Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sharp Ends - Joe Abercrombie

Sharp Ends is a collection of short stories by Joe Abercrombie, set in the world of his ‘First Law’ series. Some of the stories contained within have been published in other collections before, but some are entirely original to this collection. They’ve all got Abercrombie’s trademark wit and smart, tight plotting, though. 

There’s a wide variety of characters, time periods and geography on display here.  There’s the gutters of Sipani. The mud and grey skies of the broken North.  The glory and flames of Dagoska, a city falling under siege. The bloody, dry dust of the Near Country. Each story has its situation in Abercrombie’s world, and evokes a masterful sense of place.  The decadent urbanity of a royal visit to a brothel is just as vivid and fully realised as the stark outlines of a Northern hold. Each leaps off the page, immerses the reader in its immediacy, seizes them by the throat and takes their attention, then cuts them with some beautifully tight descriptive prose. Abercrombie’s always been great at evoking an atmosphere, and here he does his customary excellent job – Sipani seethes with industry, a mound of thousands of workers, all ripping each other off. The north remains a quieter place, perhaps not bloodier, but more straightforward with it – and you can almost taste the tang of gore mixing with fresh snow on a chill wind.  What I’m saying here is that each of these places is brought to life – messily, dirtily, tenement blocks, drug dens and all; and that they feel wonderfully, terribly real. 

In many cases, we’ve seen the places before. Several of the stories take place in and around the environs of Abercrombie’s other First Law works. The same is true of the characters – many of them will be familiar to long time First Law readers, their parts in the stories here acting as prologue or coda to those exploits. If you’re coming to this collection fresh, then the stories will still work, of course – for example the dashing, arrogant swordsman Glokta is a masterpiece of sneering, arrogant deadliness, and Shy South is entirely plausible as an exhausted and unlucky outlaw. But if you’re coming to the collection with some First Law under your belt already, these views into the past and future of familiar characters adds a whole new richly intriguing layer to the narrative. 

That said, there are some great new additions to the cast. Shevedieh and Javre are a delightful thief-warrior duo, reminiscent of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. They have several tales interspersed within the volume, a sort of central core within the dispersed narrative arcs. They’re also a lot of fun to read. Shev is a forward planner, anxious, prone to expecting the worst, whilst Javre bowls ahead into trouble, and usually pummels it into abject submission. I’d like to see more of Javre, but we get a complex portrayal of Shev, a woman who has dragged herself out of dire circumstances, and then crafted new ones to shape what she is, and what she wants to become. The relationship between the two is at once convulsively funny, and an emotional, genuine link between two individuals who need each other.  It’s a beautiful, honest read, and whilst their banter raised more than a chuckle, it also led into questions of friendship, loyalty, and humanity. 

Mind you, Abercrombie has never been afraid to explore the human condition.  There’s a lot of that on display here, examining the surprising vulnerability of villains, and the smirking self-congratulation of what could, in a good light, be labelled heroes. The key though, is that they all feel fully formed, with a sort of rough veracity that makes the reader empathise with and understand the person on the page – indeed ,makes the person on the page a person.  Again, some of the relationships in play here have another layer if you’ve seen those characters in other First Law works – but they work within their individual narratives here, without further adornment. 
The plots – well, they’re all over the place, in terms of subject. There’s a retelling of one of the events from Red Country, playing on the unreliability of the narrator and the importance of external pressures (as an aside, this was a great piece, but perhaps the only one in the collection I felt only worked because I’d read another of Abercrombie’s works, which it references heavily). 

Then there’s a western, in the form of ‘Some Desperado’, Shy South desperately evading pursuit. A more character focused piece dealing with Bethod, putative unifier of the North, trying to deal with Logen, his recalcitrant champion. A young Glokta and West, duelling before the arrival of a Ghurkish  attack that changes everything. Shev and Javre falling into, and out of, trouble, usually no worse than they went in, but occasionally covered in someone else’s blood. Abercrombie’s plots are, to be blunt, pitch perfect – the tension wound tight when required, released in the byplay between characters, a dialogue at once profane and marvellously human, or in a terrible blend of steel and blood. Each, though, is worth reading. I tore through the text, could barely put it down, and would strongly commend that you do the same.

Is it worth reading? As you may have gathered – yes, absolutely. Abercrombie shows off serious range here, crafting a detailed world with a diverse series of characters, ensconced in plots that kept me turning pages until well into the night.  If you haven’t read any of his other First Law books, this can work as an introduction – though I’d suggest reading the others first. If you’re already across this part of Abercrombie’s oeuvre, then this is a rich tapestry of tales, the depths of which you owe it to yourself to fall into. 

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