There’s a children’s game called “button, button, who’s got the button?” The basic premise is one kid has a button and walks around a circle of other kids putting his hands in theirs’, leaving the button in one set of hands somewhere along the way. The kid then feigns continued button-leaving. Once the circle is complete, the other kids try to guess who has the button. If this sounds inane, well, it is. But, in my imagination I like to picture “button, button” as a more genteel version of “duck, duck, goose.” And by genteel I mean with less blood and sobbing.
I bring this up not to slander one of the greatest games of all time, but because Joe Abercrombie’s story in Rogues, a new anthology from George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, functions much the same, with rotating points of view depending on who has the “button” at a given moment. Of course, because it’s Abercrombie, the game is a lot more “duck, duck, goose” than “button, button,” with a sufficient amount of physical violence and broken dreams (as any good game of “duck, duck, goose” should have).
The story begins with Carcolf, courier and operative, transporting a package through the underbelly of Sipani. For those enmeshed in Abercrombie’s Circle of the World, Sipani is in Styria, where the novel Best Served Cold is set. It was in this very city where Bremer dan Gorst fell from grace as a Royal Guard after an attempt on the life of the royal person. The Sipani’s quality of life hasn’t seemed to improve much since Best Served Cold as Carcolf is quickly set upon by a street bandit who takes the package without any concept of its value. Mind you, the reader and even Carcolf are equally ignorant. The bandit owes a debt to someone who’s been told to keep an eye out for this package, who lightens his load, and on it goes, passing through more than a half a dozen hands by the time the tale winds to a conclusion.
For the dedicated Abercrombie fans there are easter eggs aplenty in “Tough Times All Over.” Every character will leave you wondering who they are in the grand scheme of things, which faction they belong to and who they screwed over or were screwed over by to end up in their current plight. If there’s a weakness in the story, it’s a reliance on that investment in the rich back story from the Circle of the World series. Is the story as rewarding without that? It’s hard for me to say, but all his classic textures are present.
Like much of Abercrombie’s work there’s a sense of exhaustion to the characters. Many of them are trudging through the darker side of life, hoping for things to get better while recognizing they probably never will.
“After this job, she really needed to take a holiday. She tongued at the inside of her lip, where a small but unreasonably painful ulcer had lately developed. All she did was work. A trip to Adua, maybe? Ugh, no. She remembered what a judgmental bitch her sister-in-law was. One of those people who met everything with a sneer. She reminded Carcolf of her father. Probably why her brother had married the bloody woman…”
Although there are a few characters that truly embrace the depravity of the Sipani underworld, what separates Abercrombie’s characters is a genuine desire to improve their lot. Even when that improvement will inevitably fail, the fact that there’s an earnest desire to live a more complete(?) life gives the reader a sense of companionship that can’t exist with a nihilistic or sociopathic characterization. It’s this distinction that makes Abercrombie less grimdark and more grimlark.
Where some fiction seems to revel in its grit, “Tough Times All Over” is trying to dig its way out. Mind you, Abercrombie only gives his characters a garden shovel and a toothbrush to accomplish this feat, but the effort is remarkable. In that way maybe “Tough Times All Over” really is more “button, button” than “duck, duck, goose.” It’s searching for something rather than running in fear of it.