sexta-feira, outubro 20, 2017

Non-Standard Fantasy: “The Blade Itself” by Joe Abercrombie


I "discovered" Abercrombie in 2012 when I was actually looking for some fantasy novels that "weren't Dragonlance-level shit". Back in 2012 I started off by reading “The Heroes” first. Only in 2013 I got to reading the First Law from the beginning.

Abercrombie does not sugar-coat his narrative. That’s for sure. That’s the first indication you’re not reading your running-of-the-mill fantasy:  it’s disturbing because it skews closer to real life than we are used to or comfortable with fantasy-wise. Protagonists fail, start things but don’t finish them, have their plans changed in mid-stride and generally push through as if they were making it up as the narrative progresses. While reading “The Blade Itself” I kept expecting conventional fantasy storytelling to assert itself and bring the characters back around to the “right” path, despite evidence to the contrary. I’m not that well versed in fantasy lore, but I think this first novel in Abercrombie’s fantasy milieu sets up a precedent for an ending that just isn’t what you expect, but I still kept waiting for that tide to turn back and give me a the usual happy ending cropping up in a lot of fantasy nowadays.  What I found most unsettling is that there IS a happy ending – it’s just the last person in the entire book you’d expect gets everything he wants. It was one of those endings, and one of those books, that sits with you for a very long time.

A lot of the fantasy I still read tends to have 'evil' as an abstract, exterior force and 'virtue' as somehow innate and hereditary. There is room for moral complexity in fantasy but a lot of people make good money without bothering, which dilutes the impact of the better stuff (as does the tendency of critics and publishers to pretend that anything not thud'n'blunder broadsword-opera is magic realism or some kind of new genre, and to misprise anything that looks naturalistic until a particular point as 'going off the rails' or 'getting confused'.)

There are probably simple reasons too, but shrugging and saying 'the public like simple' rather weakens your case that there's more to fantasy than that. I reserve the right not to only like what a lot of other people like, but more to the point I think other people might like the less, um, generic work if it were more widely available. If I wanted to make a point about the processes of 'othering' in the rather linear world-view of the tabloids, I’d say that many fantasy works examine this process either directly or as a side-effect of the way we read fantasy. "Simply 'Good vs Evil' stories" aren't as satisfying. I've read all that before. Identifying evil is a tricky enterprise. The smoker and the loud biker were --- and maybe in some degenerate places and times still are --- considered good, by way of "cool", while in reality they are evil polluters. It's all down to how much bollocks a society can live by before they wake up and smell the coffee of reason.

Most fantasy these days (i.e. the last 20 or so years) has shied away from the cliché of evil overlords and his countless, faceless minions. In fact, even at its most prevalent form, it was only the most visible form of "evil," rather than the most common. I might even go so far as to say that an awful lot of fantasy focused on the snark between the main characters rather than the "good vs evil" thing - hell, the thing everyone remembers from the endless "Dragonlance" novels is the parasitic relationship between Raistlin and his twin brother Caramon, just as a f'r'instance. But to get back to the main thrust of this skewed-sort-of-review, in K. J. Parker's novels the heroes are quite often men and women who would be regarded as evil in other circumstances and much of his appeal as a writer is in the moral quandary this creates. I would point everyone reading these words in the direction of his excellent and grimdark-before-it-was-cool “Academic Exercises” and “The Folding Knife”.


NB: I’ve been told repeatedly to read Brent Weeks which I never did (I’m looking at you Bookstooge...). It’s time to rectify this. Weeks is probably the only major fantasy writer I haven’t read yet.

5 comentários:

Book Stooge disse...

Don't look at me! My monthly reading this month has tanked me. I might even be having a bookestential moment or something. I'm considering swearing off fiction for next month and stick to nothing but some theological texts I've yet to get around to.

As for grimdark, you can have it. I've tried a couple and all that hopeless, dirty, evil just destroyed any chance of me enjoying it. I'd rather read crappy Forgotten Realms than grimdark...

Manuel Antão disse...

I've noticed you've been on a bad streak lately when it comes to reading good books. Sometimes that happens. Speaking for myself, I just switch to non-fiction until the bad moment goes away...

Manuel Antão disse...

But some Grimdark is not so grim. Identifying evil is a tricky enterprise. To be honest the preoccupation of a lot of fantasy that I found when younger with "Species = Trait = Personality" and homogenous cultures - dressed often up with evil-begets-evil ideas that you can have an inherently "good" or "evil" race was what put me off fantasy for a good long while. This then mutated, as I see it, into "we're all compromised, selfish people that will lie and kill to get ahead and be actively complicit in all the nastiest excesses of human behaviour, and any good people are in time killed or ground down by society" which isn't much more insightful.

But there is still good and genuine Grimdark out there. The problem is that it's not easy to find it...

Book Stooge disse...

I had to choose between John Feinberg's "No One Like Him", pretty much his thesis work on foundational Evangelical theology or Keith Laumer's "Compleat Bolo" which is a sf pulpy favorite and hasn't been read since '07 or so.
After reading the intro by Feinberg, I switched to Bolo. Feinberg was just too heavy for how I was feeling.

My limits for grimdark are pretty much the Malazan books and stuff by Glen Cook. All the rest can go hang.

As for Weeks, I DO recommend him. With the caveat that you like fantasy tropes and big books. It wouldn't surprise me if you savage him though.

Manuel Antão disse...

Well. I like some fantasy tropes and some big books.

It's interesting that the distinction between sf and f is even stronger within English departments. There's tons of writing on science fiction, and people are taken seriously as scholars of science fiction, but I've never heard of anyone doing anything with fantasy. It's interesting that Ursula K. Le Guin's achieved canonical status as a science fiction writer--her stories are collected in the Norton Anthology of American Literature--but nobody pays attention to her fantasy stuff. It really is weird that the fantasy genre hasn't received much attention. These days, with cultural studies approaches favouring popular fiction, it's very much acceptable to study genre fiction like detective fiction, spy fiction, romance, chick lit, pulp fiction, so something that's persistently in the Top 10 of everything certainly deserves attention.