Joe Abercrombie is an excellent writer. I welcome dispute, but I think you’re playing a losing hand if you disagree. He’s one of the easiest examples to point to when people mention Grimdark, and the only other king I recognize in that field is Glen Cook. They both write delightfully gritty fantasy stories about power in the hands of the wrong people, and each has a knack for crafting excellent characters. But there’s something engrossing about Abercrombie’s characters that makes them far more tragic than most other fantasy characters. I think there are three great things that make Abercrombie stand out from the pack and I’m going to dive into those below. I am going to do this without spoiling the books, but also provide some examples of what to look for.
First, Abercrombie lets his characters tell their own tale. I don’t mean this in the literal sense (i.e. a first-person POV), because Abercrombie often tells his tales from an informed third person perspective. What I mean is that the internal thoughts the reader is privy to, are often the characters reinforcing their own destinies. It feels more prevalent in The Age of Madness books, but essentially a lot of the characters believe in the future, and they are supposed to be a major part of it. Every decision they make is toward their end goal, and unforeseen reactions are often viewed as hiccups. It’s not that they are at fault for making their bed and lying in it, it’s that the people around them don’t understand what is truly at stake. It adds a level of authenticity that you don’t often encounter. I think a lot of writers manage this to some extent, but Abercrombie puts it front and center, almost shouting at the reader, “you reap what you sow.” Without getting too much into spoilers, Rikki’s long eye and how she uses it is the perfect example of him waving a red flag in the reader’s face.
Secondly, Abercrombie is the master of aphorisms. You know those cultural bits of wisdom that you’ve grown up hearing all your life as a reasonable argument as to why you can or can’t do something? Sayings like “money doesn’t grow on trees” or “let sleeping dogs lie.” You can barely go a chapter without him launching a trebuchet filled with them at you. What I love about Abercrombie’s aphorisms in particular is they are a reflection of sayings we ourselves use, just tailored for the world of The First Law. The most recognizable one being Glotka’s favorite phrase, “an open mind is like an open wound.” I still get chills whenever I see it because it perfectly defines Glotka’s outlook on everything. It instills a certain meaning to his life, and he repeats it to himself as much as he says it to others. These aphorisms appear in dialogue and internal monologues with every character. As with most aphorisms, they were not invented by the characters but passed down to them by the society they live in. It helps them weave their own tales and try to find their own niche within the future, whether it is something that they aim to create or is being constructed for them. I mean for god’s sake look at the titles of his books.
Okay, the third thing is not really a separate item. Rather, it’s how Abercrombie mixes these two skills together. It’s not just that he uses aphorisms to help the characters tell their tales, but how he also lets the characters hide their flaws behind them. How many times have you had to tell yourself some story that helps you move past some terrible event, or some unfortunate news? It’s not a bad thing, and sometimes it might even be a helpful coping mechanism that helps you heal. Sometimes it’s just a reframing of events that can take you out of the center of the story, so while it’s still painful, it’s not the universe enacting its will on you purposefully. All Abercrombie does is make that mechanism work against the characters, making the phrases toxic. As I alluded to earlier, all good outcomes are framed by the characters not as fortune, but outcome of will. Terrible outcomes are viewed not as personal blunders, but are often seen by the protagonists as someone else’s failings or sabotage. The aphorisms, since they are not internally spawned, allow them to cloak their actions in “common sense” or cultural wisdom. These aphorisms are taken as truth, regardless of their actual accuracy. They are authentic because they are repeated, not because they have borne fruit.
The tragedy of this internal storytelling using the language of the cultural zeitgeist, while shown well through the main characters, comes into sharper relief in two particular chapters within The Age of Madness books. Specifically, two chapters that focus on the normal people whose lives are affected or sometimes destroyed by the protagonist’s belief in “destiny.” While these chapters stand out by sharing the same appropriate title of “The Little People,” they showcase Abercrombie’s depth to a startling degree. While in some sense the main protagonists have a level of control, or veneer of control over their own lives, the little people don’t. They are here, and then they are gone. Their lives are brief flashes of pain, snuffed out in paragraphs, made worthy through Abercrombie’s deft writing, and incredible ability to make them relatable to the audience before killing them. They serve as contrast because while the protagonists make big mistakes that have small impact on their own lives, those same mistakes have massive consequences for these little people. They are made to taste the fruit borne of the most toxic aphorisms their society has produced to enforce their sense of place and meaning within the world. Sometimes, these aphorisms become their last words, shouted at in defiance, often in grim recognition of the deadly truth behind them.
Okay, so I lied in a way, there are four-ish reasons why Abercrombie is one of the best writers in fantasy. In the end though, Abercrombie isn’t a genius just because he can replicate speech and how people view their own lives internally. Abercrombie is one of the greats because he calls attention to it, and shows the power that cultural and personal storytelling have over everyone’s lives, and exactly who has to pay in order for specific stories to be true. One could say I’m reading too much into it, but I would argue that if you look at Abercombie’s work chronologically, it’s all too clear to me that he’s asking you to look deeper at everything, including his own work. The First Law trilogy holds a special place in my heart because of its all too human reveals about the nature of power, and who gets to tell the story, and Abercrombie could have just leaned on those themes again gotten away with it. Instead, he is very aware that readers are looking and he is playing the same game with you standing over his shoulder, but he manages to win again. And again. And again. Abercrombie is not only a master writer, he’s a magician, and you’re missing out if you aren’t reading his work.