[Steve DuBois was kind enough to pull this article together for our on-going PULP CONSUMPTION series of articles. Have an idea for an article? Drop us a line through our contact us box. Payment is a digital copy of the issue of your choice.]
There are people who will argue that Joe Abercrombie’s work is the diametric opposite of pulp. Abercrombie is broadly categorized as a “Grimdark” author, and his novels—especially those of his First Law universe—do not show heroic virtue being rewarded. To the extent that there’s a governing intelligence at work, it seems to operate according to the principle of master-manipulator Bayaz: “God smiles upon results.” Make no mistake, Abercrombie’s work is in no sense “superversive”.
Abercrombie ain’t for everybody. He’s sure as hell for me, though. Pulp or no, the First Law novels are full of what makes pulp fun. His plots are consistently action-driven. His gifts for describing violence, and for putting memorable lines in the mouths of memorable people, are elite. His characters are painted in bright colors and possess rich internal lives and complex psychologies. Moreover, while virtue may not be affirmed in Abercrombie’s work, he doesn’t descend to the level of contending that Might Makes Right. Skullduggery may occasionally produce success, as his characters define it, but the more vile specimens in Abercrombie’s rogues’ gallery often arrive at the realization that their victories do not bring them happiness; that what they wanted and what they needed were two very different things. In Abercrombie’s world, joy and fulfillment lie in the cracks between the schemes, in small moments of mutual support and camaraderie, and these small victories are primarily experienced by generally sympathetic characters.
This dynamic has never been more evident than in Abercrombie’s recent short story collection, Sharp Ends, which introduces the pseudo-heroic pairing of Javre and Shevedieh to the Abercrombie pantheon. Javre, the Lioness of Hoskopp, is a sinewy warrior woman of enormous personality and enormous appetites, forever crashing and carousing about the landscape, finding fortunes and immediately losing them in taverns, gambling-halls, and especially all-male brothels. When the cynical former thief Shevedieh encounters the unconscious Javre and takes her in, she soon finds herself swept up in her wake, drawn into conflict with her formidable enemies, and forced to make use of talents that she’d prefer to leave behind her.
The pulp canon is full of dynamic duos, and Javre and Shev are a continuation of that legacy. Fritz Leiber’s influence is clearly present in the combination of a huge sword-swinging barbarian and a small, nimble rogue, but where Fafhrd and the Mouser were an equal pairing, Shev is very much subordinate, a viewpoint character through whom the reader is exposed to Javre’s larger-than-life doings. Indeed, the question of Shev’s specific status—henchman? Sidekick? Partner, even?—is fodder for entertaining bickering between the two. There’s a dash of Xena and Gabrielle here as well, though there’s no sexual tension between Shev and the emphatically-hetero Javre (although Abercrombie does go out of his way to express Shev’s lust for pretty much every other woman the two of them run across). The bickering-partners dynamic between the two has been done before, in instances ranging from Legolas and Gimli through Riggs and Murtaugh, but it’s done exceptionally well here; the guffaw-per-line ratio is quite high.
In truth, the tales do tend to follow a template: the pairing rolls into a new city, town, or wilderness area; Javre’s relentless id and unwillingness to back down leads them into trouble; Shev rolls her eyes at Javre’s antics, is forced to throw knives and/or steal something, and expresses lesbian attraction to someone; a magically-beweaponed woman warrior shows up and identifies herself as one of Javre’s old enemies; Javre give voice to memorable threats and then gets her stab on, wrecking the opposition and destroying the surrounding landscape; the two of them flee the smoking ruins just ahead of a mob of outraged natives. A formula, yes, but sometimes formulae exist for a reason. Abercrombie’s craftsmanship and the outsized personalities of his heroines consistently carry the day.
I can’t promise that any given fantasy reader will love Joe Abercrombie. I do think that I can say that the best introduction to Abercrombie, for pulp fans, is the Javre and Shev stories. Pick up Sharp Ends, if you’re so inclined, and read “Small Kindnesses,” “Skipping Town,” “Two’s Company,” and “Three’s A Crowd.” If you like what you read, proceed from there to the full novel The Blade Itself and read the rest of his work in publication order. It’s a gritty old world that Abercrombie’s created, but I’ve found it to be well worth the visit.
Steve DuBois (@Twitlysium) is a high school teacher and spec-fic author from Kansas City. For more of his fiction and nonfiction, visit http://www.stevedubois.net . His short story “Monsters in Heaven” appeared in issue 4 of Broadswords and Blasters.