Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Last Argument of Kings, End Notes


End Notes on Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie:

Sheesh. I guess I've put this off for too long. I should really get it over with.

I didn’t like Last Argument of Kings and I'm somewhat embarrassed by that fact. In fact I'm embarrassed that I'm embarrassed: a reader should follow their instincts and their opinions regardless of how popular or unpopular a book may be. The fact is I waited to see if I would change my mind. This admission conjures up a picture in my mind of Logan, Black Dow, and the Dogman kind of shaking their heads at me and cursing me for a spineless coward. Which, in an ironic way gives evidence of just how well written and memorable the characters were.

I didn't like Last Argument of Kings because of the way it ended. It ended badly. Or to put it another way, it ended empty. No, I'm not referring to some inherant structural flaw, nor do I think the writer hastily wrapped up the book in a deux ex machina ending. Quite the contrary. The final convergence of the many elements including characters, plot, setting, motive, and background history to the world, were brilliant. The characters moved forward to the resolution of their conflicts with a sound internal logic and inevitablilty that for all my imagined brilliance I did not see coming. Kudos to Abercrombie on pulling some wondrous eye popping reversals and recognitions that screamed well made story.

As for sheer technical brilliance the story is a masterpiece of "gritty fantasy." That new sub sub sub genre where fantasy looks at the real world, looks at the fantasy world, and says "right, need to make this a bit more realistic." People you get attached to die, the girl you think would make a perfect match for the right guy sleeps with someone else, and the most unethical of the villains comes out on top because, well, he's better at manipulating people than the good guys.

What I didn't like was the nihilism of the ending. People died, people struggled, people sacrificed, and in the end nothing really changed. The characters went back to their lives, or died. Some had a new set of circumstances, some had a new wife, some had wealth and power and money. And in the end no one really knew why it was they struggled the way they did or what the purpose of all that effort was.

To put it bluntly: nihilistic. No easy answers about the rightness or wrongness of the world, the characters or the actions. No one really changes. Except the torturer, who after mutilating dozens and killing far more, gets a beautiful woman and a promotion. The "hero" is mutilated, attains a beautiful lesbian bride who cringes at his touch and has to watch the woman he loves marry someone else. The toughest of all, the manic, goes back to the violent dangerous world he left after trying to escape neither changed in character, nor materially better of than when he started.

The ending did not satisfy. Call me a foolish devotee of Aristotle and company, declare my sense of story and structure paleolithic, and my view of human nature as childish and na├»ve(although after ten years teaching juvenile delinquents I would tend to disagree), but I stick by my internal sense of what I feel about the book. The ending is a let down. There is just something not satisfying about the ending, and I don’t mean I want the hero to run off with the heroine into a brilliant sunset to rule a kingdom and hump happily ever after and produce dozens of heirs until the minions of the dark lord rear their ugly orc heads again. I mean there was something from the story I find lacking, or missing.

I wish I were a good enough reviewer to put my finger on it but for right now I just cant. I will repeat that the book was brilliant technically, and I look forward to reading many many more of Mr Abercrombie's work. The man can write, and can tell a good story, and for the sheer mixing of horror, comedy, imagination, and violence he is probably unparalled. At least in my reading experience. I think Martin is his master but he excels in ways Martin doesn't. He is funnier, but manages to do so without losing his sense of the gravity or danger his characters face. Martin's characters have a sense of humor but rarely resort to it to help cope with the horrors they face. Abercrombie's have humor hard wired into their worldview.

John Irving said that a reviewer should read everything written by an author, even if he is only reviewing a single novel, or collection of short stories. He said you may not like a book, you may not like a style of writing, the writer may not succeed at everything he is trying to do, but you had better appreciate the fact that someone took years of their lives to spend on this project, and treat the review of their work with the appropriate respect. I've tried to keep this as my motto. Regardless of what I review or read, I try to remember the amount of work that went into the writing and that regardless what I may think, the fact that they are published is significant. They've been edited, forced to reconsider their work, redo it, rewrite it, cut it, improve what they imagined was perfection, and had to do it as many as six or seven times.

Abercrombie may not have succeeded in making the ending satisfying for me, but on so many dozens of other counts he scores 9.0s and 10s.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Hugo Award For Best Novel

This was a bit of a shocker. The Graveyard Book was up against intense competition. Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi, Saturn's Children by Charles Stross. These guys are all heavyweights with lengthy and respectable publishing histories.

Alas, the only one I actually read was The Graveyard Book(because it was in my local library. Financial times being what they are I cant read everything I want. I'd end up taking a second job just to support a reading habit I would no longer have time for).

Despite my apologia I do intend to read the other novels. And not simply because they are on someone's list. Nor do I intend to Monday morning quarterback and raise a fuss over who SHOULD have won. A quick review of each (on Amazon) show them to be uncomfortably relevent to our times: technology as a double edge sword, the journey of youth to arrive safe and whole from their home planet of childhood to the usually drabby but occasionally fascinating shores of adulthood, and the always unsettling question of what if we humans weren't here anymore?

At first I was struck by the idea of a YA novel taking an award as prestigious as a Hugo. Then after researching the history of the award I saw that there have been YA novels that have won before (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). After some further research involving reading a few spoiler free book reviews I see that YA designation could as easily be applied to Little Brother, and Zoe's Tale. Which in my mind argues that YA may just be a designation for booksellers but not for readers. When I finished The Graveyard Book I wasn't thinking YA I was thinking holy shit that was good. It did what a good book always does: makes me relfect on my own life and the possibilities implicit when you simply keep breathing, keep waking up, keep making plans.

But that's quite enough of talking about books I haven't read. Not a wise thing to do for an aspiring reviewer. Suffice to say I will read each of them. And if nothing else, the Hugo's served a purpose in making me aware of their existence.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Books Read in July

-The Lie That Tells A Truth, John Dufresne, writing reference, 298 pages
-Bleach: Volume 8¸ Tite Kubo, manga
-Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie, fantasy novel 636 pages
-Chess Story, Stefan Zweig, novel, 84 pages
-The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman, YA urban fantasy, 307 pages
-Bleach: Volume 9¸Tite Kubo, manga
-In the Suicide Mountains, John Gardner, fantasy novel, 155 pages
-The Black Company, Glen Cook, fantasy novel, 217 pages
-Shadows Linger, Glen Cook, fantasy novel, 229 pages
-The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman, writing reference, 197 pages

Good Reading month. The Black Company and Shadows Linger were the biggest surprises. Biggest disappointment was In the Suicide Mountains. Gardner just tends to repeat himself in the later books. Book that was most disturbing: Last Argument of Kings. I didn't like it as much as I imagined I would, based on the previous two volumes in the series. The conclusion was satisfactory but bleak. Not sure how I feel about the whole Quentin Tarentino of High Fantasy.