A Beautiful Bastard
Colonel Sand dan Glokta is a bastard. To anyone who’s read the First Law trilogy, that’ll come as no surprise. He’s a damn likable bastard too, owing to the fact that he tends to wax poetical about life and it’s many and terrible injustices, which Glokta goes on to perpetrate in the course of one of the finest fantasy trilogies. A Beautiful Bastard is before all that, before the Gurkish got their hands on the finest fencer of the Union and ruined his body. Hours, if not minutes before, to be exact – this story takes place on the day when Glokta’s self-aggrandizement leads him to lead a doomed defense on a bridge being overrun by the Gurkish.
The story draws you in quickly enough, and then it thrashes you around with one of the finest descriptions I’ve ever read:
But Glokta was an utter bastard. A beautiful, spiteful, masterful, horrible bastard, simultaneously the best and worst man in the Union. He was a tower of self-centred self-obsession. An impenetrable fortress of arrogance. His ability was exceeded only by his belief in his own ability… Glokta was a veritable tornado of bastardy, leaving a trail of flattened friendship, crushed careers and mangled reputations in his heedless wake.
His ego was so powerful it shone from him like a strange light, distorting the personalities of everyone around him at least halfway into being bastards themselves. …most committed followers of the Gurkish religion were expected to make the pilgrimage to Sarkant. In the same way, the most committed bastards might be expected to make a pilgrimage to Glokta. …He had acquired a constantly shifting coteries of bastards streaming after him like the tail after a comet. (5-6)
This is exactly the kind of Abercrombie prose that shines and glitters on the page. The ironic undertone, the sheer emotional charge of it; and at the end of the day, it encapsulates his character at this point in time so well.
And of course, if the description wasn’t enough, Glokta finds a perfect way to show how much of a spiteful bastard he is to the only true friend he’s had, Goleem West, who just so happens to be one of the finest side characters Abercrombie wrote in the original First Law trilogy. Oh, and there’s Corporal Tunny who will be known to anyone and everyone familiar with The Heroes. He’s the best. And the worst.
This story was the perfect kick-off to an anthology filled with Abercrombie. My score for A Beautiful Bastard is 4.5/5 – because it’s the perfect comfort food of First Law stories, because the style and voice and prose are as sharp as the pointy end of Glokta’s steels but it doesn’t add any new, unknown dimensions to the tried-and-tested Glokta mix.
Do I need to read any of the standalone First Law novels to get what’s going on? Nope, this one is quite alright with First Law trilogy knowledge.
“Small Kindnesses” introduces us to Shev, a thief of great skill and some renown, and to Javre, The Lioness of Hoskopp. A young Severard (one of Sand dan Glokta’s right-hand men) makes an appearance too, though it’s hardly something more than a cameo. Shev’ though barely entering her twenties, is already tired of the thieving life and is actively trying to get out of it when, of course, the local crime lord’s son has to drag her back into it. So Shev does a job – and she does it fairly well, top marks for the way the action scene is written and for Shev’s crabby luck – but some people just aren’t happy at all with what they get, and our thief ends up in a tight spot. There’s a lot going on in here, and Javre and Shev have incredible chemistry as soon as both are on the page together and conscious.
What’s even more excellent is, the story of Shev and Javre doesn’t end here – no, this is just the beginning of some of the wackiest adventures in the First Law universe! We’ll get back to them when we get back to them. 4.5/5 – because I know how much more hilarious the pair’s adventuring is about to get.
The Fool Jobs
Curnden Craw is among the last straight arrows in all the North. This, I learned reading The Heroes. However, you don’t actually need to have read that novel to have a grand old time with this. It’d work well enough as an introduction to Craw’s crew, even if you haven’t had the pleasure; this, for example, is the first time Craw himself sees Whirrun of Bligh in action. To those unfamiliar with Whirrun, think, ‘barbarian, possibly insane, with the father of all two-handed swords in his hands, crazy funny’. Craw’s Dozen is chock-full of memorable characters, several of whom different from those familiar from The Heroes.
Something else I loved was the irreverent take on sorcery – it’s signature Abercrombie and like the rest of the story, it’s chock-full of laugh-out-loud moments.
Wonderful, Craw’s Second-in-Command, is as wonderful as her name implies – and damn quotable, too:
‘…Don’t get too comfortable, though, eh? If the rest of us come to grief these Fox fuckers’ll track you down before our blood’s dry and more’n likely cut your fruits off.’
Raubin’s sigh rattled to a quick stop.
‘Cut your head off,’ whispered Never, eyes all scary-wide.
‘Pull your guts out and cook ‘em,’ growled Jolly Yon.
‘Skin your face off and wear it as a mask,’ rumbled Brack.
‘Use your cock for a spoon,’ said Wonderful.
They all thought about that for a moment.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just crude as sin but this exchange between the band of bloodied warriors and the cowardly courier bringing them their orders had me cracking. The s
Skipping Town *Summer 575*
More Shev and Javre, more action, more ridiculous dialogue, including Shev’s mistaken impression of what ‘succour’ means:
‘And, you know, not wanting to blow my own horn, but once I offer succour? I generally get all the succouring one woman can—’
‘She means help,’ said Javre.
‘Succour. It is not a sexual thing.’
The action continues to be lightning-quick, Shev continues to be a a conscionable thief and her chemistry with Javre is quite likely to set the book on fire. Not romantic chemistry, but what the two have goes well beyond that. I don’t think I stopped laughing – except, of course, when I held my breath, eyes rushing from paragraph to paragraph, jumping from word to word, trying to get through yet another excellent action scene, tense as hell. Another 5/5 for me.
War brings the worst in humanity but also the best – as this story reminds us. This one is about theology during a time of siege, about nobility and sacrifice during the events of Before They Are Hanged (Book #2 of the First Law trilogy). Dagoska is burning as the Gurkish’s siege has at last broken through the outer walls of the city. I won’t go into detail about this, but it’s a quiet, somber story that cools the blood and touches upon the beliefs of the fascinating Eaters, the sorcerous apprentices of the Gurkish Prophet who is a figure referred to but never yet seen in the First Law universe. 5/5!
Two’s a Company *Summer 576*
More Shev! More Javre! And – oh, great joy! – more Whirrun! I’d never have thought it possible but what a difference a year makes! If the banter between Shev and Javre was cracking in Skipping Town, here it’s…I don’t know what it is. The pair of them are like a ; and of course, while crossing a dangerous, half-rotten bridge in the North, they’ll bump into Javre’s male alter-ego. Whirrun and Javre are made of the same cloth – hell, as soon as I read this, I thought to myself, ‘Abercrombie’s playing it safe, he saw how well Whirrun of Bligh worked in The Heroes, of course he decided to make himself a lady Whirrun!’ There are differences, plenty of them, of course but those come later. As it is, this one continues a tradition of glorious banter and action where our main duo is concerned. I’m not going to surprise anyone when I say 5/5, am I?
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Don’t read this if you haven’t read Best Served Cold. This one puts a face – several faces – on the destruction Monza Murcatto causes during her inexhaustible quest for vengeance against the men who wronged her. This story contains several miniature cameos, of which the most memorable is that of Bremer dan Gorst. Probably the most average story of the lot – not bad in any way but when I think of Sharp Ends, this one comes to mind last. 3-3.5/5.
I still haven’t read Red Country, the third of the standalone First Law novels. So it was that this short story introduced me to Shy, who is, from what I gathered, one of the protagonists of Red Country. I’m certain Some Desperado borrows from that novel its tone; if that is so, I’m not surprised that it’s been compared to a western – this was like watching some uncanny director letting us in on his vision of a gunpowder-less Wild West.
It’s a brutal short story, and it’s made me want to read Red Country even worse than I already did – which is no small thing. And I definitely am going to – I need to know more about Shy and her corner of the First Law world. 5/5.
Yesterday, Near a Village Called Barden
This one, I don’t recommend you read before you’ve read The Heroes – though you could. The events, far as I can place them, are just before those of the novel and discuss wartime luck and how fickle and uncaring the universe is, along other subjects such as the art of the perfect ambush and the way Union soldiers see Bremer dan Gorst, the towering giant with an unnaturally high-pitched voice and a death wish. This one shares a lot of its DNA with Wrong Place, Wrong Time. I would however score it considerably higher at a 4-4.5/5. It’s an actual short story as compared to Wrong Place, Wrong Time, which was just a collection of different scenes trailing Murcatto’s destruction.
Three’s a Crowd *Autumn 587*
One very large time-skip later, we pick up with Shev, solo, doing some wonderful freelancing work for Monza Murcatto’s right-hand woman and spy-master, Vitari. Things have changed a fair amount, particularly where the relationship between Shev and Javre is concerned. This one has everything I’ve come to expect from a Shev&Javre story but add to the humour and action a fair bit of gloom and emotional catharsis, as well as some deep realizations about friendship, and you have the essence of this story in a nutshell. This is also the longest story of the lot at 52 pages. 5/5
…Is the funniest satirical piece in the anthology. 'Nuff said. 4.5/5
Tough Times All Over
…also involves Shev and Javre in a roundabout manner but it centers on Shev’s love interest, Carcolf, and the package she’s been hired to deliver. Said packages changes hands – and whoever holds it is the person whose PoV we’re following. It’s a game of narrative hot potato; I was hoping it would give some answers over all the threads Three’s a Crowd introduced to the story of Shev and Javre; as it is, Tough Times All Over weighed me down with further questions. Plenty of great banter, though. 3.5/5.
Made A Monster
I was looking forward to a story from Bethod’s PoV. Bethod is really interesting in that, early on in the First Law trilogy, he’s set up as a very typical fantasy villain. Naturally, nothing is quite as it appears at first with Abercrombie but Bethod is never given too much time on the page; instead, he’s judged by the actions of the Northmen under him and the feuds he has with Logen Ninefingers. Ah, Logen - there's an unreliable narrator if I've ever known one.
This story simultaneously casts Bethod in the role of a benevolent man trying to do what’s best and build the North into something worth living in, while at once showing him as the main culprit behind the monster that is the Bloody Nine. The relationship between these two, Bethod and Logen, is put under a microscope and what it says about both men is blood-curdling. The story ends on a truly dark and horrifying note, dispelling any notions we First Law trilogy readers might’ve had towards old Ninefingers. I’ve written, on the very last page of this story a very simple, ‘Brrrr’. Still the best description that comes to mind. 500/5
Bloody hell, this review has ended up the longest ever I’ve ever written at a whopping 2200 words – thank you to everyone who stuck it out till the end! In case it’s not evident, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Sharp Ends and can recommend it to all! My score for it is a 5/5. How excited are you about A Little Hatred?!