01/03/2008. Contributed by Joe Abercrombie
Fantasy author Joe Abercrombie writes about the development of his work, playing RPGs, a diet of reading the Grey Mouser and Moorcock, and his dark yearnings for all that lies on the grittier side of epic fantasy.
You lucky people! There's a positive onslaught of content here at the moment. There's an article by me in the latest SFX (no. 167, I think, with that cheerleader from Heroes looking sensitive yet spunky on the front) about George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones, a book which I daresay needs little introduction for the majority of you. It's one of their book club pieces, in which a well-respected author of today looks back on a classic of the distant (or in this case pretty current) past. Clearly they'd run out of well-respected authors, because they asked me if I'd like to do it.
I can't quote the piece here, obviously, since I sold it to SFX for an embarrasingly massive quantity of money that may have approached 10,000 pence. But in essence I talk about the book's great importance in the dark and seedy side of epic fantasy, leading on from stuff like Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Elric, and how Martin's work seems to have spawned a whole subsection of 'gritty', realistic epic fantasy. What I didn't really talk about in the article was the book's (and the series') importance to ME, and the development of my own work. Of course I didn't talk about that. That would've been arrogant and self-indulgent, and you all know I'm just not like that.
That's why I'm doing it here.
A little background. As a kid I was very into the Lord of the Rings, and read it every year for a while. Wizard of Earthsea also had a strong effect on me. So did Michael Moorcock (particularly Corum and all the crazy names). I watched Conan the Barbarian many times more than is healthy for a teenage boy (there's boobs in it, and I'm not just talking about Schwarzenegger's). I started playing an awful lot of roleplaying games around this time, and with supplements from that, early fantasy-styled computer games such as Dungeon Master, Bloodwych, and Legend, cracking through a load of Dragonlance, and David Eddings first two series (or are they the same series with different covers?) I probably glutted myself on the cheesier end of the fantasy spectrum. Nothing wrong with cheese, you understand, as long as you get some fibre in your diet at the same time. But it did appear (and apologies to any of the glaring exceptions, because I lay no claim to being immensely well read in the genre) there wasn't a lot of fibre to be had in epic fantasy as the eighties turned into the nineties.
So I more or less stopped reading it in my late teens. No grand decision to fling it aside in dismay, just I went to college and got into other things. You know. Luge. International money-laundering. Semi-professional knife throwing. Russian roulette. And Street Fighter II, of course. During long walks after midnight at around this time, I was still thinking about some of the ideas I'd had earlier, as a reader and a gamer, for world and storyline of an epic fantasy, and characters like Bayaz and Logen Ninefingers were named and gradually taking shape in my mind.
In the summer after finishing college (so about 13 years ago, now), with time on my hands, I started writing a book very similar to the one that would finally become The Blade Itself as an exercise to improve my touch-typing. I say similar, because it lacked key elements of the later approach. It was a much more straight-up epic fantasy, cheesier effort, without the sideways, world-weary self-awareness, or most of the laughs. Without Inquisitor Glokta at all, incidentally, who was much the most recent character to emerge. It was, in short, not very good. I'm sure if I read any of it now I would vomit with embarrasment. In fact, I may have vomited a little bit just now thinking about it.
Anyway, I moved to London (summer of '94?) and had other things on my mind - cokroaches, flatmates on the borders of sanity, and so forth, started working and pretty much shelved any plans to write. I started reading a lot of history around this time - Shelby Foote, John Keegan, Alan Clark etc. and had more or less no interest in fantasy. Then someone prevailed upon me to give Game of Thrones a go. Yeah, yeah, I thought, whatever. It blew my doors off.
A Game of Thrones, and its sequels, seemed to bring to epic fantasy a huge amount of what I felt it had been desperately missing. There was relatively little debt to Tolkein (not that there's anything wrong with debt to Tolkein, it's just there's a shit-load of it around already). Martin's world was low on magic, low on romanticism, high on realism, very high on ruthlessness. There was no lame-ass, two-dimensional battle of good and evil. There were no lame-ass, two-dimensional characters. It was an (more or less) entirely human world, with man-made evils, very much like ours. The series was recognisably fantasy, it had enough that was familiar, but it was groundbreaking (at least for me) in all kinds of ways. Above all, the books were extremely unpredictable, especially in a genre where readers have come to expect the intensely predictable. Suddenly, from knowing what was going to happen from the first page and always being right, you found yourself with no idea who'd die next. Sudden main character deaths have become almost de rigeur in the genre since then, or at least in the grittier corners of it, but A Game of Thrones was profoundly shocking when I first read it, and fundamentally changed my notions about what could be done with epic fantasy.
It was also interesting from a technical standpoint - Martin uses the third person limited approach, as it's called, with the events always narrated from "inside the head", if you like, of one of the main characters. All the action is seen powerfully close up, coloured by the personality of the narrator. For me, fantasy went suddenly from being all about the huge, the spectacular, the sweeping wide shot (following on from Tolkein's approach) to being about the experience of individuals. You feel the sweat, the pain, the fear, the blood, you understand the motivations. You see how no-one is a villain in their own mind, even if they are in everyone else's. The great achievement of Martin's books, for me, is that they cover vast, epic, immense events, but never lose that sense of tight involvement with the characters. It wasn't a new approach in wider fiction - I guess Tolstoy was doing something similar in War and Peace - but it was the first time I'd seen it applied so rigorously and effectively in fantasy, and it seems now to have become pretty much the standard method of narration in the genre.
I must confess I haven't read A Feast for Crows yet. I'm waiting on the next and will probably read them both together. Though there was still a load of brilliant stuff in the third book, A Storm of Swords, it seemed more spread out than A Game of Thrones had been. I know a lot of readers love that sense of scale, but I was frustrated by the apparent loss of focus - the adding and divergence of the points of view, the steady increase in the simple spine size of the books without a matching growth in overall narrative movement.
The books seemed to get fatter, if you like, but not taller. The story expanded sideways but shrunk lengthways. Maybe I'd been expecting a trilogy, or maybe I was just disappointed as it became clearer and clearer there'd be no final resolution any time soon. Probably there was an element of diminishing returns, in that the first book was, for me, so smack-mouth amazing that it was near impossible to turn me upside down in the same way afterwards. They were great, don't get me wrong, just not as great. I imagine I'm not the only one who's keen to see whether Martin can pull it all together in the long run...
Looking at my own (insignificant) development as a writer, if I may be pretentious enough to do so (mmmmmm ... yeah, I think I can be that pretentious). Between that earlier, suckier effort at writing an epic fantasy, back in '93, and the much more successful effort (at least in my opinion) in '02, what changed? Well, I grew up considerably, for one thing, experienced working life and broader horizons, and learned to take everything a bit less seriously. I read a lot of history, which I think gives the books a much more convincing texture, if you like, than they otherwise would have had. I read a fair bit of heavyweight literature - the sort of thing one boasts about at dinner parties - Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Bulgakov, Dickens, Trollope and Sterne and blah, blah, blah which definitely improved my technical reach (as pathetic as I'm sure some people think it remains).
I read quite a bit of noir and crime, particularly James Elroy, which taught me some good lessons about hard-hitting prose and twisty plotting. I worked as a documentary editor which gave me some understanding of how to construct a narrative, of how to streamline and cut down (says the writer of enormous 200,000 word books, but hey, I like to think they're pretty tight). I watched a lot of interesting films, including Tarantino's stuff (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had strong effects on me), John Woo and manga, the list is endless (well, not actually endless, but bloody long).
TV changed, I think, in this period, starting to throw up some really interesting series which were shifting media in general in a more realistic, complicated, ruthless direction - stuff like the Sopranos, the Shield, 24 (at least to begin with), Band of Brothers, and later Deadwood, Nip/Tuck and the Wire (man I love the Wire) - a movement that seems to be creeping into SF TV now with shows like Heroes and Battlestar Galactica. All of that settled on me as well, I'm sure, and I think my approach to action writing probably owes more to what I've watched than what I've read.
So there's an awful lot of different stuff in the pot, as I'm sure there is for every author, and most of it from outside the genre. But in terms of influences from written fantasy, between '93 and '02, Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire in general) is definitely the outstanding (if not the only significant) one. I doubt The First Law would look quite the way it does without my having read those books. Hell, maybe I wouldn't even have written it at all.
(c) Joe Abercrombie 2008
Joe Abercrombie lives in North London with his wife, Lou, and his daughter, Grace. He splits his time between film editing and writing edgy yet humorous fantasy novels. His novel The Blade Itself, was completed in 2004. Following a heart-breaking trail of rejection at the hands of several of Britain's foremost literary agencies, The First Law trilogy was snatched up by Gillian Redfearn of Gollancz in 2005 in a seven-figure deal (if you count the pence columns). A year later The Blade Itself was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. It is now published in eight countries, in seven languages, with seven different titles. The sequel, Before They Are Hanged, followed in 2007. The final part of the trilogy, Last Argument of Kings, will be published in March 2008.
More on Joe's work over at http://www.joeabercrombie.com/
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