July 20, 2011

A Dreadful Fantasy

If there have been a lack of words here recently, you can blame Joe Abercrombie, whose skill at putting them together so dwarfs my own that I hardly feel qualified to do it at all. He's popularly considered the best young fantasy writer - maybe the best, period, if only George Martin would die - which is almost an insult, insofar as fantasy writers are barely considered writers at all. They deal in swords and sorcery, rather than the human condition, weave massive epics without touching on anything real. And all that passive voice. 

There is a post somewhere else contesting that false conclusion, but for now, I'll just say that it is wholly false.

Abercrombie does root all of his swooping plot in reality, at least, the reality of emotion. The characters feel how you think they ought - how you think you would - rather than puffed up caricatures. They are flawed people, some more deeply than others. But even that is too judgmental a phrase. More accurately, they are complex characters. It's not a question of black or white, or even shades of gray, but rather the full spectrum of colors.

There are battles, because there are always battles. But there is no obvious objective; the two sides are fighting, mostly, because they are. We get the perspective of a litany of "main" characters, and brief interludes with smaller players. (Usually, they die shortly after introduction.) A common refrain is the myriad of ways in which war is a miserable business for all involved. You can't help but find yourself agreeing, almost feeling guilty for indulging in the violence fetishism that pervades so much popular fiction.

You almost want both sides to walk away, the characters to go home, and nothing much to happen. Almost. It's a disgusting business, war, but it's captivating. And so too is the characters' neurosis, their agony and their apathy.

This is nowhere more obvious that the morning scenes, the proverbial calm before the storm. These are people muttering about going to work, essentially, barely removed from our modern drudgery. It is also these scenes, however, which furthest remove me from the plot. It's not that I don't care, or that the writing is any less crisp, witty and descriptive.

I simply cannot stand the thought of waking up and facing a day's work without coffee. Nevermind the nights spent without a room, without a fire or food. Nevermind the almost certain prospect of horrific injury and pain. War is hell, they say, and Abercrombie does as good a job of illustrating that as anyone I've read. But if that's the case, war without coffee is the deepest circle.

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