Joe Abercrombie and postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage

Fans of modern fantasy might be interested in Abercrombie’s latest blog post. He addresses some criticism from a guy named Leo Grin at Big Hollywood, who unfavorably compares Abercrombie’s stories with those of the “titanic literary talents” J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard.

Grin is unimpressed with “writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.” He also feels that "soiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths is no different than other artists taking a crucifix and dipping it in urine, covering it in ants, or smearing it with feces.

I personally am a fan of Abercrombie’s work from the “jaded literary sewer.”

This is almost exactly what some people started saying almost 50 years ago[!] when the New Wave writers started rewriting science fiction. Where’s the gosh-wow? Where’s the glory and scope and heroism?

It’s popped up probably annually from somebody somewhere in the intervening years. Of the three major professional science fiction magazines, Asimov’s and F&SF are almost entirely literary and Analog is almost entirely not. The audiences have about the same regard for one another as rock and country music audiences. I.e., there is a tiny bit of overlap and heaps of contempt tending toward hate.

When Philip Pullman and others entered young adult writing, the same backlash appeared. Darkness doesn’t belong in children’s books, said some, ignoring all of history.

Horror went through a phase of violent bloodiness called splatterpunk and the hatred was palpable. Longer ago than any of these, the whodunit fans and hardboiled fans said exactly the same thing.

Romance has been torn apart over and over as more sexual liberation is allowed into the field. The virgin book audience hates the slut book audience and the latter hates the priggishness of the former.

So I’m hardly surprised that somebody is saying it about fantasy. And remember the source. The BigHollywood blog is devoted to castigating liberalism in all media, in the most extravagant terms. The literary/gosh wow split in sf sundered fans and writers in exactly the same liberal/conservative way, and spilled over into virtual warfare over U.S. Viet Nam policy. (In 1975 I sat next to a Very Famous Writer at the Nebula banquet, only to have him say to me that all wars were the fault of the Democratic party. Must have been the length of my hair…)

None of it matters in the tiniest. It’s a big field. They’re all big fields. If you don’t like certain types of writing, there is more of your style being published than you can possibly read. People being people, they will always look down upon what others like, no matter what that is. Read the blog, get outraged or nod in agreement, whatever your preferences are. Then forget it. And go read what you like.

Nihilists. Fuck me! Say what you like about the national socialists, Dude, at least it was an ethos.

I’ve never read Abercrombie’s books (although I’ve worn his T-shirts). What’s he like?

He has T-shirts? Off to google… ok, I see a couple of references to T-shirt giveaways, but can you buy them somewhere?

His books have a traditional medieval Swords & Horses setting. He’s a gamer, and you can recognize character types: warriors, wizards, etc. (although not being a gamer myself, I had to have this pointed out to me). His books are action-packed, and he writes a fantastic battle scene. I’m drawn particularly to his vivid characterizations - the tormented Inquisitor Glokta is a great character.

There’s a lot of moral ambiguity in his books and the ending of his First Law trilogy is quite as shockingly cynical as Mr. Grin suggests - but after some reflection I decided it was brilliant. Sometimes a writer tries to be dark by just killing off beloved characters, but Abercrombie’s darkness is more subtle and insidious than that.

Despite the grittiness the books do have some humor, and I thought they were fun to read.

He’s very good. He writes very dark, high fantasy, with strong, clean prose, and some very vivid characterizations. I highly recommend him. In tone, he’s a lot like Stephen R. Donaldson, although I think Abercrombie is a stronger writer. He’s very good at taking characters who do abominable things, and making them sympathetic.

Doesn’t he partner with Fitch for the clothing market?

Oh, T-shirts. That one went right past me.

Yeah, that’s what I was going for. Sorry about that.

Sounds good. I like Donaldson a lot - read most of his stuff. I even started reading the third Unbeliever trilogy, which was a mistake.

I’ll check him out

You should have told Bob to shut up and eat his rubber chicken…

Joe Abercrombie skewers traditional fantasy tropes with a malevolent glee, some of the most vicious satire I’ve ever read. I’m not joking when I say that I’ll never be able to read a barbarian character the same way again. It’s like he pantsed the whole sword-and-sorcery genre, and then sicced attack hornets on them.

He’s brilliant, but I’m not sure I need to read anything else by him.

He has a new book published just this month - I’ve ordered it.

I like his stuff a lot. He has a particular genius for taking a character who is on his or her face abomitable, making them sympathetic … and then thoroughly subverting that sympathy.

He plays with the tropes of fantasy fiction, but his writing and characterization abilities are far above the norm for the genre. His weakness is that just about every character is morally ambiguous.

Ok, see, that sounds nothing at all like Donaldson. Say what you want about the man, but he’s always earnest, and he always has a moral core, even if his characters don’t.

Aberocombie sounds closer to China Miéville, only without the angst.

Can you give an example? I’ve never heard of him, so some specifics would help me decide if I should look further.

Well, one of the most sympathetic characters in his trilogy is Inspector Glokta, a man who’s been tortured severely and who in return is the chief torturer for his squad. The scenes of torture are fairly explicit.

I don’t want to give much away, but there’s also a barbarian who does the typical barbarian rage, with typical badass awesome results. Then just as you’re enjoying it, he goes into the rage in the wrong place.

I don’t think he’s lacking a moral core; rather, I think he believes a lot of fantasy doesn’t deal with the implications of its badassery, and he wants that confronted, and he does it in a really brutal fashion.


TV Tropes has an OK overview of his “The First Law” trilogy, with covered spoilers.

Though while we’re on that site, the term “Shoot the Shaggy Dog” seems to cover the series just as well, and much more succinctly.

I’m glad he writes a good battle! His new 500 page book consists entirely of one 3-day battle! (With maps showing the changing troop positions each day.) Whatever the merits of his previous books, that’s not something I’ll bother reading, I’m afraid.

I enjoyed the trilogy but I think that he’s starting to get repetative.

Started his latest book but gave up on it.

I will be giving it another go in the future though.

I enjoyed the First Law trilogy, but Best Served Cold just felt like a condensed repetition of the First Law. I’ll be waiting to hear some more reviews of The Heroes before I pick it up, but I do like some of the characters and the setting and he writes well.