It’s been a long time since I did an “If you liked” post. Since Joe Abercrombie is becoming the center of my blogging life for the foreseeable future, I figured I’d talk about him some more. One of the things that makes Abercrombie unique is that all of his books are written in a different style. The First Law Trilogy riffs on epic fantasy. Best Served Cold plays with the exploitation revenge thriller. The Heroes leans on war novel tropes. And Red Country dresses up in wild west garb.
Since I’m going to be writing the Abercrombie reread at Tor.com, and I presume many of my readers here have already read Abercrombie, I want to provide some Abercrombie inspired recommendations for those who’ve enjoyed his work. To make it more fun I’ve made a recommendation inspired by each of his works, and a fifth recommendation based on his entire catalog.
God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture by Kameron Hurley (First Law Trilogy)
Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha (aka: God’s War trilogy) is the science fictional counterpart to Abercrombie’s trilogy. Brutal, bloody, and full of bugs, the trilogy is the story of Nyx, a boxer turned assassin turned bounty hunter, who’s hired by the government to recover some missing dissidents. Or at least their heads. Nyx is as hard boiled as Logen Ninefingers to the point that you can almost hear her say, ‘You have to be realistic.’
Oddly, despite its status as science fiction, the series has quite a bit of magic. Much like Abercrombie, Hurley employs magic as a tool not a panacea, managing to make it seem organic. Realistic is a term often thrown around with regard to the First Law Trilogy. I find it a poor choice of words usually. There’s little “real” about Abercrombie’s hyper-violent world or his near super powered characters. I prefer to call it hyper-realism, in that Abercrombie takes a pull no punches approach which assumes the worst in everyone and extrapolates it to a logical conclusion. Everything has consequences. Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha is much the same.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (The Heroes)
Before the novel begins, the author of All Quiet of the Western Front wrote: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Abercrombie could have written that same quote at the beginning of The Heroes and it would not have been remiss.
It’s easy to dismiss fantasy novels as adventures or a means to entertain. Often they are that, but they can also be so much more. Abercrombie’s war novel is one such. Clever humor interspersed with the most gruesome moments of a war fought hand to hand (mostly), The Heroes is an examination of both sides of a battle and the impact that combat has on those who fought in it. Beck, a young northerner committed to making his name in the battle, is Abercrombie’s Paul Bäumer. Beck learns that war isn’t the image he constructed in his mind, and finds out far too late.
Heroes Die by Matthew Stover (Best Served Cold)
In Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, Monzo Murcatto is the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ. Her victories have made too popular for the Duke’s taste, so he has her brother killed and Monza thrown down a mountain and left for dead. The result is one pissed off woman who will carve a bloody path through Styria to get revenge.
If there’s a spiritual precursor to Best Served Cold, it’s Stover’s Heroes Die. Tragically under read, it’s an odd slipstream story that calls to mind the Mojoverse narrative from X-Men comics. Instead of Longshot, Stover gives us Caine, a character played by Hari Michaelson in the land of Ankhana for Earth’s entertainment. When Caine’s estranged wife Pallas Rill disappears in the slums of Ankhana he goes of a killing binge to get her back. Monza Murcatto, anyone?
While Abercrombie’s novel is much closer to a traditional exploitation/revenge narrative, both novels are about exacting bloody payments for deeds done against their protagonists. There’s a lot of synergy here.
Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole (Red Country)
This is kind of a weird choice. Cole’s novels are machine guns and magic, while Abercrombie’s are swords and gallows humor. In Red Country, Shy South’s siblings are stolen by a roving band of bad guys and she sets out to get them back. Col. Alan Bookbinder has quite a bit in common with Shy as he sets out across harsh alien terrain to complete his mission no matter what.
Fortress Frontier and Red County have a strong sense of internal moral certitude–a sense of taking the law into their own hands–that speaks to the personal sense of right and wrong that’s so prevalent in the western genre. Hell, is there anything closer to a couple of lawmen out on the prairie rounding up a few desperadoes than a special forces team killing magical creatures?
The Engineer Trilogy by KJ Parker
All of KJ Parker’s work is subversive in similar ways to Abercrombie. Where the First Law Trilogy and subsequent volumes subvert epic fantasy, Parker does much the same. In this trilogy Parker destroys entire civilizations for the revenge of one man, while another sends his citizens to die to protect a single woman. Traditional epic fantasy often argues that the one sacrifice for the many, but Parker shows us characters who will sacrifice everything for one person. Parker demonstrates the absolute selfishness inherent in the human condition, and the numbers of people we’ll let die to protect the one we love.
Abercrombie points is quite different, I think, but the nature of the narrative is the same. Both authors challenge the preconceptions of the genre by enhancing the worst qualities of man to make their point. They are my two favorite authors bar none, and they should be yours.