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Archive for April, 2012

Ultima Ratio Regum

One of the things that impresses me most about The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie is his erudite use of quotations.

The Blade Itself comes from Homer. Before They Are Hanged comes from Heinrich Heine and The Last Argument of Kings comes from the cannons of Louis XIV.

I am now about half way through The Last Argument of Kings, which is the final book in the trilogy, so I feel qualified to comment finally, though I tend to be a bit dismissive of reviews written by people who haven’t finished the book they are reviewing. Have you seen those reviews on Amazon that start “I just ordered this book today and can’t wait to start reading it, so … 5 stars!!”

I have been reading these books for about three years, so I have had a bit longer to think about them than that. But I suppose one thing people always wonder about when they embark on a 1500 page epic is, “will I be disappointed by the ending?”

I can’t answer that question because I haven’t reached the ending but I am very much enjoying getting there.

In fact, one of the reasons it has taken me three years to almost read all three of these books is that they are so pleasurable. I come from a very hard-working family where pleasure was always looked upon askance. Reading was a serious business, at the end of which you had to have something to show for it. What I had to show for it was a university degree. Then a career as an English teacher, which is ancient history now, I’m glad to say.

Which is just as well, because a knowledge of ancient history comes in useful when seeking pleasure in the work of a writer who quotes Homer.

After the erudite quotations, what impresses me most about these books is the immersive narrative voice. It gets you from the very first paragraph of the first chapter of the first book, wittily entitled The End.

Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.

You don’t know who Logen is but already you have become him. You are there, immersed in the sensory experience of what it feels like to be running, somewhat clumsily and out of breath, through a damp forest. Joe Abercrombie must write like this naturally because he has managed to sustain it effortlessly across more than 1500 pages and dozens of characters.

It is this quality of being immersed in another world, in other sensations, that makes reading so pleasurable. It is what makes it such a deep pleasure. Because in being immersed like this in another person’s world, you inhabit that person’s skin, you learn empathy, your feelings are changed and your opinions about the world can change too.

But there is no didactic message in Joe Abercrombie’s work. The Guardian even called it “delightfully twisted and evil.”

Over the Easter Holiday I’m afraid I lay in bed late with nothing in particular to do except read and enjoy a delightfully twisted episode in The Last Argument of Kings in which three Northerners crept up on a witch while Logen battled an enchanted monster called Fenris the Feared. And I have nothing whatsoever to show for it except a very relaxed and satisfied frame of mind and this somewhat lacklustre entry in my blog.

If forced to make a comparison, I would have to say it’s a bit like The Iliad, with some Beowulf thrown in, but more ironic, a lot longer and without the English Literature degree at the end of it. Although, as I said, I haven’t yet reached the end of it, so maybe there is a surprise in store.

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