I recently reported reading Book One of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and I reported that I had started Book One of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. Now I have finished both series, and I find they make an interesting contrast. They are very differently-conceived, differently-written fantasy series. But both have one very interesting point in common. Each envisions a world-wide cataclysm precipitated by hubris and misuse of knowledge.
Back in 1982, anti-nuclear activist Jonathan Schell wrote a series of articles for New Yorker magazine. These articles subsequently became the basis for his acclaimed book The Fate of the Earth.
Schell made a telling comment about the threat of nuclear holocaust, which will surely be an extinction event, at least where humanity is concerned (among many other species caught up in the collateral damage): “We live, then, in a universe whose fundamental substance contains a supply of energy with which we can extinguish ourselves. We shall never live in any other. We now know that we live in such a universe, and we shall never stop knowing it” (p. 106). To use a cliché or two, the genie is out of the bottle, the cow is out of the barn. We may be able to restrain ourselves from using this knowledge for a while, or even suppress the knowledge, but over the course of human history it will eventually come back at us, and eventually it will get us, because no control system is perfect and no society, growing and changing for good or ill as it does and will, can ensure perfect restraint.
Both of these fantasy series play with such an idea–not nuclear war, but a fantasy equivalent, and in the case of Abercrombie’s fantasy world, a pretty close equivalent. In other aspects, the two series couldn’t be more different.
Abraham’s Long Price Quartet presents a unique fantasy world and a unique take on fantasy.
This extended four-book saga (A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, The Autumn War, The Price of Spring) portrays the life of a reluctant hero, Otah, born into royalty, sent away from his family in childhood to become a poet. He rejects both roles and chooses anonymity in a variety of menial jobs: dock worker, fisherman, courier and member of the “gentleman’s profession” of low-level espionage, among others. Throughout the course of the saga, his background catches up with him. He is a compelling character, and the other major characters in the novels are equally well-drawn. For interesting characters alone, this series has much to offer the reader of fantasy.
The premise of these novels is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever encountered in the genre: what if the creations of poets control the political and economic fate of societies? What if a society weaponizes the handiwork of its official poet to use against another society? What if such a poet goes rogue? What if the misuse of the poet’s creation results in widespread havoc and damage?
The creations of the poets in Abraham’s world begin, as poems do, in carefully considered language. But then they come alive in the form of andats, the embodied spirits of the creations. So, for example, Seedless the andat is the carefully controlled work of a poet who has employed language to explore the idea of generation and germination–the idea of the seed, and how to manipulate it. Using Seedless, the poet is able to remove the seeds from cotton fibers, an arduous, labor-intensive task. The society controlling Seedless thus controls cotton production for the entire world, and has grown prosperous. But Seedless’s removal of the generating principle, the seed, might extend to other, more sinister uses.
In addition, controlling Seedless–or any other andat–becomes the life’s work of the poet who has evoked him. This task takes tremendous concentration and tremendous effort of will, not least because the poet, as creator of the andat, has inevitably incorporated his own weaknesses and fears into his creation. Seedless (a fascinating character in his own right, if you can call him a “he,” eerie and beautiful) becomes the tool of sinister forces. And Seedless, like any other andat, yearns to be free of his creator–in other words, he yearns not to be at all.
The struggle of Seedless for his freedom, and of sinister conspirators to misappropriate his powers, are just the beginning of the long price humanity must pay for relying on such creatures and foregoing the chance to use other kinds of ingenuity to solve problems. A society that understands how to train poets to create and control the andats possesses a huge advantage over those who do not, and Otah’s society, comprised of prosperous city-states with a sort of Southeast Asian and Asian flavor, is the one that wields such a powerful weapon. (The setting, especially in A Shadow in Summer, reminds me a lot of Abraham’s amazing short story, “The Meaning of Love,” anthologized in Rogues–the story that led me to his novels.)
Meanwhile, a warlike neighboring society that does not possess the secret of the poets and andats conspires to gain the closely-held knowledge of its rich rivals and overturn the dominant city-states. This economically and politically lesser society has its own powerful weapon: deprived of the shortcuts that the andats can grant, the other society has developed ingenious machines that provide their own, different type of power.
And so the conflict builds, with Otah caught in the middle of it all.
What a premise. Be warned. If you think these fine points of economics and political in-fighting sound drab, they are anything but. Put aside any prejudices you might have about them, but prepare yourself for some quite intricate plot twists and turns. They are well-worth your concentrated attention as a reader, at least in my opinion. Something else is going on here, too. These books acknowledge the deep and powerful way that words shape us, and maybe a caution about losing control of words; about the inherent danger in words, especially words misused; about words dissolving into airy nothings.
For me as a fantasy reader, a fascinating premise and fascinating world-building are great but not enough. They must be matched by great characterization and great writing. These books have all those qualities. And, of course, the requisite fascinating little map at the front of the volume!
The other series I read, equally absorbing but in entirely different ways, is Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. The three books of the trilogy, The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings, gives the reader an extended view into a violent and pretty terrifying society. This is grimdark fantasy at its best, and is it grim. If you don’t like such stuff, beware. It is bloody, it is morally troubling, it is dark, dark, dark. I loved it.
Each title has a sinister meaning. “The blade itself” (Book I) is a quotation from Homer, Book 16 of the Odyssey, when the hero Odysseus advises his son Telemachus that weapons themselves, if they are left lying around, are a powerful inducement to violent acts. There are plenty of blades lying around in Abercrombie’s Book I to do exactly that, especially in the hands of Logen the Northman when his usually philosophical temperament escalates into terrible irrational rage, striking friend and foe alike, sometimes–not just here but throughout the trilogy–with tragic results. (Think Lancelot killing Gareth and Gaheris in Malory’s Morte Darthur, and the bloody consequences.)
“Before they are hanged” (Book II) comes from a cynical statement by the German poet Heinrich Heine: “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.” Apparently Heine said this, or something like it, in Gedanken und Einfälle (sometimes translated Thoughts and Ideas or Aphorisms and Fragments), maybe in 1848, but these aphorisms are apparently difficult to date. The real quotation says something like, “I’m a peaceful man, but God would make me really happy if He could show me six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees over there.” Heine’s quotations all over the internet have become something like Mark Twain’s–maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t, and if he did, maybe not exactly that way. But no matter. The quotation as it stands at the beginning of Abercrombie’s novel sums up its attitude perfectly, especially the attitude of the twisted and horribly damaged Inspector Glotka, one of the most intriguing, unpleasant, fascinating, and endearing (yes! he is! I stand by that!) characters in all fantasy literature.
“Last argument of kings” (Book III) was apparently engraved on Louis XIV’s cannons, might making right and all that. Interestingly, the reader doesn’t see the quotation until part II of this novel. Part I begins with an equally apt quotation from Paul Gauguin, “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.” Abercrombie’s vision is, at least here, of a dog-eat-dog, nature red in tooth and claw kind of world, and we shudder at it.
But it doesn’t appear to me to be violence for the sake of violence. Abercrombie seems to have a somber view of human nature, but it’s a human nature shaped by the long-ago actions of the mages, and now these terrible actions have come home to roost. One of the most sympathetic of all the characters (no spoilers here) is left in a dreadful state because of the hubris of these powerful sorcerers. Bayaz the mage, who begins the series fairly sympathetically, grows into a kind of monster, by the end. He strives to unleash mighty powers that might best be left alone.
Many of the characters are monstrous, in fact: Logen, Bayaz, Ferro, Glotka. But they are real. They suffer and bleed. They have horrifying scars and injuries. They are imperfect. They grow and change. What, in a novel, is better than that? Some characters aren’t as successfully drawn, though–the hapless, vain young noble Jezel, for example. But the kick-ass female characters, and the general kick-assity of the entire trilogy, more than make up for a few pallid Jezels in the mix.
I must admit, I struggled at the beginning of the trilogy to feel much interest in any of the characters, except probably Logen. That’s because the first book hops so abruptly from character to character. Just as we got to know one character, we suddenly found ourselves having to get to know a new one.
But the sweep of the fantasy world Abercrombie builds is pretty vast, so we need to be introduced to the main characters fairly rapidly. As the series went on, I settled into an absorbing involvement with each of the main characters (well, except for Jezel).
One of the great joys of this trilogy is its action scenes. Abercrombie’s pacing is superb. The scenes come across as near-cinematic (not in that bad way some authors have), yet they have all of the advantages that a print medium gives, as well. Wow.
The writing is very good, although too full of comic-book-style aarghs and ooofs and urks–for my taste, anyway. But the writing made the violence feel real, never soft-pedaled, never romanticized. Abercrombie never lets us look away.
The characters are real, too. How did I feel during the few moments when Inspector Glokta reveals a softer side, though? Maybe a bit uneasy. Then again, that’s what he does. Makes us feel uneasy.
So do these books. They do, and they should. The world they depict, like the world of Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, is an uneasy place, poised on the brink of destruction. That’s our world. Fantasy at its best uses strange, dangerous worlds to reveal our familiar world to us in all its underlying strangeness and danger, and that’s what I think both of these authors do for us.
Thanks again for the great recommendation, Feenix!