J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Joe Abercrombie: Worst to best.

In a new feature on my blog I decided to start, I’m going to be going through the body of work of my favorite authors, and ranking their works against each other. While it’s admittedly hardly the most original idea in the world, I thought it’d be fun for me to do for a few reasons.

1. Naturally, it’ll let me revisit some of my favorite books.

2. It lets me list out what I really like about the work of my favorite authors.

3. It’s really more of a challenge when you have to pit a favorite book against another favorite book, and have to decide which one is better.

 

And today, I’m doing Joe Abercrombie. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a huge fan of his work. When it comes to the modern convention of “dark fantasy”, I’ve long been of the opinion that it is Abercrombie, and not actually George RR Martin (Who, make no mistake, will have his books listed here too) who writes the best of this genre. And that’s high praise, indeed. When I think of the difference between good fantasy, and mediocre to bad fantasy, there is typically one fundamental difference. Mediocre fantasy sees the plot happen just because they need a plot (The dragon is burning down my village/the evil sorceror wants to take over the world/I want to stop being a farmer and be a hero!). Good fantasy has something to say.

Well, Abercrombie always has something to say. In a violent, darkly humorous sort of way.

It should be noted that all of these books are awesome, and I would gladly recommend any of them to someone who wants something new and great to read. But again, when its awesome matched against awesome, something’s gotta give somewhere.

 

#6. The Heroes

Logline: They say Black Dow’s killed more men than winter, and clawed his way to the throne of the North up a hill of skulls. The King of the Union, ever a jealous neighbor, is not about to stand smiling by while he claws his way any higher. The orders have been given and the armies are toiling through the northern mud. Thousands of men are converging on a forgotten ring of stones, on a worthless hill, in an unimportant valley, and they’ve brought a lot of sharpened metal with them.

THE HEROES

For glory, for victory, for staying alive.

What I like: This book, moreso than many of his others, goes out of its way to show just how pointless and nihilistic war is. The story takes place over the span of three days, framed around a massive battle to take a plot of land that is utterly meaningless. Why do they both want it so much? Because the other side wants it too. It also showcases the North as an in-depth setting for the first time, which is nice, since it is rarely visited in any of the other books, but is home for many of Abercrombie’s most interesting characters. It’s also really cool to have Bremer Dan Gorst as a main POV character, after he plays such a central role in just a chapter or two of the First Law trilogy. Really, the best thing about this book is how much it helps build the world more.

What I don’t like: Well, honestly, compared to the other books, this one doesn’t really have as many truly compelling POV characters to follow. The aforementioned Bremer Dan Gorst is very interesting as the disgraced swordsman who either wants to regain his honor or die trying, but everyone else doesn’t feel like they have many new things to say. And really, that’s a recurring problem here. The First Law trilogy already went out of its way to tell us that battling with swords isn’t glamorous. But here we are, learning the same lesson over again.

Favorite moment: The climatic duel to the death, in true northern fashion, to decide who gets to be King of the North. It’s a great scene, with an amazing twist, even if it means the death of one of my personal favorite characters.

Original rating: ****

 

#5. Before They are Hanged

Logline: Bitter and merciless war is coming to the frozen north. It’s bloody and dangerous and the Union army, split by politics and hamstrung by incompetence, is utterly unprepared for the slaughter that’s coming. Lacking experience, training, and in some cases even weapons the army is scarcely equipped to repel Bethod’s scouts, let alone the cream of his forces.
And to the east a small band of malefactors travel to the edge of the world to reclaim a device from history – a Seed, hidden for generations – with tremendous destructive potential. A device which could put a end to war, to the army of Eaters in the South, to the invasion of Shanka from the North – but only if it can be found, and only if its power can be controlled . . .

 

What I like: This is basically The Two Towers of one of the best fantasy trilogies ever written, The First Law Trilogy. There are a lot of similarities here, too. You have a small band of seemingly heroic adventurers seeking out that magic macguffin that will save the Union from a bloody war with their Gurkish enemies to the south, and the Northmen coming at them from the other side.  You have one of the funniest and most cynical POVs ever, Sand Dan Glotka, doing his best to try and keep a city state from buckling under a siege with the help of the world’s most inept mercenary. You have a war being waged which shows both sides not having much of a clue of what they’re doing in the north, with the Union being run by incompetent political appointees instead of actual generals.

And to top it off, you have one of the most diverse, interesting, and compelling cast of characters to be featured in a book. Ever.

 

What I don’t like: This is a bit of reach, but since this book is the second act, and serves as a bridge to the climax, it’s just not quite as nice as the first or third book. That being said, it’s still amazing.

Favorite moment: When the disciplined soldier Major West kills the Prince not because he led them into a suicide mission, but because the foppish heir tries to rape the girl he had his eye on. “I think I like you, Furious.”

Original rating: *****

 

#4. Red Country

Logline: They burned her home.
They stole her brother and sister.
But vengeance is following.

Shy South hoped to bury her bloody past and ride away smiling, but she’ll have to sharpen up some bad old ways to get her family back, and she’s not a woman to flinch from what needs doing. She sets off in pursuit with only a pair of oxen and her cowardly old step father Lamb for company. But it turns out Lamb’s buried a bloody past of his own. And out in the lawless Far Country the past never stays buried.

Their journey will take them across the barren plains to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feud, duel and massacre, high into the unmapped mountains to a reckoning with the Ghosts. Even worse, it will force them into alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer Temple, two men no one should ever have to trust . . .

What I like: While the rest of Abercrombie’s books feel like quasi-historical dramas, this one distinctly feels like a western. And I like westerns. It fleshes out yet another region that we barely have seen before, with a compelling tale of revenge and family. It has a distinctly fantasy take on the old western concept of the Boom Town, and a High Noon styled duel… just with fists instead of guns. And of course… this book brings back a fan favorite character, after years of him being presumed dead by characters in the books, and fans outside them alike. Even if he’s never directly referred to by name, it’s extremely obvious.

What I don’t like: I didn’t really like Temple too much. But thankfully, plenty of interesting events happen around him, so this isn’t much of a negative.

Favorite moment: The first time Lamb goes violent on men he thinks kidnapped his stepdaughter, and Shy realizes she never really knew him that well at all. It’s a funny juxtaposition, because she has that feeling, while longtime readers like me are sitting there with our books going “He’s back! Yes!”

Original rating: *****

 

#3 The Blade Itself

Logline: Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled and increasingly bitter relic of the last war, former fencing champion turned torturer extraordinaire, is trapped in a twisted and broken body – not that he allows it to distract him from his daily routine of torturing smugglers. Nobleman, dashing officer and would-be fencing champion Captain Jezal dan Luthar is living a life of ease by cheating his friends at cards. Vain, shallow, selfish and self-obsessed, the biggest blot on his horizon is having to get out of bed in the morning to train with obsessive and boring old men. And Logen Ninefingers, an infamous warrior with a bloody past, is about to wake up in a hole in the snow with plans to settle a blood feud with Bethod, the new King of the Northmen, once and for all – ideally by running away from it. But as he’s discovering, old habits die really, really hard indeed. . . especially when Bayaz gets involved. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he’s about to make the lives of Glotka, Jezal and Logen a whole lot more difficult . . .

What I like: This book sets up a great story that keeps you guessing, while turning many popular fantasy conventions on their heads. And it does it with an amazing cast of characters. Glokta, Bayaz, Jezal, Ferro, and Major West are all extremely interesting characters in their own right. But when you have ALL of those, and also have Logen Ninefingers, one of the best characters ever written, the decks are stacked. He’s a good man, but he’s not. He fears violence (I love how he always tells himself “Still alive!” after a fight, like he himself is surprised he made it through another one), but another part of him lives for it, and nothing else. He is a berserker at best, and schizophrenic at worst. And is always interesting. I also love his tidbits of wisdom. He’s seriously one of the most quotable characters ever written.

What I don’t like: The plot of the book, at least at first, can appear pretty cookie cutter. And the overwhelming cynicism might be a turn off to some readers. But stick with it! It’s outstanding.

Favorite moment: The first time the POV shifts from Logen, this seeming victim of circumstance, to his alter ego, The Bloody Nine. He’s crazy, folks.

Original rating: *****

 

#2. Best Served Cold

Logline: War may be hell, but for Monza Murcatto, a solider of considerable fortune; it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employer’s taste. Betrayed and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance.

Whatever the cost, seven men must die.

What I like: This book is basically The Count of Monte Cristo, done Joe Abercrombie style. I personally think The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the best books ever written, so naturally, I think this book is awesome. Monza is a compelling and tough female character, driven by vengeance for her slain brother and the attempt on her own life. She uses her considerable earnings to buy a crack team of assassins, specifically to go murder the men who tried to murder her. And all of them are extremely interesting character. Caul Shivers, after a small role in the original trilogy, really shines here as a guy trying to be good, and paying dearly for it. And the plot twist at the end? Classic Abercrombie. You’ll laugh, shake your head, and marvel at how much sense it makes, knowing all that he’s told you so far.

What I don’t like: Not a whole lot, honestly. I like this book so much I own two copies… my original, and a signed one with a limited edition cover and artwork inside.

Favorite moment: The moment Shivers decides to stop trying to be good, and become the terrifying monster he is in the rest of the novels.

Original rating: *****

 

#1. Last Argument of Kings

Logline: The end is coming. Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him but it’s going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there’s only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. It’s past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home. With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no-one is safe, and no-one can be trusted. His days with a sword are far behind him. It’s a good thing blackmail, threats and torture still work well enough. Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful, and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too, and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it. While the King of the Union lies on his deathbed, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No-one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law . . .

What I like: This book simply wraps up all of the fascinating plotlines the first two books created in spectacular fashion. Logen battles for control of the North from his old enemy. Glokta discovers the truth behind much of what is going on in the Union, and is oddly rewarded for it. Jezal decides to settle down with the woman he loves, only to discover that he won’t be allowed to. And Bayaz saves the world… in his own way.

What I don’t like: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This book was a masterstroke of writing.

Favorite moment: (SPOILERS AHEAD) When you discover that Bayaz, first of the Magi, isn’t so much a Gandalf type character, as he is a Gandalf type character if Gandalf was a supervillain politician whose real magic is his money. Sure, you get hints in the earlier novels, but here, he comes out and reveals himself fully to a couple of characters with a simple message: I own you. Don’t cross me.

Honestly, that was one of my favorite moments reading a book. Ever.

Original rating: *****

 

So I didn’t get to write as much on each book as I would’ve preferred, just because the word count was getting so large. But I think I got my point across, and ranking these were really, really fun. I’m definitely going to do more.

And if you’ve not read any Joe Abercrombie before, well… you know what to do, I hope.

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7 comments on “Joe Abercrombie: Worst to best.

  1. 1000addictions
    July 18, 2013

    I have Best Served Cold in my bookshelf, it was a gift, can it be read as an stand alone?

    • jagarrett
      July 18, 2013

      Absolutely it can. All of Abercrombie’s books outside of the first law trilogy are stand alone novels. Of course, you won’t really get some of the smaller references to the original trilogy, but it’s a fantastic book all by itself. It’s one of my favorite novels, period.

  2. addisoncrow
    July 30, 2013

    Still reading Best Served Cold, but I’m getting there!! I do like it so far! A lot!

  3. John
    January 25, 2014

    1. The Heroes
    2. Before They are Hanged
    3. The Blade Itself
    4. Best Served Cold
    5. The Last Argument of Kings
    6. Red Country

  4. Clint
    May 14, 2015

    Great post! Have you read the Half King series and do you think it compares favorably to his other works? I have read everything else by Abercrombie but I have been reluctant to try the Half series because it is YA.

    • jagarrett
      May 15, 2015

      That is a great point! I need to update this series when new books come out. If you check my reviews, you’ll have noticed that I have indeed read Half a King (spoiler alert: It’s ranked behind all these on the current list). I haven’t read Half The World yet, but it’s close to the top of my reading pile.

      I’m a fan of YA literature, but compared to his other work, it just feels like it was neutered for the sake of being neutered. It’s still very good, but it would’ve been better if he kept his rated-R style from his other books.

      • Clint
        May 19, 2015

        Thanks! I will check out the Half a King review. I still read some YA titles, Harry Potter being my clear YA favorite, but I feared Abercrombie’s work would suffer because I enjoy the dark tone of his other books. My rankings of his previous works are nearly identical to yours although I would probably swap #4 and #5.

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