It was in his series of linked novels collectively known as the First Law where Joe Abercrombie made his name, yet he has not visited those lands in four years since Shy South was forced to venture to the Red Country to rescue her kidnapped siblings, having spent his time instead around the Shattered Sea. Having sent a kingaround the world to stop a war, he now returns to the world of the First Law with a collection of thirteen stories, six previously published in either fantasy anthologies or as extras in the first editions of his novels exclusively through Waterstones.
Opening with A Beautiful Bastard, it sets the tone for those who may be unfamiliar with Abercrombie’s bloody and dirty low fantasy, as quartermaster Salem Rews watches a young, handsome, able bodied and capable but arrogant officer, in the fencing ring, Colonel Sand dan Glokta, but in a matter of pages joy turns to apprehension to fear, every word as carefully choreographed as the thrusts of the blades and parries of the duel.
No good deed goes unpunished on the streets of Westport, and Small Kindnesses could be the undoing of reformed thief Shev when she finds an unconscious woman in the door of her smoking den shortly before two visitations, both inviting her to resume her life of crime, the second more forcefully.
“In hard times, soft thoughts can kill you quicker than the plague,” is the lesson of The Fool Jobs undertaken by Curnden Craw and his crew, familiar to those who have previously encountered The Heroes. A mismatched bunch out in the wilds on a badly planned raid to retrieve an unspecified item on the promise that “they’ll know it when they see it,” each has a purpose and they’re good at it, usually some form of violence, though inevitably the business of thievery turns red all too swiftly.
Catching up with Shev and her former houseguest Javre in the summer of 575 as they are Skipping Town again, the statuesque warrior of Thond and the reluctant thief are quite the double act, even as Javre’s past catches up with her and violence once again ensues. Emphasising the unending violence of the land, battle and death features in most every tale, no more so than in Hell, the siege of Dagoska as depicted in Before They Are Hanged as witnessed from within the walls of the city by a young thief turned priestly novitiate called Temple, many years before he travelled the Red Country.
Shev and Javre continue to amuse, but even when Two’s Company the strain begins to show as they cross the unforgiving wilderness of the far north, followed from behind and blocked ahead by Whirrun of Bligh, two years after the raid of The Fool Jobs, while Wrong Time, Wrong Place is a triptych of discrete episodes across the land as things go awry for an array of characters in diverse situations, entertaining for the reader, less so for the participants, all of them bystanders in a game of revenge of played by Monza Murcatto which was Best Served Cold.
Shy South finds herself playing the role of Some Desperado, hotly pursued by bandits and finding herself at the end of the trail with few weapons and scant chances, but refusing to go down without a fight, while history records that later that same year the Union Army was on the move Yesterday, Near a Village Called Bardem, and bad things came of it, a farmer watching his crops destroyed, fearful for his life and that of his young children, as Royal Observer Bremner dan Gorst and his charges came under the attack of a band of Northmen.
Three’s A Crowd is the last tale dedicated to the continuing awkward friendship of Shev and Javre, while Freedom! is a hagiographic pastiche of the respected, admired and eternally honourable statesman, swordsman, warrior poet and soldier of fortune Nicoma Cosca as he liberates the besieged village of Averstock.
It’s Tough Times All Over in the town of Sipani in the spring of 592, a tag-team tale of a valuable package passed from hand to hand through skulduggery, distraction and despicable means, before time rolls back to the summer of 570 as the northern warlord Bethod attempts to make peace with his sworn enemy, his efforts hampered by the knowledge that he has Made a Monster of the man who was once his best friend but who now carries the name the Bloody-Nine.
There is a sense that, as many of these characters have been established in the six published novels of the First Law world that these are snapshots of lives; while this means that the characters are firm in Abercrombie’s mind, the pieces themselves sometimes feel as though they are either preludes to a grander action elsewhere or the conclusion of an adventure, usually one which has strayed far from the plan, where a writer who concentrated solely on shorter fiction might have constructed them differently.
This is not to say that all are not enjoyable nor that any feel in any way unfinished, discarded leftovers of a harsh editing session: Abercrombie’s prose is bright and piercing as a blade and has a jaunty and unrelenting momentum, perhaps even more so given the revolving door of dramatis personae and locales, many conveniently featured on the endpaper.
Collectively these pieces are well named, sharp ends for the characters whose lives will come to pointed conclusions and sharp ends in the swords, daggers and axes by which they will meet those fates, yet there is an optimism which runs through the book, constant reminders that no matter how bad any situation is the worst thing which anyone can do is accept it and let their fate come unchallenged, that the anticipated outcome can always be shifted by skill, by determination, or simply by sheer luck.