Sunday, 27 July 2014

Joe Abercrombie: The First Law (2006-2008)

Here are all my reviews for Lord Grimdark's The First Law, one of the key trilogies of modern Fantasy, in one place:

Book One: 'The Blade Itself'

Book Two: 'Before They Are Hanged'

Book Three: 'Last Argument Of Kings' 

Joe Abercrombie: The First Law Book Three: Last Argument Of Kings (2008)

"Do you know what's worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he's a hero. A man like that, there's nothing he won't do, and he'll always find himself an excuse."

In 'Last Argument Of Kings', Joe Abercrombie brings The First Law Trilogy to a fittingly dramatic, action-packed and bloody end. As tends to be the case with modern Fantasy, 'The Blade Itself' and 'Before They Are Hanged' launched an intimidating number of plot juggling balls into the air, leaving the final book with a lot to successfully catch before the narrative winds up. Colonel West and the Union forces, allied with the rebel Northmen, have to face King Bethod, Logen Ninefingers must return to the North to take his vengeance against Bethod, Ferro continues her quest for vengeance against the Gurkish, Glokta is still trying to untangle the truth whilst serving both Arch Lector Sult and the sinister bank Valint and Balk, Jezal dan Luther is returning to Adua determined to try to be a better man, and Bayaz has to find a way to stop Khalul and his Eaters. All this is going on in the midst of increasing chaos, as all the members of the Closed Council scheme to find an heir to the king sympathetic to their best interests before he dies, while unbeknownst to all the Gurkish embark on their invasion of the Union. Whilst 'Last Argument Of Kings' is no slim volume, it's to Abercrombie's credit that he manages to tie all this up satisfyingly in the space of a single book. And he does so with drama, flair and style to spare. The final book features bloody battles galore, multiple sieges, the sacking of Adua by the invading Gurkish, and an incredible showdown between Logen Ninefingers and Fenris the Feared.
   However there's more to a satisfying ending than pyrotechnics and ensuring all the pieces wind up in the correct place. The true success of  'Last Argument Of Kings' is in the way that it brings into focus and drives home what the trilogy is really about. From the outset The First Law Trilogy has been all about the characters. Glokta, Jezal and Logen Ninefingers have been compelling protagonists from the start, but unusual due to just how vile Abercrombie is willing to make their actions. The question running through the whole series is whether any of these characters can actually be redeemed. Because we are invested in the characters, because they are deeply developed enough that we understand and sympathise with where they're coming from even as we disapprove of their choices, because their struggles with their consciences and their developing sense of morality is so human and believable, we very much want them to achieve redemption. However, wanting to be a better person and actually being a better person are two distinct things. Abercrombie's biggest trick is in making you root for these characters, and dangling redemption in front of them just enough so that you believe it could be possible, before revealing just how beyond redemption any of these characters actually are.
   One of the reasons this works so well is Abercrombie's use of the multiple third person viewpoint. This mode is generally the standard for Fantasy, with different viewpoint characters used to provide different perspectives on the imaginary world, but what sets Abercrombie aside is just how good he is at using it to tell us about the character whose eyes we are seeing out of. Each of the viewpoint characters in The Third Law trilogy has massive blindspots in how they perceive themselves versus how others perceive them, which they are forced to confront in 'Last Argument Of Kings'. At the end of the day, despite their world-weary cynicism, both Glokta and Logen Ninefingers would like to believe that they are nicer people than they actually are. So Glokta can be genuinely surprised when both of his loyal practicals betray him, Severard to Valint and Balk and Frost to Sult, despite the fact that on some level he does realise that he is, as Ardee describes him with typical frankness, a self-pitying villain. Similarly Logen can be horrified that the infamously barking Crummock-i-Phail uses him to get rid of Bethod but wants nothing further to do with him afterwards, or that the Dogman runs out of patience with him after he kills Tul Duru, Crummock-i-Phail's son and nearly the Dogman himself in his battle rage. Likewise Jezal's attempt to stand up against Bayaz fails miserably because Bayaz knows that, despite all his character development, Jezal is still a coward at heart.
   The interesting thing is that facing their failings doesn't make any of them better people. One of the main themes of the trilogy is the unfairness of life, especially in the feudalistic hierarchy that is the default setting for most Fantasy. Logen and Glokta have experienced much of life's unfairness first hand, and in the figures of Bethod and Sult respectively have a shadow archetype, a version of themselves at the head of the repressive and violent system that they claim to despise. Both Logen and Glokta are able to overthrow their shadow doubles, but both of them wind up taking their place, rather than using the opportunity to dismantle an oppressive system. For all Logen's disgust at Bethod for the very concept of being the King of the North, Logen becomes the King of the Northmen himself once he has killed Bethod. And after arresting Sult, Glokta becomes Arch Lector himself, upholding the institution of the Inquisition and treating his new subordinates just as brutally as Sult treated him. All their rhetoric for change and a better, less violent way of life is revealed to be hypocrisy, as once they are in the seat of power neither man behaves any differently from his despised predecessor. Jezal returns to Adua with a genuine hope to be a better person, and it looks like he might finally get the chance to do so when he is elected the new king, thanks to the manipulations of Bayaz. But King Jezal I is a puppet king with very little power of his own, put in place by Bayaz to continue the mage's centuries-long control over the Union, and his cowardice ensures that he will not act against Bayaz's will to make any positive changes for the people of the Union.
   The reveal that Bayaz is a manipulative jerk is not really surprising, but the sheer extent of how awful he is kind of is. The leader of Valint and Balk, Bayaz has been the puppet master running the Union ever since it was founded, and is happy to keep all its oppressive social machinery in place in order to ensure that he stays in power. He has lived so long that any possible empathy he might feel for people has been worn away, our mayfly-like existence meaning nothing to him. The eponymous First Law, as Bayaz sees it, is not about not touching the other side, but power. His argument with Khalul is less that he has broken the Second Law by eating human flesh to gain powers, but more that Khalul wants to bring Bayaz to justice for murdering Juvens. The mass civilian death caused by his unleashing the power of the Seed, and his utter indifference to it, shows exactly how little human life is worth to him.
   Interestingly enough, our three major characters kind of get what looks like your standard Fantasy happy ending, very much in the spirit that life is unfair, as none of them deserve it. Inquisitor Glokta winds up married to Ardee, who is devoted to helping him, and Logen and Jezal wind up as kings. However all three characters have faced too clearly the hollowness of their own existence; they all realise that redemption is beyond them, and that they are puppets of Bayaz, however much they personally may profit from it. Near the end of the book, Glokta and Jezal share a walk in the Agriont gardens, and agree to try and do as much good as they can in their positions of power without inciting Bayaz's wrath, right after Gokta has blackmailed Jezal's wife the Queen into sleeping with him by kidnapping her lesbian lover. The sheer sickening hypocrisy shows exactly how far these characters are from doing good. In this book we finally get the answers to Logen's and Glokta's mantras. Logen's father always followed his motto, 'You have to be realistic,' with the observation that Logen is anything but. And the reason that Glokta tortures is, ultimately, that he gets a kick out of it.
  The quote at the top of the page, said by Black Dow to Logen Ninefingers at the end of the book, is an apt summary of the entire trilogy. To some extent, it describes pretty much every character in the book. From Bayaz with his grandiose talk of saving the world to Ferro with her tragic back story she uses to justify her blood lust, to Glokta, Logen and Jezal and the lies they tell themselves so they can live with the things they do, everyone in the First Law Trilogy has some excuse or reason for all the horrific things they do. 'Last Argument Of Kings' strips away the excuses to reveal their corrupt moral centres. An argument frequently trotted out as to why genre fiction is not as mature as literary fiction is that genre fiction does not acknowledge the banality of evil; the SS officer who commits atrocities then goes home to have dinner with his wife and children. And indeed the evil we encounter in the real world does not manifest as a flaming eye atop a dark tower. Evil is committed by people, some of whom may be charming or likable, some of whom may see themselves as family men, most of whom either have reasons or excuses for the horrific things they do, lies they tell themselves so that they can sleep at night when they go home to their families. This is exactly what The First Law Trilogy is about.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Gareth L. Powell - Ack-Ack Macaque (2013)

"Everybody loves the monkey."

'Ack-Ack Macaque' is a combination of pulpy adventure story and modern technological concerns. It is set in an alternate history Europe in which Britain and France formed a political union in 1959. One hundred years later, the world has taken on a distinctly diesel-punk tone, with nuclear zeppelins existing alongside sleek computers and tablets. This allows Gareth L. Powell to write a story with a vaguely steampunk setting that captures all the fun and action of 50's pulp adventures whilst exploring themes and ideas more usually found in cutting edge hard SF. The end result is a book that's an absolute blast and a total breeze but packs more of a philosophical punch than one might initially imagine. Also, there's a talking monkey, which science shows makes everything at least twenty percent better.
   Ack-Ack Macaque is a popular character in a MMORPG, a cynical, cigar-chomping, gun-toting talking monkey who pilots a Spitfire in a virtual World War II. Just before the centennial celebrations of the formation of the Anglo-France union, Prince Merovech, heir to the throne, finds himself caught up in a plot by radicals to free the artificial intelligence Ack-Ack Macaque from the game. The only hitch is, Ack-Ack Macaque isn't an AI, he's an artificially uplifted monkey with electronic gelware surgically enhancing his brain. Meanwhile Victoria Valois, an ex-journalist whose life was saved by replacing large sections of her brain with gelware, finds her husband murdered and the electronic back up in his head stolen, and her investigation into his death leads her to uncover a conspiracy involving Prince Merovech's mother, Duchess Celestine, and the surgeon who operated on herself, Ack-Ack Macaque, and Prince Merovech, Dr. Nguyen.
   While 'Ack-Ack Macaque' has all the stylistic trappings of steampunk, (I know said diesel punk at the beginning of the review, but I really think we as a people need to stop using '-punk' as a suffix), in the pulpy atmosphere and the retro-futurist setting, it's really cyberpunk masquerading as steampunk. The book is really about the sinister multinational corporation Celeste Tech's plan to manipulate the Anglo-France union into nuclear war with China so that its cult of transhumanists can upload their brains into new android bodies and rule the world. Mind uploading and the singularity are arguably the central theme of modern SF, but rarely are they dealt with as seriously as they here. Powell explores the existential, moral and ethical doubts that are frequently swept aside so we can vicariously enjoy the rapture of the nerds. Digital consciousness raises a whole host of ways in which people might be taken advantage of. The ability to digitally scan and upload the contents of our minds doesn't necessarily mean that the individual scanned will experience continuity, arguably what you are doing is creating another, totally sentient copy of the original. Then there is the matter of self copyright; Dr. Nguyen makes a digital copy of Victoria without her consent. Celeste Tech also plan to build an army of android slaves - this is the origin of the experiments that gave rise to Ack-Ack Macaque. Thus they have built over-ride codes into the electronic brains of Victoria and Ack-Ack Macaque, allowing Dr. Nguyen to render them helpless and servile with a few words. Rather than a utopian future in which everyone is remade equal, the singularity as imagined by Celeste Tech is simply a new arena in which the powerful will be able to exploit others.
   'Ack-Ack Macaque' also manages to subvert the expectations of its steampunk settings in other ways. From its setting you might expect all the characters to run around in petticoats, top hats and the like. Yet everyone spends the whole book in sensible, practical, modern clothes. Prince Merovech spends most of the story in a hoodie and jeans. More importantly, the book subverts the normally passive roles of female characters in the 50's pulps it draws on. Victoria is a character with action and agency, intelligent and good in a fight, who has her husband fridged to motivate her rather than the other way round, and the author doesn't dwell on her looks when describing her. Julie, the Prince's love interest, refuses to let him save her from her abusive father, instead choosing to stand up to him herself. I also like that the police are proved totally wrong in their assumption that Paul, Victoria's bisexual husband, was murdered by his gay lover. And though by the nature of its format, both of the villains are somewhat one dimensional and hysterical, I like that the book tries to add depth to Dr. Nguyen anyway. The man is a total creep and a truly nasty piece of work, but he does what he does because he sees it as part of his role as a doctor to 'fix' humanity by uploading everyone into android bodies.
   Then there is Ack-Ack Macaque himself. A larger than life talking monkey is exactly the kind of thing that falls flat on its face if you half ass it, but through Powell's commitment to his creation and the character's boundless energy, he is utterly charming and nonstop fun. Part of the reason why he works so well is that despite the daffiness of the idea Powell takes Ack-Ack Macaque seriously as a character. Ack-Ack Macaque started out as a monkey used in illegal animal fights before being artificially uplifted and placed in a computerised world he was convinced was real, where he had to experience all his comrades being killed off one by one. We understand where Ack-Ack Macaque is coming from as a character, and we sympathise with his genuinely traumatic past, so when he goes in guns-a-blazing and pulls off another ludicrous escape not only is it ridiculously fun, it matters that much more. What looks like a slight, fun idea on paper hides a darker truth. As such he is a perfect metaphor for the book that takes his name.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Joe Abercrombie: The First Law Book Two: Before They Are Hanged (2007)

"Few indeed are those who get a choice. We do as we are told. We stand or fall beside those who were born near to us, who look as we do, who speak the same words, and all the while we know as little of the reasons why as does the dust we return to."

The second book in a trilogy, presuming your trilogy has in fact been originally conceived as a trilogy, has the unenviable task of progressing the narrative to an end point that sets up the third book rather than providing closure. While all the introductions and set-up have already been taken care of in book one, this leaves book two without the novelty of the original book, and at worst you get a stalling, in which the characters mark time until all the pieces are arranged for the finale in the next installment. So how does Joe Abercrombie prevent this in 'Before They Are Hanged', the second book in the First Law Trilogy? Abecrombie slyly uses the format to comment on the themes of failure, defeat and frustration, whilst developing his characters and revealing more of the history and mythology of The Circle Of The World. The main story arc of 'Before They Are Hanged' builds intentionally to an anticlimax. Bayaz's quest is thwarted, Glokta's attempt to hold the city of Dagoska from the Gurkish attacks was doomed from the start, and Colonel West's battle with the Northmen ends in defeat. But each of these defeats changes the characters who experience them,  and brings their personalities into sharper relief. Thus the stakes are duly raised for the next book, and Abercrombie is able to provide a satisfying and engaging story at the same time.
   'Before They Are Hanged' follows on directly from the end of 'The Blade Itself'. Glokta arrives in Dagoska, charged with finding out how its previous Superior was murdered and strengthening its defenses for the inevitable Gurkish siege. Logen Ninefingers, Ferro, Jezal dan Luther, Brother Longfoot and Malacus Quai accompany Bayaz on his quest to the Edge of the World to find Kanedias' Seed, so that Bayaz can wield it against Khalul and the Eaters in the upcoming conflict. And the newly promoted Colonel West is serving under Prince Ladisla, hoping to win popularity and glory by fighting in the war against the Northmen in Angland, and has to do his best to prevent the heir to the throne of the Union from coming to harm.
    Bayaz's journey is one long subversion of quest tropes. The gang follow all the rules, passing through ancient cities and fighting dangerous enemies to get to the Edge of the World, where Logen convinces the guardian spirit to give up the Seed, only to find out that the stone the spirit hands them is just a stone. Of course Kanedias was smart enough to figure that hiding the Seed at the end of some long quest might keep it from the general population, but that he would have to take some extra care to hide it from the remaining Magi, the people who would actually know what to do with it when they found it. Bayaz's rage at being thwarted is telling; he is petulant and violently angry, for all his hard-earned wisdom not a man one would feel comfortable with wielding so much destructive power.
   Frustration also manifests in the story arc of Logen and Ferro. Over the course of their shared journey together, Ferro begins to trust and respect Logen, and even start to like him as the two of them sleep together. And in turn Logen begins to feel hope for his future, that he may experience love again and become more than just a killing machine. However once Bayaz's quest fails, the two of them realise that without the common goal Bayaz provided with, they will likely drift apart, Ferro to pursue her vengeance against the Gurkish, Logen to settle his scores with Bethod. Both characters know that with their separation departs their hope of leaving behind a life of violence for something more fulfilling, leaving their relationship in the realms of the merely physical. We also get another chance to experience just how terrifying Logen is in Bloody-Nine mode, in a scene where he slaughters an entire cavern full of Shanka almost single-handedly. It plays off all those scenes in the Lord Of The Rings movies where Legolas kills ludicrous numbers of orcs and shows it up for how psychopathic is genuinely is.
   Jezal dan Luthar, however, undergoes a definite change for the better. The handsome young captain always came across as someone who'd be vastly improved by a good knock to the head. On their journey sheer necessity forces him to interact with his fellow travelers, and as they repeatedly save his life and offer him comradeship he begins slowly to realise what a self-obsessed snob he's been his whole life and starts to develop a sense of empathy. Following a scarring head injury in his first actual fight, he even learns to temper his vanity a touch. The way Abercrombie handles the character's maturation is masterful; Jezal doesn't drop his jerkiness overnight, but slowly improves whilst having a series of relapses, making for a very believable transformation. Having the experience of fighting allows Jezal to come to the same realisation that Logen and Ferro have, that the honour and glory of battle are not worth very much in comparison with a quiet life with the one you love, but perhaps Jezal is young and undamaged enough to escape the life of violence Logen and Ferro are now trapped in to life happily with Ardee.
   Colonel West also deals with some frustrations of his own. His character arc is a dark mirror to Jezal's, exploring how a good person can be twisted when exposed to too much stress. He is put in charge of protecting Prince Ladisla, sent to fight in Angland against the Northmen to make him more popular with the people. Unfortunately Prince Ladisla is an arrogant, clueless idiot, surrounded by his equally arrogant, clueless sycophants. His awful command, rash and impatient, gets most of his men killed. West and Ladisla escape with Treefinger's Northmen, and West does his best to protect Ladisla despite his whining and uselessness, but eventually snaps and kills him when he catches Ladisla trying to rape Cathil, the daughter of a convict who is travelling with them. The physical and emotional stresses turn Colonel West into a deeply angry and frustrated man. Again, Abercrombie's character development here is very well done. In many ways, West is a prime example of 'nice guy syndrome'. Because he is the centre of his own narrative, he expects to get to have sex with Cathil as a reward for saving her from Ladisla, and is surprised and frustrated when she falls for Dogman instead. For all his experience as a working class officer having to prove his worth in a strongly class-stratified hierarchy, his view of women is still entrenched in male privilege. His abuse of Ardee in the previous book is clarified as an enforcing of dominance and control as much as the self-perpetuating cycle of abused becoming abuser.
   Sand dan Glokta's experiences with frustration show just how much of a fascinating character he is. What makes him interesting is that for all his moral doubts, he still goes ahead with all the horrific things he does. Glokta has allowed himself to become the tool of Arch Lector Sult, and over the course of the book is bought by Valint and Balk, the bank who orchestrated the Mercer's revolt in 'The Blade Itself'. He knows damn well that both parties are self-interested and untrustworthy, and both ultimately stand in the way of his deep-held desire to find the truth, yet he obeys both of them because he sees no other choice. The plot he uncovers in Dagoska would have sold the city to the Gurkish, which would have meant loss of face for the Union but would have saved scores of Union and Gurkish lives. He sees this and realises that things would have gone much better for everyone had the plot been successful, yet he follows his orders and so indirectly causes many deaths. As he says himself, "Empathy? What's that?... It's a sad fact, but pain only makes you sorry for yourself." Yet, for all his cynicism, Glokta is capable of feeling empathy. Sooner or later his ongoing moral crisis must reach breaking point. At the end of the book, Prince Reynault, the only surviving heir to the dying king, is murdered and the Gurkish ambassador for peace is framed. Suddenly the Closed Council is thrown into turmoil, as their once safe and powerful positions are thrown into doubt. For the first time in a long time, a new ruler must be decided on, those less powerful will have some influence on the decision, and so everyone's future is up in the air. This one act demonstrates how everyone in The Circle Of The World lives permanently between a rock and a hard place, even the very powerful at the mercy of plots and circumstances outside their control. No wonder everybody's so tense all the time.