Sharp Ends is a collection of short stories from a writer who has become one of my firm favourites since I reviewed Heroes here back in 2011. As promised, I read through the First Law trilogy, and Best Served Cold, set in the same world, and probably should have expressed my admiration of them in print somewhere. Sharp Ends comes as a welcome reminder that Abercrombie is more than just a fine fantasy writer, he is a fine writer.
The collection takes place over a 26 year period, and begins in somewhat familiar territory. Two of the first three tales are effective snapshots of the nature of the two sides in the First Law civil war, 'A Beautiful Bastard' providing a microcosm of the effete stratifications of the Union, and 'The Fool Jobs' featuring Curden Craw amidst the harsh world of the fighters from the North. But the story between those two is something different,'Small Kindnesses' bringing together the skilled thief Shevedieh and Javle, the Lioness of Hoskopp.
Their stories are dotted throughout the collection, as if they were a pair moving through this world without taking sides, and surviving on one's wits and the other's prowess. Their final tale, and the book's penultimate, 'Tough Times All Over', starts some 19 years after their first appearance; Shev remains bewitched by the highly untrustworthy Carcolf, and Javle still hasn't resolved her pursuit by the High Priestess of Thond (her mother, as it turned out in an earlier tale). It's a portmanteau story, as a document gets stolen and re-stolen again and again, but it's both amusing and touching, and very well structured within its fast-paced rollicking. I wouldn't hesitate to nominate it for a CWA short-story Dagger next year.
In Shev, the tricky thief constantly getting herself into predicaments and Javle, the warrior armed with the Father of Swords who rarely over-thinks things, Abercrombie has created a female version of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and I don't make this comparison lightly. Leiber is the one outlier of the great talents of sword & sorcery fiction, and probably the hardest to equal, and Abercrombie has equalled the master here.
I say Leiber is an outlier in sword and sorcery because Robert E Howard spawned many imitators, John Jakes and Karl Edward Wagner being the best. Howard's popularity came off the back of the Tolkein revival in the mid 1960s, and eventually writers would move beyond the lone barbarian format to the more Tolkienian bigger one of whole worlds colliding on a bigger stage. When I wrote about Heroes I compared Abercrombie to the best of those writers, George RR Martin, who needs no further introduction, and Glen Cook whose novels of the Black Company are massively under-appreciated but whose trimmed-down style melds perfectly the bigger scale of kingdoms warring and the tighter focus on the men doing the fighting, the kind of scale that Abercrombie has made his own, with prose lean like Cook's but much more layered. Interestingly, Cook also wrote a series more in the Leiber vein, the hard-boiled sorcery Garrett, PI novels.
But what makes Abercrombie stand out is his range, and that is driven home by the story that follows 'Tough Times All Over' and closes Sharp Ends. 'Made A Monster' is a portrait in exhaustion. Bethod is the most powerful Chieftan in the North, but he's tired of war and dreams of peace, among the Northmen and then perhaps with the Union. First he has to deal with Rattleneck, a rebel chief who has sworn to have Bethod's head. Bethod believes he has leverage; Rattleneck's son has been captured alive, and he can use the boy to win over the father. But he has been captured by Logen Ninefingers, the most fearsome warrior in the North, 'blood-drunk and murder-proud' as one character describes him, and Bethod needs to persuade Ninefingers to give up his captive.
Readers familiar with the First Law series will recognise the characters, but those who are not will understand them immediately. Abercrombie has the ability to create a mood that hangs over the story and the characters, and the beauty of his longer fiction is that he's able to keep doing it in scene after scene regardless of the changes. The story's ending is a surprise, though it seems in retrospect inevitable; it is one of overwhelming sadness. And it picks up added resonance when the reader realises that it is the only story in the book set out of chronological sequence; it occurs just four years after the first one, meaning everything that has followed in this wonderful book has been affected by the tragedy of that final tale, and the title of the book takes on another deeper meaning. It is, like Abercrombie's writing, deceptively simple. It is fine writing, in any genre.
SHARP ENDS by Joe Abercrombie
Orion Books, £18.99 ISBN 9780575104679