Sharp Ends: Tales from the World of the First Law - Review

It's difficult to discuss Joe Abercrombie's excellent The First Law series without treading on George R.R. Martin's toes via the expected Game of Thrones comparison. It's true that both writers adopt the term 'grimdark' in similar ways, presenting European-influenced medieval fantasy that's light on the magic and heavy on the shock-value gore festivals. It's also true that both sets of narratives are sprawling exercises in superlative worldbuilding, where stories can be told at the farthest points of the world and still feel like they're all interconnected. Also, both authors really like their swearing characters.

I would, however, argue that Abercrombie has this realm of writing locked down far better than Martin does. Most of that's because Abercrombie has a penchant for well-drawn and investing characters, while Martin relies a lot more on plot movement and external circumstance to shape our understanding of the main characters. Pit someone like Sand dan Glokta, one of the three protagonists of Abercrombie's initial outing The Blade Itself, against Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Arya Stark, whomever you want; excluding what the show's done in fleshing many of them out, most of Martin's gallery of heroes, as they are in the books, are shaped by what happens to them rather than by what they do. Abercrombie's characters don't usually have that problem. (Also, before any Martin fans come for my head - I adore Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire books, but they are not without their issues.)

So it was with no small degree of excitement that I tore into Sharp Ends, Abercrombie's first short story collection set in the world of The First Law. It's been four years since our last outing in Red Country; though I've enjoyed my Sanderson and Hearn fixes, I was missing Abercrombie's ethically questionable characters and engrossing worldbuilding. Needless to say, Sharp Ends scratched the itch.

Despite it being billed as an anthology, Sharp Ends actually has a semi-central narrative to it. Young thief Shevedieh is forced to flee her opium den business after a deal goes south, accompanied in her new escapades by the boisterous and enigmatic warrior Javre. Over the better part of three decades, Shev and Javre's stories are interspersed with explorations of realms and characters both old and new; a young Sand dan Glokta seeks glory on the training ground; Curnden Craw and his band of Northern bastards undertake a fool job; renegade thief Shy South evades capture in the Far Country; the idealistic Northern chieftain Bethod seeks peace with his enemy, whilst attempting to handle the violent barbarian known as the Bloody-Nine. Say one thing about Sharp Ends, say that it's an engrossing cross section of damn near the entirety of Abercrombie's First Law region of the Circle of the World.

Despite being pulled from six years' worth of publications and anthologies, the majority of Sharp Ends' tales were written specifically for this collection. They're handily presented in chronological order - save Made a Monster, the unsettling final story set in the North - and consistently showcase Abercrombie's talent for crafting nuanced characters in vividly-drawn locations. I won't lie, it felt comfortable to slip back into the earlier times of The First Law, with stories set before the nascent fantasy-Western era of Red Country. Those stories reminded me how gripped I initially was by The Blade Itself, and how much a far cry Abercrombie's brilliantly rendered world of grim humour and violence is even when compared to Westeros.

There are, however, some stories that end up falling flat. Of particular note is Freedom!, an intentionally exaggerated biography of roguish mercenary captain Nicomo Cosca, one of The First Law's most fascinating characters, which doesn't quite hit the sarcastic irony its particular delivery is attempting to strike at (those who've read Red Country will understand what I mean). I also wasn't keen on Yesterday, Near a Village Called Barden, a lacklustre story set during the depressing war epic The Heroes, which mostly followed a disgraced Union officer getting jumped by Northern barbarians. It, along with several other stories in Sharp Ends, is almost entirely reliant on the reader having read Abercrombie's other books, in order for the full weight of the story to have impact.

That may be my main criticism of Sharp Ends, actually. While I'm an existing fan of Abercrombie's work, the anthology does little to adequately orient newbies. You'd best have read the novel Best Served Cold before you dive into the short story Wrong Place, Wrong Time, or else you'll be utterly lost. Similarly, the short story Hell can read as a nice, if horrifying, diversion, but only really snaps into focus if you've already gone through the novel Before They Are Hanged. Not that Sharp Ends necessarily needed to be aimed at the first-timers, but it's something you'd best be aware of before you dive in - and really, why haven't you read Abercrombie's other work already, anyway? For shame. 

As much as those few points niggled at me, others threw the book's greatness into, ahem, sharp relief. Shev and Javre's multi-tale story was a fantastic narrative throughline - with Two's Company being the peak - presenting characters I'd love to see in subsequent First Law books (the way their story ends implies they'll hopefully be back). Likewise, reading about Curnden Craw's cutthroat crew in The Fool Jobs reminded me of some of the best parts of The Heroes, one of my favourite books in Abercrombie's world. It might not be good for those who have no idea who the King of the Union or the First of the Magi are, but those of us who've been here for a while will find a nice, welcoming environment. Or, at least, as welcome an environment as a world built on murder, gallows jokes and anti-heroics can be.

Sharp Ends delivers more of Joe Abercrombie's consistently excellent, trademark style of fantasy; the guy didn't pick Lord Grimdark as his Twitter handle for nothing. I'd recommend neophytes at least dive into The Blade Itself first - because really, it's just an excellent book all on its lonesome - then take your time strolling across the entire Circle of the World with Sharp Ends. You never know what, or who, you might come across.

- Chris

Sharp Ends: Tales from the World of the First Law is in bookstores now.

Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Hachette Australia.


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