The thing about Tolkien is that he wrote in an age where sincerity wasn’t looked down on as it often is today, and it’s hard to call his work cliché since he invented many of the things that were later used and abused by his legions of imitators. He was also an unabashed monarchist, and it shows in his work. When Aragorn comes to take the crown, everyone agrees that he’s the rightful ruler, and because he is a good man the land prospers under his rule. We don’t find out about his treacherous viziers or hangers-on, presumably because he can see right through such people. Aragorn himself spent decades fighting battles without becoming jaded or cynical, and armies that he commands were forces for good in the land, and didn’t commit war crimes or random atrocities.
Needless to say, that’s never happened in any real situation on planet Earth, even when the people in charge were generally what we would call good people. For a while the trend in fantasy literature was to simply ignore this stuff. However, modern fantasy authors have taken note, and many of them have of late tried to put more realism into their worlds than we typically see in classic works like The Lord of the Rings and its many imitators. George R.R. Martin is a good example of this; he demonstrates in Ned Stark a classic fantasy hero, a righteous man with an inflexible sense of honor, who immediately gets chewed up and destroyed by the intrigue of even a moderately large bureaucracy. Martin created a land where even the “good” armies have to forage to stay alive, and that means taking the livelihood and even lives of the peasants that work those areas, and men who make their living killing with melee weapons aren’t above a little bit of robbery or rape if presented with an opportunity.
But for some authors, even this doesn’t go far enough. Richard K. Morgan explored this territory in his Land Fit for Heroes series, where everything bad in A Song of Ice and Fire is made even more horrible. And now here I am reading this series by Joe Abercrombie, which takes everything that can go bad, wrong or unpleasant and makes it do so. I can’t say that I enjoyed it exactly, but I will say that I’m happy to have read it, since now I know exactly where my limit is for so-called “realism” in fantasy fiction. This far, and no farther.
Like any good fantasy world, this one has a creation story. The world used to be overrunning with demons, until the half demon Euz sealed them up in the other world, then ordered his four sons to bring order to the human side of it, before leaving himself. The four then engaged in various internecine squabbles and are also gone from the world. They did manage to train the order of mages, who are capable of various magic feats and don’t seem to die of old age, but the age of magic is over, and they’re actually beginning to industrialize somewhat. Incidentally, the “First Law” was made by Euz, and it is “don’t traffic with demons”. The Second Law was also made by Euz, and that’s “no cannibalism”. As it happens, this is a practical rule since in this world eating other people actually grants you some supernatural powers, but curses you to be unable to ever stop doing so. The fact that such laws are necessary tells you a great deal about how much this world sucks.
And indeed it does suck. As it turns out, the first of the mages, Bayaz, and the second of the mages, Khalul, have this blood feud thing going. Khalul openly breaks the Second Law and has a legion of Eaters (those that have done the same) under his command, and he’s declared himself the Prophet of God, and has an Empire going on down in the south of the world. Bayaz himself has formed the Union, which is a monarchy in the north (but not the far north, where the barbarians live, of course), and also has a couple of interesting side businesses of his own. He originally looks to be something of a typical wizardly sort, but as time goes on you learn that he really doesn’t care too much about people as long as they do what he says, and you gradually discover that maybe some of Khalul’s complaints about him may in fact be pretty well based in reality.
The main viewpoint characters in all of this are Glokta, a former soldier turned government torturer; Jezal dan Luthar, a handsome but venal young officer of the Union, and Logen “Bloody-Nine” Ninefingers, barbarian warrior extraordinaire. These are interesting ideas for characters, but I personally find that their characterization is not always as deep as you might like. And there are some other sort-of-lazy touches, like the land of the stereotypical barbarians is called “Angland” and the southern empire is the “Gurkish”. That’s a little bit hard to take seriously.
There is nonetheless a lot to like about the writing here; Abercrombie is not a transcendent writer by any means but he is workmanlike. He knows what he’s trying to accomplish and there’s a fair bit of dark humor, but what is really impressive is how he is able to move the plot along. There is world-building and long conversations, sure, but if he says someone’s going to invade then they invade in maybe two chapters, and you get to the action. There’s also a bit where Bayaz is assembling some people to go on a traditional quest for an artifact in the far reaches of the world and the whole thing ends up as a huge fiasco, which I liked quite a bit. And Logen is an absolutely fantastic deconstruction of the barbarian berserker archetype – it turns out that there’s actually quite a bit of downside to murderous rages wherein you kill everyone in front of you. Who knew?
But there is also quite a bit to not like here, even structurally. Take Glokta, for instance. He was captured in a previous war and tortured for about two years, and the narrative continually describes his excruciating and constant physical pain. He can’t eat solid food because of missing teeth, one of his legs doesn’t work, his spine is crooked, and this government torturer job was all he could get. But he throws himself into it completely without mercy and is responsible for various deaths of the innocent and guilty alike. He freely engages in activities that would be considered war crimes while in charge of a besieged city, for no net gain, and he quite gleefully abuses his position to make physical threats against people who have not done anything illegal. He also enjoys causing physical pain to other people as revenge against the world for not suffering as he does, which is pretty reprehensible. I will say this though – Glokta does in fact do one nice act that doesn’t blow back on anybody, which is something that no one else manages to accomplish in well over 1500 pages.
In fact, this whole thing reminds me of the Cyberpunk genre in its more baroque phase, where institutions existed for the simple sake of being Evil and doing Evil. There’s definitely a place for realism in fantasy literature, but this veers so far into the squalid and depressing that it’s equally unrealistic. The Inquisition that Glokta works for appears to revolve simply around grabbing people off the street and torturing them; all the institutions of the Union are also shown to be appallingly corrupt, racist, and inefficient. Even with an immortal sorcerer as the force behind the throne, there’s no way that a government this terrible could survive long, with its complete inability to make political decisions, solve crimes, or effectively defend itself. Case in point, the huge conscript army that gets wiped out to the last man since the corrupt nobles responsible for filling the levies just sent a bunch of derelicts on a winter campaign without adequate weapons or warm clothing. Yes, that sort of thing can and has happened in the real world, but the thing is that you end up with violent revolutions or external threats at that point. The Union might survive some of the screw-ups depicted in this trilogy, but probably not all of them and also not as a world power.
At the end of the day, I’m forced to concede that this was successful on its own terms, because it got me to chew through three big volumes and certainly made an impression. At the same time, I also feel that it was more like rubbernecking at a particularly horrible industrial accident that kept me going out of sheer perversity. So I don’t necessarily give this one a full-throated endorsement, but it does go places that the genre doesn’t necessarily go – albeit for the occasional good reason.