Fantasy, bad and good

First, a quick update on what’s up next for this blog, as I keep changing my plans…

  • Monograph Review: Roberta Bivins, Contagious Communities
  • 20 Books of Summer: I’m either reading or have read the following from the list, so expect some kind of combination of; My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante), After Me Comes the Flood (Sarah Perry), The Eustace Diamonds and The Prime Minister (Anthony Trollope), to be popping up soon.
  • Not on the 20 Books of Summer List Review: Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Today, a couple of mini-reviews:

51KMqGz5znL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

As anybody who read my old blog will know, I’ve been a massive fan of George R. R. Martin and his A Song of Ice and Fire series since the age of 17 (though I do not like the TV show at all). Recently – having been an avid fantasy reader as a young teenager but then letting it drop – I’ve been actively trying to read more SF and fantasy, and so have been following up recommendations from other Martin fans. First, I tried The Lies of Locke Lamora series by Scott Lynch, which was great fun, and beautifully-structured. Unfortunately, I can’t say I got on as well with Joe Abercrombie. The Blade Itself, the first installment in The First Law series, reminded me of why I tired of wading through so much bad fantasy as a much younger reader. It’s really dreadful. While the book was first published in 2007, so it’s a little unfair to judge it in relation to trends that have perhaps become more dominant since then, I couldn’t help feeling weary as I realised that at least two out of three of our main characters are truly unpleasant, and the third morally grey, to say the least. It’s a shame that writers who seem to be taking inspiration from Martin don’t quite get why his novels work; despite his numerous, complex villains, heroism is not absent from A Song of Ice and Fire in a way that it seems to be in The Blade Itself. 

More importantly, though, Abercrombie’s characterisation is clumsy and obvious, reducing his protagonists to a cluster of traits (the disabled, weary torturer, the lazy, proud noble). To an extent, the issues lie with his writing. I was surprised by how badly written The Blade Itself is, having expected competent, if not brilliant prose. Furthermore, it honestly reads like a children’s book most of the time. By saying that, I don’t mean to disparage the fine and difficult work of children’s writers, but rather to point out that what works in one context (a children’s adventure story) is not appropriate in another (gruesome adult fantasy). Fighting scenes, for example, are littered with cartoonish dialogue:

‘West darted forward, ducked inside Jezal’s remaining blade and slammed into him with his shoulder. “Ooof,” said Jezal as he staggered back and crashed to the floor, fumbling his short steel.’

To be fair, this is a fencing match, not a fight to the death, but it happens in serious combat as well:

‘ “Gah!” squawked Logen as the spear cut a nick in his arm.’

Also, in scenes where there is no fighting but which ought to be serious and tense, such as incidents of torture and interrogation:

‘ “Haah!” yelped the prisoner as Glokta touched a nerve.’

More broadly, the world of The Blade Itself doesn’t feel like a world you can take very seriously, which would be fine if it wasn’t filled with gory, sensationalist violence and didn’t seem to be striving towards proper world-building. Attempts at political complexity, for example, are simplified to the point of parody. I don’t think there are any excuses that can be made; fantasy is an important genre that does important things. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend The Blade Itself as a great example of this.

15781832Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

In contrast, this collection of fantastical, speculative short stories is simply brilliant. I read Russell’s first collection, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a long time ago, but while I enjoyed it, none of the stories quite hit the mark for me; the wonderful ideas didn’t quite come together to create a satisfying whole. I have the Reading Spa at Mr B’s bookshop in Bath to thank for bringing me back to Russell’s work. Every single story in this collection is a bulls-eye, although, of course, some were more to my personal taste than others. Russell’s gift is in rooting the most extraordinary situations in reality through the use of precise detail – I want to say precisely observed detail, but I don’t think she’d have had much chance to observe or experience many of the things she describes. So this is a triumph of precisely imagined detail, which is even more exhilarating. Take the reaction of a thirsty vampire to finding the one thing that satisfies his cravings:

[T]here is no word sufficiently lovely for that first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling – a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums – a soothing blankness travelled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain.’

Or a massage therapist discovering that the tattoo on her client’s back moves:

‘When she moves her hand she slides the thing across the sky on Zeiger’s shoulder, still tethered to her finger like a refrigerator magnet. Only it’s flat – it’s inside the tattoo… An orange circle no larger than a grocery SALE sticker. It’s the sun. Beverley swallows hard and blinks, as if that might correct the problem. She draws her pinky halfway down his spine, and the sun moves with it.’

Each of these short stories creates an entire world within itself, as if they are perfect windows into much longer novels; the tantalising detail in the horrific ‘Reeling for the Empire’, for example, or the bizarre custom of the Window in ‘Proving Up’. I’m now certainly keen to read Russell’s only novel, Swamplandia!, to see how she deals with a bigger canvas.

5 thoughts on “Fantasy, bad and good

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