I have to give the Lensman books at least four stars for their nostalgia value, and that they began me on a life of love for science fiction. I'll havI have to give the Lensman books at least four stars for their nostalgia value, and that they began me on a life of love for science fiction. I'll have read them first in my very early teens, probably around the time of the original Star Wars trilogy, on which they are no doubt a huge influence. I think these are probably the finest of 'Doc' Smith's ripping space adventures - powered by derring do and the fight for justice, with square jawed heroes and their beautiful women, a World's Fair-type optimism of technology and a complete lack of regard for the laws of physics.
The good guys practically wear white hats, perfect physical and mental specimens that could adorn a recruitment poster for the US Army or the Wehrmacht. The women are strong and intelligent, too - strong enough to tell the men off for being overly macho (with a glint in their eyes that says how much they love it really) and smart enough to know that they should let the menfolk go off to do their duty while they stay behind to make sure the home is looked after.
Smith told the stories with a vibrancy that left the reader breathless at the adventure and heroism, with enough scientific gobbledygook to instill a sense of wonder - silvery teardrop shaped spacecraft powered by and 'intertia-less' drive that could fling them out of the solar system in a matter of seconds, ray guns that dealt death to the bad guys (but only after refusing the chance to change their ways, of course) and the mighty Lenses - weapon, communication device and symbol of the Galactic Patrol's righteous power, handed to humanity by the ancient peace-loving alien civilisation the Arisians to fight the evil Eddorians.
I've been meaning to re-read them all for some time, but perhaps they should be left in the past, infused with the fond glow of childhood discovery, remnant of a mythical time without cynicism and postmodernism, when we could ignore the complexities of the real world and pretend that all problems could be solved if people would just accept that granite jawed white men were always right. So I'll just remember watching a couple of episodes of Flash Gordon on Saturday morning TV (with Larry 'Buster' Crabbe, of course), maybe see Errol Flynn best the Sheriff of Nottingham, then ride my bike to the top of the hill and sit reading about the noble Lensmen....more
It is difficult to give a decent review of Last Argument of Kings, final volume of the First Law trilogy, without some spoilers. So I'm going to splitIt is difficult to give a decent review of Last Argument of Kings, final volume of the First Law trilogy, without some spoilers. So I'm going to split the review into two parts, firstly about the general style and then about the story, with a warning when the spoilers are due.
On the whole, Abercrombie's writing is pretty good – vivid description, good character voicing and development, excellent plotting. Sometimes it reads as though it's short of a final edit; my personal bugbear was how much all the characters 'grimaced'. I was grimacing every time that word came up. I don't know if I just noticed these flaws more in the second and third books, or whether the first was more polished and then the others where slightly rushed. What he really excels at is tone. There's a plethora of darker fantasy out there, gritty realism introduced into fantastical settings – I reckon people influenced by reading Robert E. Howard – where the combat is bloody and dangerous, characters swear in the kind of situations when real people tend to (not made up curses of the “by the teeth of Karvik!” sort, either). A lot of that sort of fantasy, even the good stuff like KJ Parker and China Mieville, tends to be a bit on the humourless side. Abercrombie has a deft hand with tone, creating real tension and then relieving it with humour without descending into farce or any danger of becoming 'comic fantasy'. With several of the main characters we get a third person view (hearing?) of their inner monologues, which helps us get to know them through their foibles and self doubts but with which he also does a nice little trick. Each of these characters has little repetitive phrases that recur sporadically – Logen Ninefingers muttering “still alive” after every fight, Glokta asking himself “why do I do this?” or musing on the possibility of being found floating in the docks. This would be an easy tool to overuse, and become extremely annoying, but used sparingly it helps to cement the character voices as well as the plot structure, as leit motifs which both mirror past events and foreshadow future ones. The fight scenes are satisfyingly bloody, although I think he overdoes this somewhat. While not all the fights are described in detail, a few more could have been glossed over. Because Abercrombie has to keep finding different ways to describe the splatter of blood and the mutilation of body parts, it does become a little strained by the end and somewhat overshadows the feelings of the characters involved in the violence, which earlier on took precedence. Perhaps four stars is a little generous, but I think they are deserved for ambition and achievement.
Now, on to the review of the story and the inevitable spoilers.
Any genre of fiction has its themes and tropes, its styles and conventions, with which most of the readership are familiar. Terry Pratchett's early Discworld novels are a classic example of an author taking these conventions and twisting them for effects both comedic and social commentary. If you read Pratchett without knowing these tropes you're missing half the jokes. It's like reading the Dilbert cartoons without having worked in an office.
In heroic fantasy two of the big conventions are the mighty-thewed hero – often a Northern barbarian, usually smarter than he's given credit for, sometimes prone to berserk battle rages – and the centuries- or millennia-old wizard who watches over the world trying to steer civilisation and/or thwart the machinations of his dark adversary, often by use of pet heroes. In The First Law trilogy we have Logen Ninefingers, most feared warrior in the North, and Bayaz, First of the Magi. It is the riffs that Abercrombie plays with these conventions are what really makes these books worth reading.
Logen is a trouble magnet. We first meet him barely surviving a fight which leads to him falling from a cliff (the common trait of heroes in any genre is a huge amount of luck, both good and bad). We find that he is considered the most dangerous man in the North, but seeing him in a series of fights we wonder whether this is just luck. He is tough and capable, but seems no more so than his erstwhile companions, a group of other Northern 'named men', fighters who have made their names in battle. Until, at the end of the first book, we see Logen in his berserk rage, an unstoppable killing machine who recognises neither friend nor foe, just targets to be slain. And Abercrombie makes this interesting by introducing a touch of reality. Logen knows what he is. He has been fighting and killing for too many years and is sick of it. Not only does he know that he has killed companions in the blood heat of battle, he looks around and sees that everyone is either terrified of him or bears him hatred and blood feud, or both. But war is all he has known and, as someone remarks, the better you get at killing the less use you are for anything else. Logen makes the resolution to try and be a better man, but his only use is as a warrior, a killer.
Bayaz is a wizard more in the mould of David Eddings' Belgareth than of Gandalf. In appearance, a hale and hearty individual of late middle years, grey haired but solid and no nonsense, he doesn't mind becoming involved and getting his hands dirty. We only meet him going on for half way through the first volume, and at first his role seems more that of a facilitator than a protagonist, although the clues are there from the start that it is otherwise. Bayaz is more than a thousand years old, once favoured student of the creator of magic, and now first in the art. He was responsible for founding the Union, the kingdom which is central to much of the action and politics of the books. Bayaz is undoubtedly wise and powerful, and certainly appears benign in comparison to what we learn of his arch-nemesis, who controls the Gurkish Empire, a southern desert-based nation and main rival of the Union, by posing as the prophet of their god and controls a cadre of warrior magicians who gain their power by eating human flesh.
It is only in the second half of the final book that we learn just how involved Bayaz is, although the clues were there. From the start, he has orchestrated everything. While he takes credit for helping win the war which is the focus of The Last Argument of Kings, he deliberately planned it to draw out his enemy. And that is the point. The sorcerer is not concerned with the well being of people or the advancement of civilisation, but in proving himself the most powerful magician of all time and demonstrating that power to his nemesis and exercising it for his own ends. When Luthar, a shallow, self-centred military officer who Bayaz has manipulated onto the throne of the Union tells the wizard how much he hates him, Bayaz laughs. “I couldn't care less what you think. You people live so briefly and die so quickly it isn't worth bothering with. You are insects.”
Throughout the trilogy there is movement toward redemption. Logen trying to leave a life of violence behind him. Luthar realising he has lived a life of privilege and selfishness and changing his ways. Glokta, once a dashing cavalry officer who was broken in the torture chambers of the Gurkish Empire and is now chief torturer for the Inquisition, constantly questions both the morality and the point of what he does. Although in the end there is no redemption, which is a necessarily bleak outcome, it feels as though this is only due to the imposition from above, that things would have worked out better were it not for the malevolent, all powerful force that has its own agenda and to whom humans and indeed nations are simply pawns. ...more
In recent years there has been a trend in heroic fantasy toward a certain realism - which, being fantasy, some pe------two paragraphs of preamble-----
In recent years there has been a trend in heroic fantasy toward a certain realism - which, being fantasy, some people find rather odd. First it began to show the brutality of close combat in graphic terms (lead very much by writers such as the late David Gemmell), perhaps following a re-discovery of Robert E. Howard's Conan and violent 1970s and 80s movies such as the Dirty Harry films (Clint Eastwood type lone avenger characters fit rather well into fantasy settings). More recently still, this has been combined with a social realism far removed from the bucolic ideals of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.
The problem is, much of it is truly awful. Until my mid teens I was a huge fan of fantasy literature, but began to tire of the multi-volume epics full of bad writing hung on the same plot over and over again (for reference see Robert Adams' Horseclans books and John Norman's actually offensive Gor Saga; and when I say "see" I don't suggest you actually read them unless you're a masochist. Of course, if you're a masochist and female John Norman would quite like to meet you). I occasionally dip back into the field in the hope of finding the old magic, sometimes with joyous discovery like George R. R. Martin's truly magnificent A Song of Ice and Fire series, but mostly regretfully (writers such as Steven Erikson who seem to think that swearing and violence constitute a rounded character). From what I'd heard about Joe Abercrombie I had feared that he'd fall into the latter category, but when recommended to me by a friend who (usually) steers me right my hopes were raised and, while still somewhere between the two, he is far closer to Martin.
We are introduced to a fairly standard fantasy world; a dominant empire (technologically late middle ages but in feel more like the British Empire under Victoria) beset variously by Northern barbarians and dark heathens on its borders. We are introduced also to a set of disparate characters: Logen Ninefingers, huge scarred Northern warrior who is growing tired of the constant killing; Glokta, a former fencing champion and war hero who, after being broken and mangled in an enemy's torture chambers returned to become a feared Inquisitor; Jezal, an arrogant young noble Lieutenant; Maljinn, a feral warrior woman consumed by thoughts of revenge; Bayaz, ancient if rather hale and hearty sorcerer, to name some. Through the course of this first book in the trilogy we get to know the characters and some of them join together in our traditional questing group. It actually took quite a long time for this to happen - not that the book was at all slow, but it was almost half way through the 500-odd pages when I realised that the plot had only just kicked in. This was a surprise as these books are generally plot driven, but Abercrombie had done such a good job at building the characters and world that I had been engrossed.
Okay, for characterisation we're not talking Joseph Heller here, but the characters are well drawn with fairly realistic motivations and excellent individual voices. While the narrative voice is third person, in the individual chapters it is tweaked toward that of the character who is central at that point, allowing for some of the insight and empathy that you would get from a first person view. Abercrombie also shows his skill in the superb way he manages the tone; he can move from humour to chilling horror in a couple of sentences, and his descriptions of the adrenaline, fear and brutality of close combat are excellent.
At the close of this first volume threads of plot are being exposed and the tapestry of the setting growing. A war is starting in the North, although most of the main characters are heading in the opposite direction. I don't expect quite the complexity or intrigue of A Song of Ice and Fire, but it's a more than acceptable interlude while I'm waiting.