Posts Tagged ‘joe abercrombie’
At the beginning of the year I reviewed my first review. I undertook this recursive exercise to see how far I’d come and I found the results both useful and interesting. It is equally interesting to see other people apply the same introspection, particularly when they produce the actual texts that get reviewed.
Joe Abercrombie has been reading “Joe Abercrombie’s seminal work of modern fantasy, The Blade Itself“:
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.
He’s read the whole of the First Law trilogy and has just finished Best Served Cold. Fascinating stuff.
It is hard to think of a more appropriate title for a Joe Abercrombie novel than The Heroes (well, perhaps There Will Be Blood but that was already taken). There is a sledgehammer irony to it since Abercrombie has been obsessed with the impossibility of heroism from his debut novel, The Blade Itself (2006), onwards. That book and the two remaining novels of his First Law trilogy – Before They Are Hanged (2007) and Last Argument Of Kings (2008) – take their titles from Homer, Heinrich Heine and Louis XIV. This time round Brecht does the honours: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” So that is Abercrombie’s style of fantasy in a nutshell: an initial bluntness quickly revealing heavy irony with hidden depths below.
As well as slyly addressing Abercrombie’s concerns as a novelist, the title is also literal. The Heroes are a ring of standing stones outside of the town of Osrung. This unremarkable town finds itself the meeting place for the decisive battle in the latest war between the Union and the North, a war that takes place eight years after the events of the First Law trilogy when the two sides last clashed. In case you have forgotten the outcome of that conflict or are new to Abercrombie’s work, the steps leading up to this one are helpfully mapped out at grunt level:
“Black Dow turned on the Bloody-Nine and took the chain for his self.” Agrick realised he might have used some risky phrasing there, started covering his tracks. “I mean, he had to do it. Who’d want a mad bastard like the Bloody-Nine for king? But the Dogman called Dow traitor, and oath-breaker, and most of the clans from down near Uffrith, they tended to his way of seeing things. The King of the Union, too, having been on some mad journey with Ninefingers and made a friend of him. So the Dogman and the Union decide to make war on Black Dow, and here we all are.” Agrick slumped back on his elbows, closing his eyes and looking quite heavily pleased with himself.
“That’s a fine understanding of the politics of the current conflict.” (p.49)
As that quote suggests, the cast are a bunch of familiar faces: friends, foes and those who have suffered reversals of fortune in both directions since we last met them. But not, of course, heroes and villains. From the First Law trilogy, Dogman and Black Dow step free from the shadow of Logan Ninefingers (presumed dead, although I wouldn’t bet on it). Dow gets a chance to hog the limelight which he and Abercrombie clearly relish but Dogman, one of the most interesting secondary characters in the trilogy, is disappointingly merely a bit player. On the Union side, Jalen has achieved an improbable ascent to the rank of general and Bayaz, First of the Magi, returns as the power behinds the throne and one man military-industrial complex. Actually, maybe there is a villain after all. Also fighting for the Union is Bremer dan Grost who is trying to make amends for the events of Best Served Cold (2009) where, as an aside to the main narrative, he fails in his duty to protect the King. The unknowing author of Grost’s downfall, Northman Caul Shivers, also returns from that novel, physically and mentally disfigured with the concept of heroism firmly wrung from his mind. We even have Curden Craw and his dozen of Named Men introduced in ‘The Fool Jobs’, Abercrombie’s contribution to Swords & Dark Magic, Lou Anders and Jonathan Strathan’s superb anthology of modern sword and sorcery. This is not to suggest you need to have read any of these works before starting The Heroes, simply that Abercrombie has been carefully tending this rich stew for some time.
The novel takes place over the course of three days as the battle pushes forwards and back and torrents of blood are spilt to take and re-take insignificant geographical features. This rolling warfare allows plenty of opportunities for heroism, even more for cowardice and unlimited scope for stupidity. As an old Union campaigner puts it to his raw recruits on the even of battle:
Look. You think how stupid people are most of the time. Old men drunk. Women at a village fair. Boys throwing stones at birds. Life. The foolishness and the vanity, the selfishness and the waste. The pettiness, the silliness. You think in a war it must be different. Must be better. With death around the corner, men united against hardsip, the cunning of the enemy, people must think harder, faster, be… better. Be heroic.”
He started to heave his packages down from his horse’s saddle. “Only it’s just the same. In fact, do you know, because of all that pressure, and worry, and fear, it’s worse. There aren’t many men who think clearest when the stakes are highest. So people are even stupider in a war than the rest of the time. Thinking about how they’ll dodge the blame, or grab the glory, or save their skins, rather than about what will actually work There’s no job that forgives stupidity more than soldiering. No job that encourages it more.”
He looked at his recruits and found they were all staring back, horrified. (p.130)
It is not a particularly original sentiment but it is rare for it to be so sustained and all pervasive in a work of commercial fantasy. The old soldier outlines this state of affairs as an inevitability of human nature and this seems to be a view Abercrombie shares. Only rarely do his characters try to oppose this natural law and when they do they are crushed. Ninefingers and Shivers both tried to become good men, to rise above the brutality that they were born into. Over the geographical and spiritual journey, Abercrombie brings them tantalisingly close to the point of achieving this goal before slamming shut the door on the very possibility of such a transformation. Both characters descend into the embrace of fatalism, a stance more than justified by the nihilism of Abercrombie’s universe. In The Heroes it is Calder – youngest son of Bethod, the first king of the North and original owner of the shiny chain won by Ninefingers but now worn by Black Dow – who dreams of a better world:
Calder could hardly keep the contempt out of his voice. “Maybe what the North needs is fewer heroes and more thinkers. More builders.” (p.210)
That struggle to control his contempt is his fatal flaw. Calder may be brighter and more articulate than his fellow soldiers but he is just as constrained by his nature as they are. In the end, a bitter hatred of the world, gloved in self-protective irony, is the best he can manage. Here, for example, is a scene in which he witnesses the psychotic Dow, his master, seal a blood oath:
“The two men stood there as blood streaked their forearms and started to drip from their elbows. Calder felt a little fear and a lot of contempt at the level of manliness on display.” (p.42)
For all the tempering cynicism of such observations, this contemptible manliness is very much on display in The Heroes. Abercrombie has a lot of fun with it and his sharp wit must be one of the reasons for his huge popularity. This is a typical example of the way men talk:
“Got my eye burned out o’ my head.”
So much for calming small talk. “Reckon that could change your outlook.”
“Halves it.” (p.110)
None more manly, none more knowing. The stench of machismo is thick in the air and, as you would expect on a battlefield, women are scarce. There are a few women who have become combatants because, like their male peers, this is the path the world has found for them. Whilst soldiering may not be traditional women’s work there is little sense that they have found any form on emancipated. Similarly, there are a few officers’ wives whose higher socio-economic status merely presents a different of constraints. Chief amongst the noble ladies is the “venomously ambitious” Finree dan Brock (as Abercrombie puts it in his dramatis personae), a self-aware-schemer who is plunged into the world she has always wanted it and finds it more than she can take. You might quibble about the plausibility of her presence so close to the front but she is a very enjoyable character and a welcome perspective in a novel about fighting men. I suspect we have not seen the last of her.
Self-awareness is perhaps the defining quality of an Abercrombie character but at the same time they never have quite enough. Calder has a kernel of goodness inside him – “He’d given up on being a good man long ago, hadn’t he? Then why did he still dream like one?” (p.209) – but, as with Ninefinger and Shivers, it can never germinate. A discovery of the price of her ambition knocks some of the wind out of dan Brock’s sails but whilst she pauses to reflect she can’t escape her Machiavellian impulses.
In the First Law trilogy, the crippled inquisitor Glokta keeps up a sarcastic, self-pitying but self-coruscating internal running monologue in italics. It was impressively bilious, often hilarious but in its cumulative inevitability slightly tiresome. In The Heroes, an identical role is taken by Gorst:
[The sword was] one of the few relics remaining of a time when he was the king’s exalted First Guard rather than the author of contemptible fantasies. I am like a jilted lover too cowardly to move on, clinging tremble-lipped to the last feeble mementoes of the cad who abandoned her. Except sadder, and uglier, and with a higher voice. And I kill people for a hobby. (p.222)
At the climax of the novel, after the battle itself has been fought to an epically pointless draw, Gorst allows all his repressed emotion to boil out. His audience is dan Brock and she is not a sympathetic ear; “hero” becomes a damning epithet. For all the carnage we have witnessed, for every axe-split face and dismembered body, this is by far the most brutal scene of the book.
Of course, there was never going to be a happy ending. This is, dare I say it, the charm of Abercrombie. The Heroes is funny, exciting adventure fiction which is completely guilt free because the reader has nothing to feel guilty about, they have already faced it head on. Every witticism is barbed, ever exhilarating scene of martial prowess must be repaid by the reader with an emotional hangover. Blood, black humour and bile are Abercrombie’s bread and butter and it makes for a tasty dish.
As a final aside, The Heroes has a simply gorgeous map of the area around Osrung, courtesy of illustrator David Senior. In fact, Gollancz are so proud of this map that they have made it the cover, reproduced it front and back on the inside leaf and included amended versions showing the progress of the battle throughout the novel. Still, if you are going to include a map, this is the way to do it; other publishers of fantasy take note.
1) Someone Says Something Stupid About Joe Abercrombie
Leo Grin warns us of the bankrupt nihilism of contemporary fantasy authors. Chief amongst these writers is Joe Abercrombie:
Abercrombie’s freshman effort, the massive First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Were Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings) was more than enough for me. Endless scenes of torture, treachery and bloodshed drenched in scatology and profanity concluded with a resolution worthy of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst, one that did its best to hurt, disappoint, and dishearten any lover of myths and their timeless truths. Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.
I imagine most authors can only dream of having a jaded literary sewer. Other writers named as paddling in this sewer are Matthew Woodring Stover, Steven Erikson and Michael Swanwick. They stand in stark contrast to Grin’s heroes, JRR Tolkien and Robert E Howard, who he elevates because:
I don’t particularly care for fantasy per se. What I actually cherish is something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old.
In case you thought this was merely a case of his personal tastes not happening to be universal, here come the politics:
In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field. They co-opt the language, the plots, the characters, the cliches, the marketing, and proceed to deconstruct it all like a mad doctor performing an autopsy. Then, using cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism, they put it back together into a Frankenstein’s monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten.
2) A Fan Responds
Well, lots of fans responded, it was all over Twitter. However, Adam Whitehead posted the first substantive response:
I think the author is conflating two separate issues here, the nihilistic/gritty/realistic ‘New Fantasy’ of the last two decades or so (a sweeping generalisation), which isn’t really that new, and the proliferation of overt sex/violence/swearing in recent fantasy books. Dealing with the first issue, it’s an odd point to make. The problem is that the author bemusingly names J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard as his preferred flavours of fantasy. Which makes very little sense, as few fantasy authors are more nihilistic than Tolkien and Howard… Of course, one brief look at the mythic inspirations for Howard and Tolkien, the great Norse sagas, the Arthur legends, Greek myths and so on, reveal stories far more tragic, blood-drenched and horrific than anything the likes of Abercrombie or Martin has ever come up with. This notion of pure black vs. white heroism ever being a dominant force in either mythology or fantasy literature seems to be illusory.
3) Joe Abercrombie Responds
As is now the way of the world, Abercrombie himself weighs in:
I’m a little suspicious, I must say, of any argument that lumps Tolkien and Howard together as one thing, although Leo has made the photos of them in his piece point towards each other in a very complimentary fashion. I think of them as polar opposites in many ways, and the originators (or at least key practitioners) of, to some extent, opposed traditions within sword-based fantasy. Tolkien, the father of high fantasy, Howard the father of low. Howard’s work, written by a man who died at thirty, tends to the short and pulpy (as you’d expect from stories written for pulp magazines). Tolkien’s work, published on the whole when he was advanced in years, is very long and literary (as you’d expect from a professor of English). Tolkien is more focused on setting, I’d say, Howard on character. Leo’s point is that they both celebrate a moral simplicity, a triumph of heroism, but I see that too as a massive over-simplification. Howard celebrates the individual, is deeply cynical (could one even say nihilistic) about civilisation. Tolkien seems broadly to celebrate order, structure, duty and tradition.
He notes that he is an admirer of both writers which chimes with my belief that he is at the heart of Third Wave Fantasy. Abercrombie then turns to the personal stuff; he deftly makes Grin look an arse but there is no real need to read it.
4) The Pros Respond
Next we have contributions from some other fantasy novelists. First up is mentally ill bigot John C Wright. As you might imagine, he is fully onboard with the decline of Western civilisation:
Mr. Leo Grin in his essay makes clear that he upholds the right of those who adore such degraded things to write and read their chosen poison. He is more generous than I. It is my judgment, shared of many ancients, that there are certain proper emotional reactions and relatins one ought to have, and improper ones one ought not. A child raised to curse and despise his parents, trample the crucifix, burn the flag, abhor kittens and Christmas scenes and motherhood but adore torture porn and satanism and deformity, that child’s tastes are objectively perverse and false-to-facts. He has been trained to spew his mother’s milk and drink venom. Fair to him is foul, and foul is fair. In the same way that to say A is not-A is an offense against logic, to hate the lovely and love the hateful is an offense against aesthetics, a disconnection from reality.
We don’t need to read any more from Wright but it is worth pointing out he hopes Grin’s post “will be studied seriously, both now in and in years to come, by all who read, write, and review in the genre.” Yeah.
Next we have the somewhat less insane R Scott Bakker who identifies Grin as falling into the fourth tribe of fantasy fans:
There’s the largest constituency, the Adventure Junkies, who want their fantasy to be as kinetic as Clive Cussler. Then there’s the two smaller constituencies: the Weird Junkies, who love smoking from the possibility-for-possibility’s sake bong, and there’s the World Junkies, who want something massive and, most importantly, believeable… What Grin has showed me is that there is fourth tribe of fantasy fans out there: the Nostalgia Junkies. I’ve spilled more than a few gallons of electronic ink over the years suggesting that much of fantasy’s appeal lies in the way provides readers the kinds of worlds that humans are prone to cook up in the absence of science, worlds adapted to our psychology, rather than vice versa. Scriptural worlds. Pondering his essay I couldn’t shake the sense that it was more the tone of Tolkien and Howard that he was missing, not the ideological content (which he seems to so clearly misread). The very tone that I have worked so hard – too hard, according to some critics – to recreate in my own fantasy fiction. Elevated, and serious unto lugubriousness. The tone of Believers.
I also enjoyed his characterisation of Grin as “an honest-to-God ‘Flat-Brainer’: someone who literally thinks that his yardstick is not bent, that he has not only won the Magical Belief Lottery, he has obviously done so.”
5) A Conversation At Black Gate
Last week, I read with great interest the discussion that began with Leo Grin’s comparison of the heroic fantasy fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard with the anti-heroic fantasy fiction of Joe Abercrombie. As this is a topic that has interested me for years, I have a number of thoughts regarding it. However, since I am a political commentator who is correctly said to be well outside the ideological mainstream of the SF/F community, I think it is best to begin by pointing out to those on both sides of the spectrum who may be eager to turn this into a political debate that this is not a political subject, but rather a historical, literary, and philosophical one. And as such, there is no need to argue over whether the trajectory over time that Grin observes is desirable or not, since that is a matter of perspective and personal opinion. Regardless of one’s ideological self-identification or opinion on the specifics of Grin’s observations, it should be eminently clear to all and sundry that something material and significant has changed within the field of fantasy fiction in the 71 years that separate Howard’s final publication from Abercrombie’s first one and the 52 years that separate the publication of The Return of the King from The Blade Itself.
It is hard to imagine a less inspiring introduction to an essay than this but luckily they provide a counter-point to this wrongheaded banality. Matthew David Surridge is anti-Grin:
Would it be accurate to say that other early fantasy writers, let’s say from the start of the twentieth century through to at least 1956, when The Lord of the Rings was published, depicted a traditional moral framework and featured traditionally heroic protagonists whose actions were held to be unequivocally just? Were they more or less prone to featuring blaspheming anti-heroes? The answer, it seems to me, is not as obvious as one might think. William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell were all religious skeptics, and their work to various degrees displayed not only irreverence but sometimes outright cynicism about moral proclamations and the accomplishments of heroes and warriors. It’s fair to say that E.R. Eddison, somewhat like Howard, featured heroic characters acting out of a specific moral code; but Eddison was even more pagan than Howard, essentially seeing the world as a product of the interplay of Jupiter and Venus. His characters were based on Renaissance nobles, but it was a Renaissance without a church, the Renaissance at its most Machiavellian.
If you only read one of the follow up posts, this is the one.
6) The Stragglers Respond
And, of course, the discussion continued to rumble on. Paul C Smith wonders if Grin actually knew what nihilism is:
The charge of nihilism is ridiculous because fantasy, especially epic fantasy (whether high or low), remains essentially moral fiction. Even when the protagonists are violent and self-serving, they are considered anti-heroes, ergo they still exist inside the sphere of morality, they are just on the other end of it than more heroic characters. If these novels were truly nihilistic, like McCarthy’s brilliant Blood Meridian, these sort of moral pronouncements would never come into play. In nihilism there can be no right or wrong because nothing can ever be known, therefore it follows that there can be no heroes or anti-heroes, just characters committing acts that have no value. In McCarthy’s world, we cannot even proclaim the monstrous Judge Holden a villain, because the parameters of the novel do not allow it. These gritty fantasy novels may be as far removed from Tolkien in terms of morality as Lolita is from Jane Eyre, but they still exist in the same moral universe.
As Matt Hilliard points out in the comments, the charge of nihilism is actually an interesting one in relation to Abercrombie’s work. This is a conversation I would like to return to but it is clear this is a far too nuanced argument for Grin.
Finally, My Elves Are Different pitch in. I think you have to be American to get it.
On the bus into town today I was reading extracts from three highly anticipated fantasies forthcoming from Gollancz. First, there was a brief snippet of The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie:
“Vol . . . un . . . teered?” Tunny wrestled with the word as if it belonged to a foreign language. “So they do exist. Just make damn sure you don’t volunteer me for anything while you’re here. Anyway . . .” He drew the lads into a conspiratorial huddle with a crooked finger. “You boys have landed right on your feet. I’ve done all kind of jobs in his Majesty’s army and this right here,” and he pointed an affectionate finger at the standard of the First, rolled up safe under his hammock in its canvas cover, “this is a sweet detail. Now I may be in charge, that’s true. But I want you lads to think of me as, let’s say . . . your kindly uncle. Anything you need. Anything extra. Anything to make this army life of ours worth living.” He leant in closer and gave the suggestive eyebrows. “Anything. You can come to me.” Lederlingen held up a hesitant finger. “Yes?”
“We’re cavalrymen, aren’t we?”
“Yes, trooper, we are.”
“Shouldn’t we have horses?”
“That’s an excellent question and a keen grasp of tactics. Due to an administrative error, our horses are currently with the Fifth, attached to Mitterick’s division which, as a regiment of infantry, is not in a position to make best use of them. I’m told they’ll be catching up with us any day, though they’ve been telling me that a while. For the time being we are a regiment of . . . horseless horse.”
“Foot?” offered Yolk.
“You might say that, except we still . . .” and Tunny tapped his skull, “think like cavalry. Other than horses, which is a deficiency common to every man in the unit, is there anything you need?”
Klige was next to lift his arm. “Well, sir, Corporal Tunny, that is . . . I’d really like something to eat.”
Tunny grinned. “Well that’s definitely extra.”
Then a longer chunk of The Dark Commands by Richard Morgan:
He pointed out over the rail, old memories roiling like the water. “You can see where the dragon tore its way out – that long, ragged hollow near the front, the pieces that flap about when the swell hits. The dragon comes first, it’s like a mother bird protecting its brood. Then there’ll be a couple of hundred smaller hatching gouges further back where the reptile peons and the higher caste Scaled Folk came out afterwards. Once that happens, the whole raft starts to rot. It loses a lot of its bulk and in the end the currents carry it back out to sea. This has probably been drifting about out here since the early fifties at least.”
“You really killed one of these beasts?” She was watching him keenly now, he knew. “With that blade you carry? Now that is remarkable.”
“I suppose so. As I said, I did have help.”
“Even so. Are you not proud?”
Ringil grimaced. “If you’d seen some of the other things I’ve done with this blade, you’d perhaps be less enamoured of my feats.”
“And perhaps not.”
Was she rubbing herself against him at the hip? Ringil turned to face her, met her eyes, caught the gleam of saliva on the teeth in her grin.
“My lady, I don’t quite know how to put this to you gently, so I won’t try. You are wasting your time with me.”
“Am I?” The grin was still there. “That’s a hasty judgment.”
Ringil sighed, pressed thumb and forefinger to his eyes. Was he really going to have to fuck this mad-woman before they made port.
And finally, there is the whole first chapter of The Republic Of Thieves by Scott Lynch:
Locke’s symptoms revealed themselves the day they entered the Cavendria estuary.
At first it had been nothing more than bouts of dizziness and blurred vision, but as the days passed and they slowly tacked against the current, he began bleeding from his nose and the corners of his mouth. By the time they reached Lashain, he could no longer joke away the trickles of blood, or hide his increasing weakness. Instead of taking on stores, they’d rented rooms, and against Locke’s protests Jean began to spend nearly every coin they had on alchemists, physikers, herbalists, and assorted cures and comforts.
From Lashain’s underworld, which was tolerably colorful if not nearly as vast as Camorr’s, he’d consulted every poisoner and black alchemist he could bribe or coerce. All of them had shaken their heads and expressed professional admiration for what had been done to Locke; the substance in question was beyond their power to counteract. Locke had been made to drink a hundred different purgatives, teas, and elixirs, each seemingly more vile and expensive than the last, until Jean began to fear that one of them would kill him before the poison finished its work.
After that, Jean had dressed well and begun to call upon the accredited physikers of the city. Locke was explained away as a “confidential servant“ of someone wealthy and important, which could have meant anything from secret lover to private assassin. The physikers too had expressed regret and fascination in equal measure. Most of them had refused to attempt cures, instead offering palliatives to ease Locke’s pain. Jean fully grasped the meaning of this, but paid no heed to their pessimism. He simply showed each to the door, paid their exorbitant fees, and went out after the next physiker on his list.
Although I won’t get round to them for a while, I’m looking forward to each of these novels. This is particularly the case for Abercrombie and Morgan who manage to perfectly balance wit and grit, adventure and realpolitik. Lynch I am more concerned about: I was disappointed by Red Seas Under Red Skies and, whilst the wit is never in doubt, I hope this is anchored to something more substantial this time round.
(As an aside, I was amused to note that each of these extracts begin with the principal character waking up in a state of confusion. In your face, creative writing advice!)
Fantasy readers tend to complain if their novels don’t come complete with a pretty map at the front. Non-fantasy readers tend to take the piss out of them for this. Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie laughs in the face of all this:
Having only seen it online, I had just thought it was a continuation of the imitation parchment covers for the First Law Trilogy. It was only when I had the thing in my hands I realised they had (brilliantly) put the map on the outside. It gets even cleverer. As the novel ranges across the continent of Styria, the page bearing the geographical title of each section is printed on a greyscale close up of the relevant area of the map. The jacket only credits the two illustrators but it appears to have been a real team effort:
Original concept from Simon Spanton (I believe), expanded upon by my editor Gillian Redfearn, who then put the brief together and assembled the team to carry it out (kind of like the A-Team, but with more artistic accumen and less mercy), and co-ordinated the project. The sword was painted by weapons expert Didier Graffet, the map was drawn by map-master Dave Senior, adapting my own scrawl, then the whole was combined and made to live by designer Laura Brett (also responsible for the First Law covers), who added the spatter, coins, parchmenty effects, and lettering.
The less said about the American version the better but at least the paperback edition had character. Anyway, I know I’m very late to the party but this is still worth saying. The book itself is bloody good too.
Mark Newton does not like the word “clunky”. More accurately, he questions its usefulness as a critical term: “What do people mean when they say prose or dialogue is sometimes clunky? No, stop, think. What do they really mean?”
I was intrigued because it seems like a fairly straightforward piece of reviewing shorthand. There is another name for commonplaces though – cliches – and we all know what you need to do with cliches. Out of interest I had a quick Google to see if I had used the term and sure enough I had, in my review of The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds:
What starts off as a dazzlingly compulsive thriller is slowly ground down by lazy, thoughtless writing. At one point, for example, Ng gives a little pep talk: “Okay, people, let’s stick together. Like the man said, there could be some angry citizens out there, and we may be the ones they decide to take it out on.” This might be acceptable on Hill Street Blues but not in a book set in the 25th century. This sort of clunky dialogue — the ghost memory of a thousand police procedurals — litters the novel. Something similar is true of the characterisation.
I think I escape Newton’s censure because I don’t leave “clunky” sitting there on its own, I buttress it with further remarks. What do I mean by clunky though? Joe Abercrombie has a good response in the comments:
Clunky, like a clunky ride in an old banger, the reader is constantly jolted out of immersion in the piece and loses that sense of confidence in the writing which is vital to enjoyment of a book. I don’t think it is so much about rhythm, actually. Words that seem innapropriate to meaning, or unnecessarily difficult. Images that are ill-thought out, do not stand scrutiny. Dialogue that is not honest or convincing.
What I mean when I use clunky is to say that the dialogue is mechanical rather than natural. Natural here doesn’t mean graceful or smooth or even realistic – as Newton points out, dialogue rarely bears any resemblence to real speech, try looking at an unedited transcript some time – it means it sounds like something that would come out of the character’s mouth. In contrast, the Reynolds quote is mechanical because it merely seeks to move things along without consideration of how appropriate the words are for the time, place or person. Like clunky it is cliche. I will try not to use clunky but I hope authors will try and give me no cause to slip.
It is interesting in its generalities but Newton is obviously directing his post at some specific (but secret) targets. In particularly, someone seems to have been dissing DeLillo of whom he says: “I marvel that American lit-god Don DeLillo’s dialogue is sometimes described as clunky, whereas I personally adore it for being so, so realistic.”
I am also a great admirer of DeLillo; in fact, this was reinforced just yesterday when I read his short story, ‘Human Moments In World War Three’. Here is a not atypical chunk of dialogue from the story:
“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves,” he says. “They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city — but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellowfeeling where there was only suspicion and fear. Strangers talking to each other, meals by candlelight when the power fails. The war would enoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.”
Obviously his dialogue isn’t clunky, however, I’m not sure I could call it realistic either. DeLillo is a postmodern master of American literature and as such his dialogue often tends to the artificial. It is still natural for the characters in his stories though; perhaps no one in the real world would ever say this but so what? Of course, not only is it not clunky, it is also rhythmic, graceful, poetic and all those other things. I am very jealous.