The 2009 David Gemmell Legend Award Shortlist, Part Two
Reviewed by Nic Clarke
27 January 2010
[Read the first part of this review here]
The eventual winner of the DGLA was Blood of Elves, a translation of the first volume (originally published in 1994) of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's bestselling "Witcher" series. This surprised some Anglocentric commentators, who considered Abercrombie to be a lock for the award; but the popularity of Sapkowski's work, which has spawned a computer game, comic books, and a TV series as well as having been translated into numerous languages long before the English edition appeared, should not be underestimated.
Still, this first instalment in the saga ranks as an interesting failure: a collision of conventional fantasy imagery, sharply unconventional ideas, and some really poor execution. The story is organised around the twin poles of Ciri—known as, I jest not, the “Child Surprise” (p. 19)—with the titular heritage, and her protector Geralt, a taciturn, lone-wolf "Witcher," who hunts down dangerous magical creatures for a living and is clearly the reason Sapkowski's books have been so popular. Ciri, royal refugee from a city we see burned, vividly, by invaders at the start of the book, grows from helpless waif into precocious brat, but is much less annoying than such character types normally are. Geralt—who certainly has many of the qualities of a David Gemmell hero, although without the gruff humour and (since he is effectively a superhero; see below) the intimate relationship with his aches and pains that were Gemmell's hallmarks—maintains a façade of self-interested amorality as he refuses to involve himself in human wars, although it is perfectly obvious he won't stay aloof forever:
“I'm a witcher. An artificially created mutant. I kill monsters for money. I defend children when their parents pay me to. If Nilfgaardian parents pay me, I'll defend Nilfgaardian children. And even if the world lies in ruin—which does not seem likely to me—I'll carry on killing monsters in the ruins of this world until some monster kills me. This is my fate, my reason, my life and my attitude to the world.” (p. 104)
There is fun to be had as Ciri, taken to a Witcher hideout for safekeeping, prevails upon Geralt and his fellows to teach her “a witcher's infernal fitness” (p. 65), as one character puts it: preternatural strength, speed, and senses. These are developed through a combination of secret drugs, punishing training and—a final step not taken by Ciri—genetic mutation (or “foul sorcery and devilry”, in the eyes of the more superstitious [p. 147]). The uncomplicated joy that Ciri derives from her training and what her body is capable of as a result is refreshing in a young female character, even if some of her success must be attributed to her specialness (see: title) rather than just enthusiasm unhampered by gender roles.
When it comes to world-building, Sapkowski draws for the most part from the familiar genre-fantasy well of elves, dwarves, and Gaelic and Classical monsters. There is disappointingly little sign of, say, Slavic folkloric and cultural traditions; passing reference is made to a rusalka (unusual but not unknown in English-language fantasy), a government official is called a voivode, and naturally there is vodka. Where Sapkowski does innovate, however, is in how he uses the genre mainstays: the framing of tensions between humans and non-humans chimes with contemporary debates on ethnicity, immigration, and racism. Elves and dwarves, feeling pressured by the inexorable expansion of human communities (resulting from much higher birth rates and a cultural sense of entitlement to land), are kicking back—in some quarters with guerrilla warfare. Humans are unwilling to relinquish the colonial dominance to which they have become accustomed, and blame the oppressed for starting to fight back:
“Halflings, dwarves and gnomes have lived amongst us for centuries—in some sort of harmony it would seem. But it sufficed for the elves to lift their heads, and all the others grabbed their weapons and took to the woods too. I tell you, it was a mistake to tolerate the free elves and dryads, with their forests and their mountain enclaves. It wasn't enough for them, and now they're yelling: 'It's our world! Begone, strangers!' By the gods, we'll show them who will be gone, and of which race even the slightest trace will be wiped away.” (p. 117)
These elves have seen their lands reduced decade by decade, and their youth massacred when they attempted to resist. They view humans not as gutsy curiosities or seasonal dalliances, but as a creeping menace or, at best, “something that would pass, like a drought, like a heavy winter, or a plague of locusts” (p. 150); either way, they are certainly not prepared to go into the West. The dwarves, for their part, find the elves every bit as smug and mendacious as you always suspected they are; as one tells Geralt:
“Elves!” snorted Yarpen. “They—to be accurate—happen to be strangers just as much as you humans, although they arrived in their white ships a good thousand years before you. Now they're competing with each other to offer us friendship, suddenly we're all brothers, now they're grinning and saying 'we, kinsmen', 'we, the Elder Races'.” (p. 133)
It makes for an intriguing backdrop. Unfortunately, for the most part it remains just a backdrop, and one often conveyed through stagy debates between new characters introduced solely for the purpose of the debate, at that. For much of its length, the book is concerned with laying the groundwork for the plot to come in later volumes (as well as referring back to events presumably covered in the author's numerous short stories set in the same world). What we get of Ciri and Geralt's story is deeply episodic, and while the pacing within individual chapters can be very good, they don't fit together at all well; sometimes pages can go by before it becomes clear where and when we are, or what the point is, giving the whole thing a rather muddled air and (as with Sanderson's exposition) continually breaking the momentum vital to keep driving the reader through the tale.
Missteps in the prose, meanwhile, threw me out of world and story alike. I was repeatedly jolted by the unexplained precision of medical knowledge in this pseudo-medieval fantasy world; references are made to cot death and the problem of lactic acid buildup in muscles after exercise. At times it gets truly bizarre: “Geralt approached, holding his hands out so they could be seen even by someone afflicted with conjunctivitis or night blindness” (p. 120). There are also times when you suspect something has been lost in translation, like some of Ciri's thoughts in the opening scene, which sound little like a twelve-year-old in distress (“Why doesn't anyone help me? Alone, weak, helpless—can't move, can't force a sound from my constricted throat. Why does no one come to help me?” ). Others provide laugh-out-loud exercises in (presumably) unintentional bathos, such as the way magic-user Triss concludes an account of how her horrific injuries were healed after a notorious battle:
“They used the highest magics on us,” she continued in a muted voice, “spells, elixirs, amulets and artefacts. Nothing was left wanting for the heroes of the Hill. We were cured, patched up, our former appearances returned to us, our hair and sight restored. You can hardly see the marks. But I will never wear a plunging neckline again, Geralt. Never.” (p. 106)
But there is a broader problem: a chronic sparseness of physical and sensory description, which, rather than lending events immediacy, has the effect of making many scenes feel unfinished, as if they're playing out against a blank screen. Sapkowski's writing is at its best when he's dealing with short, sharp action encounters, experienced by characters as a blur of noise and sensation: Ciri's dream-flashback to her city's conquest, for example, or some of Geralt's monster skirmishes. For anything more substantial, however, this technique runs into problems; there are long passages of infodumping and training montage (e.g. pp. 91-101) that read more like the script for a radio play, devoid even of “he said” markers. In places we even get voiceovers bridging the transition between underexplained scenes.
It may seem strange to conclude that the problem with a fantasy novel is its lack of verbiage; but no amount of virtually contextless set-piece dialogues between characters who don't stick around for more than a chapter can draw a world for me.
My own pick for the award, by some considerable margin, is Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings. Abercrombie, arguably, has the advantage of the other contenders, since his is the one book on the shortlist whose prior volumes—The Blade Itself (2006) and Before They Are Hanged (2007)—I read beforehand. (They were already on my TBR shelves; my completist's heart, therefore, couldn't resist.) While Last Argument of Kings was undoubtedly a richer experience as a result, the simple fact is that it's also a better book than anything else on the shortlist.
This being the final part of a fantasy trilogy, much of the plot revolves around war: the Union (like early modern France with a sort-of elective monarchy) scrabbles to keep the newly united Northmen (Nordic-style "barbarian" clans) from overrunning their colonies in the frozen north, while to the south the Gurkish Empire (the Abbasid caliphate meets the Ottomans) and its inhuman sorcerer types plot to invade the Union. For all that the series has been widely praised for its genre iconoclasm, at least one aspect of it is entirely familiar: if rival powers are discussed in book one, they'll be at war by the middle of book three, and with a few chapters to go said war will reach a clear-cut resolution—even if, in this case, we aren't allowed to forget that it's hell:
Off to the south he could see a faint line of flickering lights, floating disembodied in the black country, stretching away out of sight. Another column. Another few thousand men, cursing through the mud towards a bloody dawn. (p. 469)
Unlike most fantasy trilogies, though, with Abercrombie's it's difficult to say who, if anyone, has actually won by the time the dust settles; at best, this is a Pyrrhic victory, for states and individuals alike. If there's a moral, it's not so much "you don't always get what you want," as "you're highly unlikely to get what you want, and it won't be half as good as you hope even if you do get it." Beneath the sound and fury of fantasy war-making, Last Argument of Kings is fundamentally about characters who are stuck in a rut. Everyone—from preening aristocratic swordsman Jezal to ancient mage Bayaz—is trapped within the patterns of his or her own behaviour, and the conventions of their societies, far more than they are by fate or their enemies. The same goes for the societies: a glimmer of progressive reform in the Union, in the form of possible concessions to a peasants' revolt, is swiftly curtailed by expediency, conservative class prejudice, and the pressures of wartime.
The characters lie at the heart Last Argument of Kings, shaping both the content of the story and the way it is told; it is this, along with the quality of the writing, that makes it the most successful book on the shortlist. The narration, though in third-person, always comes from the characters' views of the world; each voice is distinctive, with its own tics (dodgy grammar, favoured curse words, cynical reinterpretations of dialogue) and preoccupations:
Dogman winced as he heard the boy's neck bones crunch. He hadn't deserved to die like that, most likely. But that's what war is. A lot of folks getting killed that don't deserve it. The job had needed doing, and they'd done it, and were all three still alive. About as much as he could have hoped for from a piece of work like that, but somehow it still left a sour taste on him. He'd never found it easy, but it was harder than ever, now he was chief. Strange, how it's that much easier to kill folk when you've got someone telling you to do it. (p. 14)
Dogman is Abercrombie's most Gemmellesque character: a weary old warrior, happier in the open air, beaten down by the unending violence of his way of life, yet unwilling to leave his friends to fight and die alone. His chapters humanise the Northmen (in his case, allied with the Union) and are full of gallows humour at the expense of pampered Union lordlings and about the ever-present prospect of death.
It is not long before their chapters become recognisable simply from the way a given person describes things. We are never completely absorbed in their perspectives; a certain arch distance is generally maintained, as if Abercrombie can't quite let us go on without pointing out ironies. (That said, to judge from reactions to a redesign of the cover for Before They Are Hanged, some readers buy into the characters' self-images in preference to explicitly contradictory physical descriptions.) But we do get some very different views of the same events.
Much of the story's content, moreover, derives from the protagonists' foibles and failings. As the book begins, most of the major characters have recently come back to Adua, first city of the Union; all concerned soon discover they haven't changed nearly as much as they thought they had. Crippled inquisitor Glokta finds himself more embroiled in political manoeuvrings than ever, his distaste for his cruel job increasing in parallel with his conviction that it is the only thing he is good for. Jezal and Bayaz, together with Logen (a Northman fleeing his bloody past) and Ferro (a former Gurkish slave seeking revenge for hers), return from a failed quest, flushed with the possibilities of tentative friendship and grudging regard forged in shared adversity, and slightly bewildered by the noise and crowds of the city after so long in the wild. Almost before they're off their ship, however, they are falling back into their old ways. Prickly Ferro cannot overcome her inability to trust, or give up her lust for Gurkish blood; Logen, rejected, decides to stop trying for either intimacy or peace, and instead heads north to lose himself in war.
Jezal, meanwhile, finds the lure of comfort and fame much too strong for his nascent convictions. Walking home through the streets of Adua, he intervenes to stop city guards from harassing a beggar. Initially, pleased with himself, he reflects that once upon a time he would barely have noticed, much less stop to help; drunk on do-gooding, he finds himself berating the guards before a growing audience. But his older instincts soon come creeping back: by the end of the impromptu speech he is beginning to feel embarrassed, and when the beggar tries to thank him, his snobbish distaste grows:
“It was nothing.” Jezal edged away, deeply uncomfortable. She was extremely dirty, at close quarters, and he had no wish to contract an illness. (p. 35)
His treatment of the woman he fondly imagines he loves—Ardee West, sister of one of his fellow army officers—is much worse. Jezal's puppyish enthusiasm falters as he realises that the image of her he created to keep him going through the quest's ordeals bears little resemblance to the truth: the real Ardee is sharp-witted rather than simpering, she enjoys sex more than is strictly decent, and she faces difficulties as a single woman living alone that he struggles to care about. Events (or, rather, a politicking Bayaz) conspire to raise Jezal to undreamed of social and political status, in a series of plot twists that would be rather contrived, had it not been established so clearly that Jezal is exactly vain enough to get sucked into Bayaz' schemes—an excellent example of how well Abercrombie meshes story and character. Newly elevated, Jezal has little qualm about abandoning his plan to marry lowborn Ardee, although he does try to have his cake and eat it, nonetheless:
She looked him in the eye. “So . . . you'd like me to be your whore?”
He jerked his hand back. “No! Of course not! I mean . . . I would like you to be . . . ” What did he mean? He fumbled desperately for a better word. “My lover?”
“Ah. I see. And when you take a wife, what will I be then? [ . . . ] A whore is still a whore, whatever word you use. Easily tired of, and even more easily replaced.” (p. 238)
Where Abercrombie succeeds with a storyline like this, and Weeks does not, is that Jezal's unrealistic expectations—and his slightly petulant distaste when Ardee does not meet them—are very clearly a bug, not a feature, of their relationship. Making a talisman of Ardee is not a noble gesture, treated with overblown sentimentality; it is a symptom of his self-involvement, and we are shown how it dehumanises her. Ardee is given a voice in the book, and—unlike Jenine in The Way of Shadows—she doesn't just use it to sigh sweet nothings at the hero while she bleeds to (apparent) death in his arms. Ardee is articulate, angry, often drunk, and she fights back against being made both whore and talisman, because she knows that either path can only be on Jezal's terms—terms that would mean her continuing ability to charm Jezal is her only security.
So everyone is back on the same treadmill. The difference is that they have all glimpsed what they might be, and are—insofar as they will admit it to themselves—all too aware of how they fail with every habitual action they take. It makes for admirably challenging reading, even if at times Abercrombie's determination to eschew the happy ending borders on the grim for grim's sake; the outcome for Ardee's brother, while undoubtedly a commentary on the arbitrariness of fate and all that, feels like a slightly cynical exercise in piling on the misery.
As the book goes on, the battle scenes close in, and the shape of the story becomes more conventional, the characters' voices start to be swamped by the demands of the plot. Here, too, Abercrombie's greatest strength—the aspect of his writing that made Before They Are Hanged (2007) in particular so compelling—threatens to break down. His primary method of characterisation—the point-of-view narration that in some cases (notably Glokta) verges on monologue—can lead him into redundancy at the best of times, but especially so in the latter stages of Last Argument of Kings, when the pressures of drawing all the plot threads together reduce the space for character moments. Whereas, say, Marillier is content to let the dialogue do much of the work, Abercrombie is not above baldly stating what is, or should be, already clear. Thus, here is Jezal realising he is trapped:
It can be a terrible curse for a man to get everything he ever dreamed of. If the shining prizes turn out somehow to be empty baubles, he is left without even his dreams for comfort. All the things Jezal had thought he wanted—power, fame, the beautiful trappings of greatness—they were nothing but dust. All he wanted now was for things to be as they had been, before he got them. But there was no way back. Not ever. (p. 426)
And here is Logen:
You have to be realistic. He'd played at being a different man, but it had all been lies. The hardest kind to see through. The kind you tell yourself. He was the Bloody-Nine. That was the fact, and however he twisted, and squirmed, and wished to be something else, there was no escaping it. Logen wanted to care.
But the Bloody-Nine cares for nothing. (p. 318)
Both are in character, and characteristically well written; both are largely unnecessary. Still, if you're going to tell rather than show on occasion, you might as well do it with style. A big part of the enjoyment of reading the First law trilogy, after all, is seeing the world through the eyes of Abercrombie's messed-up characters.
At the centre of the plot thread confluence is Bayaz. Prior to Last Argument, Bayaz never quite felt like he fit in with this gritty world, to either the other characters or to this reader. When, in the first volume, he cultivated a cartoonish image of wizardry to lull the Aduan elite into underestimating him, the ridiculousness fit him all too well. Abercrombie's books are not alone in this, in contemporary fantasy: it is difficult, I think, to incorporate vast magics convincingly into worlds that otherwise try so hard to feel authentic, emphasising characters' responsibility for their actions and the consequences of things like going into battle. Abercrombie's wise and meddling old mage, even if he was more irascible than he first appeared, seemed to have stepped out of a different fantasy novel altogether: one where problems are solved with a magic wand, and anyone can be saved by a miraculous last-minute intervention. This is a problem in Weeks's book, for example—even a cut throat can be cured with magic, if the plot requires, and the mage characters, while only rarely seen, are boringly all-knowing—although the stylistic preference there is for gory death.
Still, as Last Argument of Kings goes on, Bayaz becomes considerably more interesting. Not flawlessly so: the dark secrets of his backstory are never sufficiently unusual or compelling to warrant all the drama that surrounds it, and his much-vaunted confrontation with the Gurkish prophet and the Eaters turns out to be a bit of a damp squib (giant explosion aside). But as the pieces click into place, they form a picture of Bayaz as much more representative of the book's themes than I had imagined. He emerges as an cynical and rather callous operator, manipulating individuals (Jezal, Ferro) and whole sections of society alike—the peasants' revolt, a hope to so many, was stolen by a plant of Bayaz, and discarded without a thought once it had achieved its purpose—to meet his inscrutably long-term goals. Far from the benevolent, grandfatherly wizards of David Eddings and the like, Bayaz is an arresting portrait of a man who has lived too long with too much power, and lost all human perspective.
He is also, like everyone else in the book, trapped into repeating the same patterns over and over again:
“You cannot understand what it is to live as long as I have. To know all that I know. You people are dead in the blink of an eye, and have to be taught the same old lessons all over again. The same lessons that Juvens taught Stolicus a thousand years ago. It becomes extremely tiresome.” [ . . . ]
“Every man seems a child to me. When you reach my age you see that history moves in circles. So many times have I guided this nation from the brink of destruction, on to greater glory. And what do I ask in return? A few sacrifices? If you only understood the sacrifices that I have made on behalf of you cattle!” (p. 627)
The David Gemmell Legend Award is a welcome invitation for serious engagement with epic fantasy, since it is an area that critical discussion in the science fiction and fantasy field—including here at Strange Horizons—largely ignores. There is an unavoidable tension, evident both from this shortlist and from the Award's own website, between the desire to recognise books on their own merits and the genre's overwhelming tendency towards lengthy series with enormous fanbases. But then, voting based on track record rather than individual work is hardly unknown within popular-vote awards that skew more towards science fiction, if we substitute “lengthy series” for “bestselling authors”; it is unlikely to change.
More interesting, perhaps, as I've tried to explore in this review, is the Award's definition of works “in the spirit of David Gemmell,” and how the shortlist tracks with this: the qualities of pace, character, and world-building that are central to most readers' enjoyment of fantasy. It is rare for a literary award to tie itself even loosely to a particular author's ethos and style like this. Even if, or perhaps especially if, some of the popular choices don't exactly track with the definition—as is certainly the case with this first shortlist—having a theme provides plenty of hooks for further discussion and food for thought: how can such books maintain pace while also lavishing the time to create fully realised worlds? How is characterisation achieved in an essentially plot-driven genre? How do familiar character types interact with different imaginary worlds?
On the evidence of this shortlist, disappointing as it is, these are tough questions to answer. This may be why the 2010 award seems to have backed away from the Gemmell link somewhat, with the criteria now listed [pdf link] as “traditional, Heroic, Epic, or High Fantasy and/or in the spirit of David Gemmell's own work” (my emphasis). While this broadening out is probably a recognition of the inevitable, it does seem a shame.