THE HEROES by Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie may be one of the best world builders in fantasy writing today. I know when you talk about world building, writers such as Brandon Sanderson and Steven Erikson tend to spring to mind first, since they’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to create histories and magical systems for their worlds. Abercrombie builds his world in an entirely different way, focusing less on the magic and the religions and the detailed histories, but around people.

After finishing THE HEROES, I think I like Abercrombie’s method better.

THE HEROES is the fifth book by Abercrombie that I’ve read, and they all inhabit the same world. In each book, Abercrombie slowly, painstakingly introduces us to several different narrators, who describe the action with a unique voice and unique perspective. Abercrombie is an expert at building outstanding characters, from Logan Nine-Fingers to Glokta to Murcatto to Caul Shivers to The Dogman.

One of my favorite things in reading this book was being reintroduced to less prominent characters from previous books, such as Bremer dan Gorst and Bayaz and Calder, and running into old favorites. The Dogman is a minor character here, as is Shivers, and after everything Shivers went through in BEST SERVED COLD, we get to see how he’s seen by the other Northmen after his return. The book is riddled with references to characters we loved from previous books — Ninefingers is often mentioned, as is Rudd Threetrees. Murcatto gets a mention, and even Forley the Weakest.

This is probably the funniest of all the books Abercrombie has written so far, and dan Gorst’s internal dialogue with every character he meets — though he never says any of it out loud — is hilarious. Whirrun of Bligh was a minor character here, but he’s someone I would have loved to have seen more of as well. He’s called Cracknut Wirrun by his fellow Northmen, and at one point he’s telling a young fighter how he got the name by cracking nuts with his hands, but another character tells him that they actually call him that because he’s crazy and they all think his nut is cracked. “Well that’s not nearly as complimentary, those fuckers,” is Whirrun’s reply.

I can’t do it justice — Abercrombie’s humor is very similar to Scott Lynch’s, the kind that makes me sit there laughing out loud while the people around me wonder if I’m the one whose nut is cracked.

At the end of the day, Abercrombie finds a way to draw the reader into these new characters too, and by the end of the book there’s a whole world there, full of people that I feel like I know, an incredible world in a way that no magical system can match. It’s an outstanding accomplishment and an exceptional read.

THE SIGN OF THE FOUR by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

THE SIGN OF THE FOUR marks the second Sherlock Holmes story I have read so far, following Sherlock’s debut fiction appearance in A STUDY IN SCARLET, and while I’m not terribly familiar with the publishing history of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories, it seems evident in reading both stories that Doyle came to the decision that he needed to flesh out the characters before sitting down to write THE SIGN OF THE FOUR.

In A STUDY OF SCARLET, we learn a little of Watson’s back story, but little else — Doyle seems to supply Watson’s back story more to create a sense of setting than any real desire to provide us with insight into his character. Sherlock’s eccentricities are obviously part of of SCARLET’s charm, but outside of his meticulous nature in chasing down the truth and his obsession with studying crime, we don’t get to know much about him. This time around, Doyle seems to want to delve deeper into both characters, providing Watson with a love interest and introducing Sherlock’s cocaine use and misogynistic tendencies. In a strange way, Doyle sets up Sherlock as a sort of dark hero — I don’t consider him to be a full-blown antihero, but by today’s standards (maybe not those of Doyle’s time), Sherlock has some significant character flaws that are first displayed in this story. The first is Sherlock’s cocaine use, which opens and closes the story. It displeases Watson, but at the same time it doesn’t really seem to be hurting anyone, so it never quite pushes Sherlock into antihero territory.

Perhaps more interesting was Sherlock’s reaction to Watson’s love interest. At one point, he tells Watson not to tell her too much because “women can’t at all be trusted.” Much like the cocaine, this offends Watson’s sensibilities, but he’s clearly intimidated by Sherlock and is loathe to confront him about any of his behavior. It will be interesting to see how Sherlock’s disdain for womenfolk — and by extension, Watson’s wife, will play out in future stories.

This story has a bit more action than the first one, but sets up in much the same format as SCARLET — Sherlock and Watson investigate the crime and eventually catch the bad guy, and after that, the bad guy tells them exactly how he came to commit the crime and all the clues Sherlock has puzzled out but which still don’t make sense to the reader are explained.

Interestingly, in neither of the stories I’ve read so far does Doyle ever explain the fate of the criminal past their arrest. Both motives have been revenge for past wrongs, though the criminal in SCARLET was far more sympathetic than this one, but exactly what happens to either one is never really explained. They’re taken off to prison and as far as we’re concerned, their story ends there. Neither Sherlock nor Watson seem to express any interest in the criminal’s post-arrest fate: the bad guy’s caught and they’re happy. Sherlock, of course, would only be interested in the chase and be apathetic about the ultimate results, but I am somewhat surprised that Watson, the narrator, never includes any such information at the end. Oh well.

This one ended up taking me longer to read than SCARLET, partly because I’ve been reading other things and partly because of real-world intrusions, but I still enjoyed it. I think I liked A STUDY IN SCARLET better just because I liked the back story behind the crime better, but it was still an enjoyable read.