Monday, 20 February 2012

Shelf o'Glory - Joe Abercrombie

My colleagues are collecting pics of prized book collections on the Hodderscape Facebook page. Here's mine:

You'll notice that my Shelf of Glory is both small and schizophrenic, running to a mere five fantasy books before coming over all cycling-y.

Truth is, I'm not a fantasy reader. I was, in my teenage years; the books, the RPGs, White Dwarf magazine, the lot. But when I hit the pseudy, chin-stroking student phase, I gave it all up.

Then last year a friend suggested, nay, insisted I read The Blade Itself. It looked more like a military historical novel - a genre I'm partial to - than fantasy, so I got stuck in. The title, incidentally, is taken from a brilliantly ominous line from The Odyssey: "The blade itself incites to deeds of violence".

From the first line of dialogue ("shit", charmingly) I knew I was reading something distinctive. Six books later, I’m a fully paid up fan.

The Abercrombie novels conform to a conventional fantasy setup in many cases (rag-tag band of misfits on a quest; weakling son redeems himself as a hero etc) but that’s a deliberate ploy: a self-imposed genre boundary to play with, and sometimes undermine.

The quality I most prize in these books is I think a very English one. I seem to remember from the chin-stroking college days that it's called bathos. Abercrombie deploys his wit to undermine pomposity and pretention, both in his characters and in the genre. For example:

"Evidently there was more to being a king than fine clothes, a haughty manner, and always getting the biggest chair".

When someone dies, they are invariably said to have gone "back to the mud", but even while alive they seem metaphorically unable to escape from its clutches. The world view of these novels, along with their dialogue, is brilliantly earthy. As a result, you’re not distanced from the characters, as you can be, reading fantasy; in fact you feel their humanity, and you laugh along ruefully with them.

Another huge attraction of these books is the presence of a brilliant antihero - Sand dan Glokta – and that’s something they share with a new series we're publishing by Daniel Polansky called Low Town. The Warden is basically a hard as nails fantasy drug dealer, who’s done his time in the army and is busy trying to balance survival in a hard (indeed Low) town, investigation of murders by beings from another dimension and the impulse to get stoned. And why wouldn’t you want to read that? Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure. Read it – it’s good.