An interview with Joe Abercrombie

In 2002 Joe Abercrombie began the writing of a fantasy trilogy based around the adventures of Logan Ninefingers. The First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings) has since been published in eight countries, seven languages and with seven different titles. Best Served Cold, a standalone book set in the same world, will be released on June 18, 2009. Joe Abercrombie kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in February 2009.

Congratulations on making the long-list for the David Gemmell Legend Award. The book that wins this prestigious award will need to contain the spirit or tradition of David Gemmell’s own work. Was David Gemmell an author that you particularly admired and do you agree that your work has the same essence?

Joe Abercrombie: I think the award is a great idea, since Heroic Fantasy doesn’t get a lot of attention from traditional genre awards, but for this first year I believe the long-list contains anyone put forward for the award for their publisher, so I’m not sure I can revel in much glory there, much though I love glory as much as the next author, if not considerably more. If I make the short-list of five I’ll do some revelling, though, since that will mean that a lot of actual flesh and blood real readers will have voted for me. I’ve probably got as good a chance this year as I’ll ever have, since some of the real big-hitters haven’t had books out in the relevant period, but there are a lot of interesting new authors coming along lately, so I’m not holding my breath.

Gemmell I guess is known for tough and glorious heroic fantasy with some morally grey characters, so I would have thought our books are in roughly the same ballpark, but other people I’m sure are better qualified to make judgements about our respective essences. Obviously it would be a great compliment to be likened in any way to such a successful and much-loved author, probably the most important British writer of heroic fantasy in the last twenty years or so.

Over the past 4/5 years it could be said that you have lived the dream of many an aspiring author – you signed to a major publisher, received public and critical acclaim and became a respected author. Has this experience been everything that you thought, and perhaps hoped it would be?

Joe Abercrombie: Ah, living the dream. It’s been a heady whirl of dirty martinis, baths of banknotes, under-sea bases, marble staircases, celebrity parties, outrageous demands by my agent, TV appearances, billion-dollar endorsements, caviar for breakfast, rhinestone-encrusted tuxedos, white puppies in my dressing room and so on, and so on.

I think the world of publishing, let alone genre publishing, is a great deal less glamorous than most people imagine. Of course the names that spring to mind are your Rowlings, Pullmans and Pratchetts, but they’re very much the exceptions. For your average sf/f release 5,000 sales might be considered a good run. Thanks to the fates, my excellent editor and publisher, and my family’s unstinting support, I’ve done a good deal better than that, and the trilogy has steadily gained ground with each book, but even so it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve even been able to consider writing as my main occupation, and I’m in a lucky minority to be able to do so.

Having grumbled about all that, it is of course a brilliant feeling to see my books translated into other languages, to get emails from folks all round the world who’ve really enjoyed or been able to relate to something that, in essence, I dreamed up in the middle of the night for no one else’s amusement but my own. Still a strange and wonderful feeling…

Hollywood approaches you asking to turn your books in feature films. What would your answer be? If you would answer yes, are there any actors that you would love to see playing your creations on the silver screen?

Joe Abercrombie: My answer would be, “show me the money”. Seriously. American currency is very useful in the current climate. And, although few books that get optioned are developed, and few that are developed ever get made, the publicity even from an option is a useful thing and could potentially bring your books to a wider audience. Can’t knock that. Audiences are really good. I think, as a writer, you have to be prepared for a movie looking nothing like your imagining. When you sell a book, you do just that. The film-makers need to make their own film from it.

Those casting questions I can never answer. There’s something really weird about imagining these private creations of my own mind being rendered in flesh and blood. I have a hard enough time with the US cover of Best Served Cold, which features a photographic representation of the main character from that book. Not that it’s a bad one at all, but I can’t look at it without thinking that some model had to dress up, hold a sword, and try to look dangerous.

There are some pretty graphic descriptions of torture in your books. Is this something you researched or do you just have a very dark mind?

Joe Abercrombie: It wasn’t so much something I researched as something I thought about. I was often mildly annoyed by depictions of torture in books and on tv that seemed to focus on causing pain to people. Torture depicted as a kind of fetishised game with rules. It occurred to me that it would be much more effective, given a legal system that did not value the rights of the accused particularly highly, to threaten to maim someone for life and provide simple and immediate evidence that you were entirely willing to go through with it. Pain is one thing, the imminent threat of losing all your fingers, forever, is quite another.

I think most people have dark minds, they just don’t necessarily share with you what’s in them. I try to be as honest and forthright as possible. I admire writers who say what they really think, so I try to do the same.

Your new book, Best Served Cold, contains some of your favourite characters from The First Law trilogy. Was it hard to leave characters behind or were you perhaps more than happy to bid farewell to some?

Joe Abercrombie: Favourite is maybe the wrong word – Best Served Cold contains some minor characters from the trilogy that I thought might stand up to closer examination, as well as some new ones, while a couple of more central characters from the trilogy appear in the background. Cameos, you might say.

It was hard to leave characters behind in the sense that you become comfortable with them over time, especially over the course of a trilogy, and it’s easy to find their voice and write from their point of view. New characters are much more challenging, time-consuming and troublesome – perhaps like a snooker player learning to play with a new cue. But I think as a writer it’s good not to become too comfortable with characters, or styles, or formats, and to try new things, stretch yourself, at least up to a point. You might take some wrong steps along the way but that’s better than staying put where it’s safe and warm and quietly going boring. Probably.

The other thing to bear in mind is that, while for readers they might spend a few weeks with these characters and be keen to know more, for me it’s as if I’ve been stuck in a lift with them for five years. It’s got awfully stuffy in there…

Best Served Cold will be released on June 18, 2009

Springtime in Styria. And that means war.
There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.
War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, 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, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.
Her allies include Styria’s least reliable drunkard, Styria’s most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that’s all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started…
Springtime in Styria. And that means revenge.

Our Joe Abercrombie reviews

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The First Law trilogy was a real game changer for the fantasy genre. It worked in shades of grey. It makes the reader like characters they should possibly, really dislike. And dislike characters they should possibly, really like. The dialogue is witty and often the cause of out-loud laughter. It’s a captivating read and has everything a fantasy fan could wish for. Any books that can add humour to torture scenes has something special going on.

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Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea itself. And he must do it all with only one good hand. Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge. Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could. But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, and traps and tragedy...

"There is little, nay nothing, that I can find negative with this book. Abercrombie is certainly a master at work, and I eagerly look forward to the next instalment in the series." Jo Fitzpatrick, Fantasy Book Review

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Half the World by Joe Abercrombie

Sometimes a girl is touched by mother war. Thorn is such a girl. Desperate to avenge her dead father, she lives to fight. But she has been named murderer by the very man who trained her to kill. Sometimes a woman becomes a warrior. Fate traps her in the schemes - and on the ship - of the deep-cunning minister Father Yarvi. Crossing half the world to find allies against the ruthless High King, she learns harsh lessons of blood and deceit. Sometimes a warrior becomes a weapon. Beside her on her gruelling journey is Brand, a young warrior who hates to kill. A failure in his eyes and hers, he has one chance at redemption. And weapons are made for one purpose. Will Thorn forever be a tool in the hands of the powerful or can she carve her own path? Is there a place beyond legend for a woman with a blade?

"Half the World is a fantastic book that clearly demonstrates Abercrombie's proficiency in the fantasy genre. Half a War cannot come soon enough."

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Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

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. In the heat-ravaged south the Gurkish are massing to assault the city of Dagoska, defended by Inquisitor Glokta. The city is braced for the inevitable defeat and massacre to come, preparations are made to make the Gurkish pay for every inch of land... but a plot is festering to hand the city to its beseigers without a fight, and the previous Inquisitor of Dagoska vanished without trace. Threatened from within and without the city, Glokta needs answers, and he needs them soon.  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...

"Gripping, thrilling, gritty and pretty damn awesome."

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A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

Sometimes you find that perfect book, the one that hits you at the exact right moment. Everything aligns. The writing, the characters & the world-building just makes your soul sing. A Little Hatred is that for me. It's beautifully, authentically First Law. Joe Abercrombie has done it again. Goddamn.

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The Trouble with Peace by Joe Abercrombie

This one has it all. The Trouble with Peace is a quintessential Abercrombie story that draws pieces from all seven First Law novels before it. It features all your returning favorites: trademark humor, horrifying violence, grim wisdom, and an ending that will leave you craving for more. At this point, would you expect anything less?

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Last Argument Of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

In this much anticipated and last instalment of the First Law trilogy from Joe Abercrombie we find the answers to all our questions and some we didn’t even realise existed!

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Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

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 stepfather 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... The past never stays buried...

"If you can’t stand - or don’t like your kids - to read a story in which there is plenty of, gritty violent scenes, swearing, questionable characters and sexual relationships then this isn't your book. Abercrombie’s style is to write a fantasy story in which the characters react like realistic people. You’ll never see a ‘teenage-prodigy’, heroes are non-existent or in for the cash, and there are plenty of crooked and corrupt characters, just like the real world." Brian Herstig, Fantasy Book Review

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Half a War by Joe Abercrombie

WORDS ARE WEAPONS. Princess Skara has seen all she loved made blood and ashes. She is left with only words. But the right words can be as deadly as any blade. She must conquer her fears and sharpen her wits to a lethal edge if she is to reclaim her birthright. ONLY HALF A WAR IS FOUGHT WITH SWORDS. The deep-cunning Father Yarvi has walked a long road from crippled slave to king’s minister. He has made allies of old foes and stitched together an uneasy peace. But now the ruthless Grandmother Wexen has raised the greatest army since the elves made war on God, and put Bright Yilling at its head - a man who worships only Death. SOMETIMES ONE MUST FIGHT EVIL WITH EVIL. Some - like Thorn Bathu and the sword-bearer Raith - are born to fight, perhaps to die. Others - like Brand the smith and Koll the wood-carver - would rather stand in the light. But when Mother War spreads her iron wings, she may cast the whole Shattered Sea into darkness...

"What makes Half a War a fantastic read is how often Abercrombie subverts your expectations. You think you know where the story is heading, and suddenly it’ll all get turned on its head. It’s this that keeps you hooked throughout, never knowing where the story might go."

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The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

So honestly, I am glad I’ve read it. This story is a great read. It’s fast, exciting and brutal. The characters are clear and realistic even when they are psychopathic, axe wielding generals. If you want something totally different in this genre, you should read it, but if you expect the ‘usual Heroic Fantasy’ you’ll get a surprise on you plate.

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Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Monza is a cut throat heartless commander general of the Thousand Swords; a lethal group of mercenaries. That is until her gainful employer Grand Duke Orso decides to murder her and her brother. Throw Monza's body from his mountain terrace to the forest floor below before confirming that she was indeed dead proves a mistake Duke Orso will live to regret. Broken to pieces Monzcarro Murcatto surprisingly does not die and is put back together in quite good fashion by a mysterious bone thief. Once she has her wits back about her and body in semi decent working order there is only one thing that burns in Monza's mind.

"Cruel, original and brilliant characters. A true master."

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Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

The Union army may be full of bastards, but there's only one who thinks he can save the day single-handed when the Gurkish come calling: the incomparable Colonel Sand dan Glokta. Curnden Craw and his dozen are out to recover a mysterious item from beyond the Crinna. Only one small problem: no one seems to know what the item is. Shevedieh, the self-styled best thief in Styria, lurches from disaster to catastrophe alongside her best friend and greatest enemy, Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp. And after years of bloodshed, the idealistic chieftain Bethod is desperate to bring peace to the North. There's only one obstacle left - his own lunatic champion, the most feared man in the North: the Bloody-Nine... Sharp Ends combines previously published, award-winning tales with exclusive new short stories. Violence explodes, treachery abounds, and the words are as deadly as the weapons in this rogue's gallery of side-shows, back-stories, and sharp endings from the world of the First Law.

"That isn’t to say that this is a bad anthology – on the contrary, the majority of it is as amusing, bloody and fast-paced as Abercrombie’s other works. You may just need to forgive him on a couple of the stories. I would recommend reading his First Law trilogy first however."


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