jezal’s fumbling progress to a better man, the slow revelation of Bayaz’ true character, the relationship between Glokta and Ardee, his development into the ruthless Arch Lector.

Plotting-wise, I think some things slide into place with the smoothness of a well-oiled machine while others … don’t do much at all.  There isn’t the same smooth interaction between the different plot threads in generating overall tension as there was in Before They are Hanged.  Things are more fragmented.  I think in classic fantasy author style I had a slight eyes bigger than belly syndrome, introducing more plot threads, characters and background than I ended up having quite the space and time to fully pay off.  I was absolutely determined to keep this to three books, and I’m very glad that I followed through on that, but I think the result is that some stuff was slightly wasted in the scramble to deliver.  So Jezal’s plot as the inversion of the boy with the special destiny, guided to a prophesied kingship by a mysterious mentor – score.  Logen’s as an inversion of the righteous man of violence – double score.  Glokta’s plotline breaks up, though, his involvement becomes more than a little bitty.  Some nice stuff in there, and his cheating in the vote for the new king in the first half of the book is all well and good, but in the second he’s investigating this and that, questioning spies, caught between Sult and Marovia and Valint and Balk at various tasks then seeking out treachery in his own ranks.  It’s not that it doesn’t make sense but it lacks central thrust, you might say.  It lacks focus.  Then there’s Ferro, who definitely gets the shortest authorial thrift.  There are some really nice scenes from her point of view, actually, I like the way she reads, but she just doesn’t have much to do until right at the end.  She’s not in the book that much and doesn’t get all that much of a payoff.  In general I think I’d initially conceived of the demon-related stuff: Tolomei, her backstory with Bayaz, Sult’s schemes at the University and Ferro’s involvement in them, as being more integral and developed.  I’d devoted a fair amount of time in the previous books to Quai’s replacement, Tolomei’s night-time appearances to Logen and Glokta, and so on, the groundwork was laid, but in the end didn’t do a lot with them.  The resolution of Sult’s scheme is quite perfunctory, almost played for bathos, and I could certainly have done a great deal more with that.

Women continue to be a problem.  Not enough, not interesting enough, occasionally very cliche.  Some further thoughts on this in the comments to the post on Before They are Hanged, which I think continue to apply here.  I actually think Ardee and Ferro are both good characters, and would work fine among a more diverse and vivid selection of women, but Ferro as the only female PoV is not very well served in this book, not present enough and, having shown some movement towards depth in the previous book reverts to being more one-noted again.  Vitari, again, much less present here.  Tolomei, very underdeveloped.  Eider, brief and rather fruitless appearance.  Terez and Shalere – ultra one-dimensional icy bitchy beautiful caricatures and also, looked at in hindsight, conforming to nasty lesbians put in their places stereotypes that I can hardly believe I didn’t notice at the time.  Overall there’s just a manly man’s world of men feel to the whole thing, and I think more than ever in this book.  A lack of incidental female presence.  Just a few questions that occur:  Are there no women apart from Caurib in the entire north?  Why are the female eaters all sultry and sexy?  Are women not involved in the peasant’s revolt?  Even assuming a chauvinist society, are there no powerful wives behind the incompetent noblemen of the Union?  No influential daughters?  No calculating mothers?  No virtuous paragons of womanliness to be held up to the people?  Why are characters always thinking about what their father said but rarely their mother?  Could the queen not have been a significant presence?  More women among the magi?  Why do so many of the female characters work largely through seduction?  Why do so many have some kind of sexual exploitation as a big motivating factor in their past?  Why is there virtually no interaction between women?  I think there are some reasonable answers to some of these questions, but overall it’s not a particularly gratifying picture.  Stuff to be aware of in future…

Thoughts on the series as a whole then – my feeling is the second book is the best, the smoothest, the tightest and most accomplished in terms of the pacing and writing, perhaps the best balance between craft and freshness, if you will.  You can tell The Blade Itself is a first book – there’s a roughness in the detail (although also a corresponding exuberance) and a slightly meandering sense to the plotting of someone finding their way from a planning standpoint.  Last Argument of Kings shows some faint signs of fatigue at times and although I think it largely works as a bold ending to the series not everything is developed as much or resolved as tightly as I’d ideally have liked.  But then the first book is always going to deliver the excitement of something new, and the last the satisfaction of shocks and resolutions that the second can’t, so I can well understand why people might prefer either of those to Before They are Hanged.  An entirely unscientific assessment of reader scores seems to broadly support the hypothesis that Before They are Hanged is the best liked of the three: On goodreads TBI averages 4.06/5, BTaH 4.21, and LAoK 4.20.  On Librarything they’re 4.13, 4.2, and 4.23.  Amazon UK averages 4.2, 4.5, and 4.4.  Amazon US is slightly harsher with 4.1, 4.4, and 3.9.  Though there’s perhaps an indication that LAoK is dragged down by a few very negative scores from people who hated the ending, and, you know, they’re dead to me.  DEAD.

Still, overall, I was very pleased with the reread of the series.  Proud of the achievement, if you must know, in fact I can hardly believe it was me that wrote all those pages, all those paragraphs, all those words, many of them in the dead of night, without a contract, purely for my own amusement.  Some of them even quite nicely turned, if you’ll pardon me for saying so.  Blade Itself was less sloppy than I’d expected (which is nice, since I guess many readers will always start with that one), Last Argument perhaps a little more.  But for this (admittedly somewhat sympathetic) critic I think it very much delivers what it set out to – a tough, gritty, visceral take on epic fantasy with some vivid characters, some memorable moments, some strong dialogue, and an uncompromising set of resolutions that provide some interesting twists on the staples of the genre.  If you agree with me, I suggest you buy a new set of the books to celebrate.  If you disagree, I suggest you buy every copy of the books you can find and ceremonially burn them.  That‘ll show me.

Before They are Hanged – reread

Posted on June 6th, 2012 in reading

I believe the best way to make oneself look fair-minded, adult, and emotionally big after treating someone else’s hard work, sweat and tears to an unfavourable pasting is to review one’s own work and heap praise upon it.  So, without further ado, my thoughts on re-reading Before They are Hanged:

Now we’re talking.  Yeah, this is a big improvement over The Blade Itself in all sorts of ways, at least from where I’m sitting assessing it as a writer.  Possibly there’s a slight reverse middle-book syndrome going on for me here.  As a reader the middle volume perhaps has neither the excitement of introductions nor the satisfaction of conclusions, but looked at as a writer it neither has to carry the weight of setting things up, nor put in the work of dragging the threads together (or perhaps failing to), and hence writerly screw ups of one kind or another are less likely and the book is free to just spin the wheels.  Your mileage may of course vary, and indeed many mileages have, but for my mileage Before They are Hanged spins the wheels pretty damn nicely even if I do say so myself…

Beware ye of spoilers oh pitiful fools what have not read The First Law trilogy!

Writing generally is much improved, I feel, the voices have become more distinctive and assured, the descriptive stuff is a lot more arresting – partly I think that’s a result of the travelogue nature of the plotlines which means characters are frequently running across new and exciting things in a way they weren’t so much in the first book.  If you’re writing in tight Point of View there’s simply no need to describe a character’s own familiar bedroom, or the street they walk down every day, and I think that gave some of the descriptive stuff in the first book a slightly unconvincing, info-dumpy quality.  “Jezal ran past building X where important institution Y was based and frowned up at monuments A and B commemorating important event in history Z which may be important later and neatly illustrates point C about Union culture and Jezal’s own character…” is just not honestly the experience of having a run in your own backyard.  This works a lot better, and there’s more variety in the settings as well, sweaty Dagoska alternating with the frozen North and the desolate Old Empire.  Some interesting stuff in there, and reading some of this I slightly miss the fantastic in the lower magic direction I’ve taken in the standalones.

The big score is the pacing, though.  There’s a definite sense I was piddling around somewhat in The Blade Itself while trying to manoeuvre the characters into position to get this book started, but having laid that groundwork things kick off here with a vengeance.  There are three entirely separate plotlines – Glokta’s machinations in defence of Dagoska, the Fellowship’s quest across the Old Empire, and West and the Dogman fighting oop north, and I’d say they all have a sense of well-contained forward motion.  Very little feels wasted.  Glokta in particular works much better here, freed from the direct oversight of his superiors and with Licence to Act Like a Shit from on high.  He’s at his best ruthlessly making idiots of the arrogant scum around him, and his thoughts have settled into a much more pointed and elegant acid cynicism.  Prince Ladisla, and to a lesser extent Poulder and Kroy, are much more caricature than character, but then the approach has always been for slightly larger than life supporting players (this is fantasy after all, there’s no point in being scrupulously realistic, I don’t think) and most of the stuff in the North still works well, Threetrees and the rest of the band are always good value, and the developing relationships between Logen, Jezal and Ferro are satisfying, even if some of the necessary Expounding Upon Stuff That Happened Ye Manie Centuries Ago Around The Campfire (TM) is a bit clunksome.  Above all, I felt there was a really nice rhythm to the way the three plotlines compliment each other, especially in the first half, where chapters from the quest plotline alternate with blocks of Dagoska and the North, the chapters getting shorter as things build to a crisis in each, cutting from building tension to building tension to building tension.  Slick, that.

Problems?  Well, the Bloody-Nine’s appearance is less memorable this time around, Bayaz’ magic has lost its impact somewhat, and indeed Bayaz generally is diminished as he is forced back into Ye Olde Mysteriouse Wizarde With Unexplained Planse role, but then we all know we’re going somewhere with that, so I think it’s forgivable.  Women are starting to emerge as a bit of an issue – the lack of them, the superficiality and sexification (is that a word? My spellcheck says no but I say YES) of most of those that are there, of which more later.  The action generally still strikes me as really memorable, though – the two battles in the North, the siege of Dagoska, the fight among the stones, the chase through collapsing Aulcus, all good stuff, and there are some really good speeches dotted about here and there as well, some great exchanges between Jezal and Logen, amongst the Northmen, now with added Shivers, between Glokta and pretty much everyone, especially Cosca.

Probably I shouldn’t say this, but Before They are Hanged strikes me as fucking ace, probably to the degree that your intense love for it validates you (and certainly me) as a human being.  Hmm.  Is it frowned on if cover quotes come from the author of the book itself, because I need to let the world know that they really ought to be reading this shit…

The Blade Itself – reread

Posted on May 28th, 2012 in reading

Over the last few days I’ve been reading Joe Abercrombie’s seminal work of modern fantasy, The Blade Itself.  Alright, I confess, I have read it before.  About 90 times.  In fact there’s probably no significant body of text that I’ve read more times.  In a week this book will have been published six years ago.  Which means I was making the first (probably now unrecognisable) efforts at writing the first scenes maybe nine or ten years ago.  Although I had made the very first (utterly unrecognisable apart from some of the names) abortive efforts at writing those scenes about seventeen years ago.  Which means I very much wouldn’t do things quite the same way now in all kinds of ways.  Which means it almost feels at times as if it was written by someone else.  Sometimes that’s a bad thing, sometimes a good – there were a couple of nice lines and gags I’d actually entirely forgotten.  At other times I knew the text so well I’d expect to read a line that had been taken out late in the editing and be shocked that it wasn’t there.  The notional purpose of rereading was to check whether there was anything I’d forgotten about that should find its way into the current book, particularly from the point of view of any returning characters (obviously I can’t say who but the sharp among you have probably already got your theories).  I’ve leafed through it now and again to check some detail or other but I haven’t actually sat down and read the entire thing for a good two or three years, I don’t think.  It was an interesting experience.  Occasionally a little wincy and frustrating but by and large a good deal better than I’d feared.  Some thoughts…

The writing’s a little lumpy, sometimes trying a bit too hard – why use one adjective when five are available?  Then you can repeat a couple of them later in the paragraph!  Hmmm.  A tendency towards providing pairs of nouns or adjectives when one, or perhaps none, would do.  A bit of dead-horse beating, you could say.  Sometimes it’s a bit foursquare, dwelling on who did what when, some unnecessary repetition and too much focus on technical aspects of positioning in a scene that really don’t matter at all.  He turned, then he turned back, then he turned again.  He could probably have turned less.  Or indeed simply looked forwards and delivered his dialogue.  But actually the writing was generally less embarrassing than I’d feared it might be.  Some of the descriptive bits are a little, I don’t know, lacking in sparkle, prone to become a bit listy and unimaginative, and sometimes there’s a slightly trying, breathless, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to tell you how ace this is,’ sense to things, but the dialogue is largely there, there are some really nice exchanges I’d forgotten about.  If there’s one relative strength that I’d identify it is the dialogue.  The different ‘voices’ for the different points of view generally work but haven’t totally settled down at this stage.  I actually found the prose-style with Ferro’s chapters worked really well although I was trying a bit hard for an emotional payoff there, and the Dogman just always worked right off, but Glokta’s internal voice I actually found rather surprisingly disappointing – works in some of the more reflective sequences where he’s just thinking, but comes across as trying too hard when it’s working as a commentary on action and conversation – sometimes a bit obvious and lacking in subtlety, I’d say.  It improved as things went on, though and undoubtedly had its moments.  Perhaps overused?

I’d say probably the biggest problem is with content and pacing.  The different threads don’t necessarily interact all that smoothly.  There are some really nice sequences at the Contest, in the House of the Maker, when the Bloody-Nine appears, but they tend not to coincide, coming as blips out of a flatline of occasionally rather dull hanging around rather than building together to a crescendo.  In general the first part works fine – although I think a slightly meandering sense remains from when the early chapters were first written more as test samples than as part of a larger, planned out whole – but in the second part you’re waiting for an increase in intensity and if anything there’s a relaxation, a bit of a dispersement and dilution as Ferro and the Dogman appear in their unrelated stories, there’s a little too much fencing with Jezal, though some of that works well, Logen is treading water and Glokta’s investigations into Bayaz, though necessary to fill out the back story, aren’t always thrilling.  There are interesting and exciting moments in there, and the characters and world are definitely laid out and built up in a largely entertaining and involving way, things do intensify as we come towards the end, but there’s no denouement to this book, if you like.  If you look at the trilogy as a single story that’s not necessarily a major problem, but I think it would have helped to have a rather more decisive structure to this volume – certainly it’s a criticism I often see and probably one that I’d largely agree with.  At one time I’d have said something like, ‘well, Fellowship of the Ring sets things up and then trails away at the end without at all standing alone,’ but Fellowship of the Ring is basically one thread, so that sequences like the flight from the Nazgul and Moria have huge impact.  I don’t know that the Blade Itself has anything on that sort of scale, and big events for one character tend to be slightly traded off against flatter stuff for others.  The second part in particular could definitely have been condensed considerably without costing much, I feel.

That said, despite the issues, I still like it.  A lot, at times.  Probably that’s unsurprising, since I like it in the way that you like that sandwich you make for yourself, on just the kind of bread you like, with just the right amount of sauce and the lettuce cut just bloody so.  I like the way it kicks off hard, I like the tone and the sense of humour, and I think the characters are pretty arresting, vivid and original right off and do pull you (or at least me) through the flatter sections.  Although nothing much pays off there is some reasonably cunning set up of various plot points, partly thanks I’m sure to the luxury of publishing the first book when I was already well underway in the writing of the third.  There are some really nice scenes, often when the characters suddenly encounter one another for the first time and the way others see them is contrasted with the way they see themselves.  And although the pacing overall is uneven a lot of the sequences have a nice internal rhythm.  There’s a good sense of timing, you might say.  Some rough edges, then, some things I wouldn’t do the same way now at all, but I nonetheless award myself high marks.  Unsurprisingly, some might say.  But it is handy, since the chances are large that your first book will remain in many ways your most important.

In conclusion, The Blade Itself is incontestably the finest fantasy debut that will ever be made … by me.

Oh, and the comment thread is getting a little spoilery, so if you haven’t read the First Law, firstly, I pity you, secondly, don’t read the comments, and thirdly, what are you waiting for…?

2011 In Review

Posted on December 31st, 2011 in film and tv, games, Other Life, reading, reviews

37 today, and another year flows beneath the bridge.  Go quick, don’t they?  From a personal standpoint I moved back into my house and continued the long building project, only now lurching dysfunctionally to a close.  Had a third baby.  Published a fifth book.  The good thing about babies is that they’re actually quite good fun to make, the hard work and expense starts after.  The good thing about books is that, while they’re quite hard work to make, once they’re published they require minimal maintenance and with any luck actually make you money.

A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – Yeah, I really can’t complain.  Well, I could.  As a venomously ambitious sociopath without the emotions of guilt, shame or regret, it galls me deeply that anyone in the world sells more books than me.  But I really shouldn’t complain.  The Heroes came out in January, made no. 3 on the UK Hardcover bestseller list and stayed in the top ten for four weeks, which makes it by far my fastest selling book.  Didn’t do too badly in the US either, especially in ebook format, which is rapidly becoming a significant slice of the pie, especially from an author’s standpoint as royalty rates can be five, six, even ten times higher than on a heavily discounted paperback.  Various translation deals were done for various books of mine, including first deals in Brazil, Italy (which had been strangely stubborn), and simple and complex Chinese.  I think that puts the Blade Itself in about 25 languages now, though don’t ask me to list them.  All 3 of the First Law books have now sold over 100,000 copies in their various UK editions.  You’d be amazed how hard it is to get reliable sales figures, especially from overseas, but in all languages and editions of all my books we reckon we’re at well over a million sold.  And all this for a load of nonsense I dreamed up in the middle of the night purely for my own amusement.  I really shouldn’t complain.

A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – I will admit, not my best.  I’ve written about two thirds of the first draft of A Red Country so far, and I reckon it’s going to need a fair bit of work when it’s finished.  Indeed a couple of chapters near the front might well need total rewriting from scratch, which will be the first time I’ve ever really done anything along those lines.  Why the slightly disappointing work rate?  The house was a mess when we first moved in and serious work didn’t end til April.  Then my new baby appeared, the eldest started school, Skyrim was released … so many distractions, so many excuses, and attempts to routinise the working day haven’t really panned out yet.  Hard to believe I wrote Last Argument of Kings in about 14 months while still working more or less full time as an editor.  But then I had no kids (or just the one baby towards the end) and a long-established plan to work from.  Full time authorship is a bit of a different deal, with an awful lot of additional stuff to do.  But I’ve had a good few days since Christmas, as it goes, and I’m hopeful I can hit my stride a little better next year.  We shall see…

BOOKS – This year I have been reading mostly fiction and non-fiction related to the American West.  Non-fictionally I’d say the best thing was actually Ken Burns’ TV documentary series on the subject.  A lot of the non-fiction books have been a little dry and specific – if anyone knows of any really good western non-fiction do comment below.  Some of the fiction’s been great, though.  Pete Dexter’s Deadwood, Elmore Leonard’s Western Short Stories, AB Guthrie’s The Big Sky and Richard Matheson’s Journal of the Gun Years were some of the highlights.  Call me ridiculous but I don’t think I’ve read a single fantasy or sf book this year.  Just haven’t really had the time.  One of these days, probably when I’ve finished the latest book, I’ll have to sit down and crack through a few recent genre classics that I might pontificate at length about just how far short of my stuff they fall…

TV and FILM – I may have interviewed George RR Martin about Game of Thrones for Sky TV, but I haven’t actually got to see the series yet.  How indescribably lame is that?  The televisual highlight was probably the first two series of cynical Danish procedural The Killing, with Spartacus: Blood and Sand providing some gore-daubed entertainment in the background.  Film wise I can’t think of much new that really floated the boat for me this year.  The Conan re-imagining sucked.  X-Men First Class was surprisingly good.  Otherwise I shrug my shoulders and concede that Unforgiven, Lonesome Dove and Deadwood are as brilliant as they ever were.

GAMES – Excellent year again.  Skyrim was my game of the year in the face of tough competition, and redefined fantasy roleplaying.  Dragon Age II didn’t.  Rage was kinda rubbish.  Deus Ex was kinda alright.  Dark Souls was fascinating but so, so hard.  LA Noire was fascinating but so, so flawed.  InFamous 2 and Arkham City were both excellent but perhaps lacked that special spark.  Resistance 3 I thought was very impressive, I don’t think I’ve seen so original and atmospheric a first person shooter in a long time, not that it’s my genre of choice mind you.  Uncharted 3 I’m playing now and all I can say is those guys can do a grandstand sequence like no one else.  It’ll probably be my no. 2 for this year.  Very much looking forward to the new Mass Effect in the new year, though…

BEST REVIEWS – There was a fair amount of praise for The Heroes even if I say so myself.  In the UK I managed to pull off the not inconsiderable feat of uniting The Guardian (“it’s imbued with cutting humour, acute characterisation and world-weary wisdom about the weaknesses of the human race. Brilliant.”) and The Sun (“Don’t miss it or you deserve to be gutted like a stuck pig, your entrails left to feed the crows.”) in enthusiasm.  Time magazine called it, ‘a magnificent, richly entertaining account of a single three-day battle’, while SFX said ‘an action-packed novel full of brutality, black humour and razor-sharp characterisation,’ and gave it all the stars they had.  Five, in case you were wondering.  I could go on.  No?  Oh.  I’ll leave the last word to Sci-Fi Now, who in their latest issue have declared The Heroes their best book of 2011.  No, seriously, they have: “Some books successfully capture the geist of the times and speak to the evolving expectations of the genre’s readers … this cynical, gritty, and realistic fantasy homage to the epic war movie is character-driven writing of the highest order.  It’s bleak and thoroughly modern view of human nature through a dark fantasy lens is a showcase for how much the genre has changed, and why Abercrombie holds his position at the forefront of British Fantasy.”  Zing!

BEST WORST REVIEW – The usual crop of amazon one-starrings, blog-lashings, accusations of overratings and offhand chat-room pastings, but one meaty slice of criticism bestrid the others as ’twere a colossus over pygmies, and it was, of course, Leo Grin’s fire and brimstone assault upon modern fantasy or, as he had it, “postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage” and “Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer” in particular.  And a proper storm in the internet teacup ensued, didn’t it, though?  My own response became my most commented-upon post of this year or, indeed, ever, by some considerable margin, with 224 comments and 26 trackbacks.  I cannot imagine that I have ever seen so many people resolving to buy and read my work as I did in the wake of that article.  Proof, if any were needed, that there is truly no such thing as bad publicity.  I can only hope that I continue to “shock, outrage, offend and dishearten,” critics everywhere in the months to come.  I’d say it’s a virtual certainty…

Happy new year, readers!