First Laws of Heroic Fantasy

Tue Aug 4, 2009

Though not actually an avid reader of heroic fantasy, I have nevertheless have high standards for it. If you want to call Wolfe’s New Sun, Vance’s Dying Earth, Harrison’s Virconium, Mieville’s New Corbuzon, and Le Guin’s Earthsea “heroic fantasy,” then that’s what I’ll tend to compare new things I read in the genre to, however unfair that might be.

So when I came across a recommendation from Cosma Shalizi about an epic, witty fantasy trilogy that included an inquisitor as one of the main characters and which seemed to be morally ambiguous throughout, I thought that I had never actually read anything by anyone who aspired to be an epigone of Wolfe, so why not try this out? I ordered one book at a time, as to get around my serialism and completism requirements, which I last explained in this review.

I ordered the next two works in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, though with increasing worry and disappointment. I’ve been thinking for a while now about why I had such a strong negative reaction to these books, and the most obvious answer is that I had simply had unwarranted and unrealistic expectations. Beyond that, however, even by the standards of the genre, I think it fails in several key aspects. I will now address the deficiencies in style, plotting, and characterization.

Each of the works I mention above, along with Tolkien, of course, understands that a style appropriate to the content has to be found. (Mieville perhaps less so). Vance’s orotund courtliness and Wolfe’s obscure artifice are both estrangement devices; the world they describe is remote from ours, and so must it be described. Abercrombie’s world is not as remote, being a syncretic mishmash of a second edition AD&D; campaign, but the language used to describe it, while avoiding the pointless pseudomedievalism which I would guess would be among the chief offenses of Tolkien’s imitators, fails in the opposite direction. One of the characters, Jezal dan Luthar, is described as “gormless” at least four times, and he also, if I’m recalling correctly, thinks of himself as “shit,” in the British manner. This jars my ear; I don’t know about you. Perhaps such things could be found in George R. R. Martin, who I guess would have been the main point of influence and comparison here (one of the blurbs says that we should consider Tad Williams instead—having never read him, I’ll leave that to others; but I always seek illumination), but I don’t remember any.

Much more could have been done to distinguish the linguistic styles of characters from various regions of the world in the books as well, but these are all venial compared to the mortal sins against plotting and characterization. The books are just too long. The second, for example, is largely taken up with a pointless journey to the far West. Yes, we do learn, by agonizing degrees, that Bayaz is not the gruff—yet lovable–butcher he seems first to be, and some of this information does come on the epic quest with the 12th level barbarian, first (0th-?) level magic user, second level fighter, fifth level rogue/cleric, and seventh level fighter/rogue. (I can’t yet guess Bayaz’s level. He would seem to be about 30th or so, given his age, but he has trouble learning the “Gate” spell, and only really casts “Fireball,” “Blade Barrier,” “Command/Charm Person,” “Hurt Intestines,” and the lesser known but still effective, “Head Split.”)

My guess is that Abercrombie came somewhat late to the realization that his key point was that, to a figure like Bayaz, to quote Cosma’s note on the book, “a near-immortal man with wizardly powers and an interest in the affairs of mortals, how likely is it that he will be benevolently disposed towards us, rather than treating us like insects?” There are the beginnings of some political ruminations: a peasants’ revolt turns out to engineered by Bayaz’s own masqueraded Eater. (Eaters of the flesh of men, who break the second law, the first of the book’s titles is communicating with demons. Why cannibalism leads to power and renewal is not explained at all, nor does it have any symbolic import within the work as far as I can see. Compare the poverty of this imagination to Wolfe’s alzabo.)

I hold it an error of plotting and not of my attentiveness when reading that the spirit who comes to Glotka in his dreams was as likely to be Caurib, the northern sorceress, as Tolomei, the Maker’s daughter. I find myself drawn to Lacanian methods to explain what happens in the book, as I often do when the surface plot seems inexplicable or careless, but I will not indulge such analytical flights this evening. The return of the repressed in the black tower, where the conscience of Yulwei is locked away along with the murdered past love would seem to provide ample material. I also longed for Poundian echoes of Malatesta in the condottiero Cosca, but he remains a mere drunk. Wouldn’t it have been interesting if the Maker’s Mark sword that Logen Ninefingers has increased his barbarian rage as long as he killed friends, in manner of Stormbringer? But no, the “Bloody Nine”’s behavior is well established. Couldn’t we have been introduced to the prophet Khalul, rather than him just remaining in the shadows of an all-too-conventional Oriental despotism?

And Glotka, our moral center, the disfigured torturer. His thoughts don’t even rise to the level of Marcusian stoicism. A book, presumably written during this decade, which seems to specifically invoke various doctrines of power and the exercise thereof, and which prominently features torture, might be said to be a political allegory malgre lui. To extend this would take me to into the type of quasi-Zizekianism that I warded away earlier; but I think it’s there. I hear echoes of the Drurian Strauss in some of the discussions of power and (not to) the people, and what popular revolt there is in the novel is eaten or led by the Eater. Vaguely pregnant with meaning, this.