Dec 5 2008 9:23am

Sympathy for the Doubtful: Joe Abercrombie’s “The First Law”

I suspect that some authors create antiheros simply to avoid the clichés associated with heroism. But in the hands of a poor writer, the antihero can be as cliché as the hero. Dark fantasy can be as stagnant as the worst heroic fantasy.

In Joe Abercrombie’s books (about which a heck of a lot has already been said on the internet), POV characters include a berserker, a torturer and a dandy. At face value, it would seem he’s veered pretty strongly into cliché territory. But that’s definitely not the case.  

The line between good and evil is very blurry in Abercrombie’s work. In fact, you could say the entire series is set within the blur. This is clearest in the torturer, Sand dan Glokta. Glokta was once the toast of the kingdom, brave and dashing, a champion swordsman and consummate womanizer. He led a legendary charge against the enemy Gurkish. And then he got captured. And tortured. A lot. The Glokta who returned to his homeland when the war ended was nearly unrecognizable to those who had once worshipped him. No longer the valorous military celebrity, his lover-man days long gone, he takes up the trade he knows best: He hurts people. He forces confessions and destroys lives. And he likes it; there’s no denying that. Pain surrounds him at every moment: his own, and the pain he causes. 

He’s not a good guy. Nor is he merely an amoral sadist with a spotlight on him, as shoddily written antiheros often are. He’s messed up, to put it mildly, and it is in the mess that the remnants of generosity and valor float to the surface now and then.  

Throughout the three books, I asked myself how Abercrombie leads the reader to empathize with Glokta. Focusing on Glokta’s physical pain, though significant, doesn’t endear the reader. If anything, it makes Glokta’s choice of professions all the more repulsive.

Abercrombie also avoids a sudden change of heart…you know, saving a puppy from a burning bomb factory? None of that crap. Glokta’s “good side” such as it is, is revealed very gradually and there ain’t much of it . 

As I see it, how Abercrombie creates anything like empathy with these fucked up people (he’s fond of the word) is by making the characters question themselves. Certainty, especially anything like moral certainty, immovable self-justification, belongs only to the very worst bad guys. The fucked up trio of torturer, barbarian and fop are granted the occasional sliver of decency only through self-doubt. In Glokta’s case, the doubt is constant, most often manifesting as self-mockery. He’s never comfortable, never really OK with what he does, but neither does he seek any glorious path of redemption. The Northman Logen AKA the Bloody-Nine, is one of the most ruthless killers in the world, but he questions himself. The fop, Jezal dan Luthar, begins as an almost entirely unlikable egotist but the more actual power and responsibility he gains, the less powerful he feels, and the reader’s sympathy increases. 

Another method Abercrombie uses—one I’ve seen many times before but seldom so effectively—is to match the third person narrative to the POV character’s tone. There’s probably a term for this, but hell if I know what it is. What I mean is that when Abercrombie writes a scene with the barbarians, the sentences are short, blunt and hardly a single word goes beyond two syllables. When he writes of the torturer, the sentences lengthen, the sarcasm and erudition of the character seeps into every description. 

I’ve seen Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin effectively use the same technique, which is especially helpful for bringing the reader into a subplot that they might last have read about 100 pages before. It helps quickly drop the reader into the scene, more thoroughly identifying with the characters.  Abercrombie does this very, very well and his work has none of the feeling of verbal bloat Martin and Jordan have in their weaker moments. 

In general, I loved the series. I found it perfectly paced, brutal, funny, shocking and lyrical. I have one problem with it, though. The third book, The Last Argument of Kings seems like it should be a conclusion. The word last in the title implies that surely? The number of reviewers in the front matter gushing about how great the ending is would indicate, to my gullible mind anyway, that this is indeed the end of the story. 

Oh sure, most of the story ends. Not all. Certainly not all. There are chunks on unchewed plot-meat still sitting on the table, waiting for a carving. The final chapter is even called “The Beginning.” How the fuck is that a fucking ending, Joe? 

Not entirely ending a story despite all appearances to the contrary is, in the SF word, a pretty common and minor offence. So, no worries, Mr. Abercrombie. I don’t want to torture you over it very much. And on the glass-half-full side it means this incredibly talented writer has more to offer. I look forward to it.

Henry Farrell
1. Henry Farrell
But isn't the idea of the ending precisely that it loops back to the beginning again? Logen, falling from a very great height, with no reason to expect that he'll survive (perhaps he will, perhaps he won't, but even if he does, the bloody cycle will begin again and not get any better). So it isn't closure in any neat sense, but it comports very well with the argument of the book.
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger

I think I understand what you're saying. But to be certain, please tell me a little more of what you mean by "the argument of the book."
Henry Farrell
3. Henry Farrell
That the standard message of heroic fantasy - of some kind of _agency_ that will _transform everything_ is a complete cod. That people, despite their best efforts to escape from themselves, find that they are stuck with who they are. The fop becomes a better person - but ends up (as he was always going to end up) being an utterly powerless figurehead ruler. The berserker replaces one arbitrary violent ruler in the North with another. The torturer perhaps finds a small measure of personal happiness - but continues as a brutal enforcer working for a nastier power-behind-the-scenes. The only person who actually _gets what he wants_ is the utterly corrupt wizard. And the recursive ending-turning-back-into-the-beginning really reinforces how much nothing has changed.
Jason Henninger
4. jasonhenninger
Gosh, Henry, when you put it that way, the book no longer seems very cheerful! Heh heh.

Ok, I can see what you're saying and I think you are right. I still feel dissatisfied by the ending, though. Maybe it's a matter of my own idealism more than a matter of plot structure. I just felt a bit cheated by the hopelessness, especially when paired with a few loose ends in the story and the big Kaiser Soze job done on Bayaz. It was the cumulation of it all that bugged me, I guess, the bait-and-switch, the non-concluding conclusion of some plot threads and the feeling that none of it all mattered anyhow. Ya know? And to end it in a sort of nihilistic samsara drove me a little crazy.

All that said, I still think he is a fantastic writer. I will definitely read his future works, nihilistic or not.
Joe Sherry
5. jsherry
It's been a while, but wasn't the first chapter of the first book titled "The End"?
mm Season
6. mmSeason
I think i know what you mean about 'matching the third person narrative to the POV character’s tone' - and yes, it's brilliant for atmosphere, drawing the reader in, characterisation, etc. I think it's the device Flaubert supposedly 'invented' (i didn't think he did) and damned if i can remember the term they use for it... give me about four days and i hope it will come back to me, and then i'll tell you. At the moment i haven't even got a fragmentary memory of the phrase that i could google.
Jason Henninger
7. jasonhenninger
Now that you mention it, I think it might have been. I'd forgotten about that. Hmmm.....

Flaubert? I had no idea. I tried to read him a long, long time ago. Sentimental Education, I think. I have no memory of it now. Maybe I'll give him another try.
Lou Anders
8. LouAnders
Henry, for what it's worth I think you've nailed it.
Jason, when you say Maybe it's a matter of my own idealism more than a matter of plot structure. I just felt a bit cheated by the hopelessness..., I think you are spot on. The ending seemed pretty damn final to me. There might be room for Joe to show Fero catching up to Bayaz one day, in some yet-to-be-conceived book written many moons from now, but I don't think the story demands it, and if Joe never revisited these characters, I don't think anything would be left dangling. I thought the ending was very much an ending, of everything, just maybe not the happy ending that a lifetime of reading idealistic fantasy engenders one to expect.
Henry Farrell
9. Henry Farrell
Lou - thanks for the kind words. I am planning to do something on Crooked Timber about the books one of these days soon (had wanted to do something earlier, but wanted to wait till you had brought out the final volume in the US). The other thing that I shyould maybe have added (and I think this is implicit in your post too), is that I think the end is constructed to be deliberately dissatisfying to traditional fantasy fans, but in a useful way. I imagine the experience for many of his readers will be a little like the one I had when I read Mike Harrison's _A Storm Of Wings_ as a teenager - at first I was both confused and pissed off with the book, because it took themes that I was familiar with from other epic fantasy, and did things that rendered them awkward and uncomfortable. But then it made me think about the genre, and its assumptions, in a very different way. I don't think that Abercrombie's books are ambitious in quite the same directions as MJH's stuff, but they may have some of the same effects.
Madeline Ferwerda
10. MadelineF
Eh, I see what he did there, but I don't think he did it well enough for win. It was nice to see the cliches of fantasy (An ancient wizard! Northern barbarians! On a quest for a thingamabob!) through a different angle, and he worked the "book that is too long" schtick pretty well, but he ordered up a load of fail for himself on the "series that does not end" cliche--that is, he pulled punches at the end so that he could write more books with those characters in that world.

And he failed again when it comes to all the female based cliches, "There are like, two women in the three book series, one feral and one needful of rescue oh wait there's one other who manipulates men with sexiness!" Which, you know, whatever, it's so common I'd cut him some slack if there had been something happening at the end besides "a thing happens and another thing happens".

Good point about the technique of inducing sympathy through self-doubt... As far as that goes.
11. rogerothornhill
Your point about antiheroes being as cliched as heroes is a great one. In the early 70s, Roger Corman actually ordered Martin Scorsese to give Boxcar Bertha an unhappy ending because at that point it was more commercial. By the 1980s, Miami Vice proved on a weekly basis that unhappy endings could be as cliched and predictable as happy endings.

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