Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

The world over is super excited by this upcoming release of Joe Abercrombie's latest, Sharp Ends - a return by the master of modern grimdark to the world of the First Law, featuring a motley collection of short stories about some of the best-loved and also lesser-known fringe characters from his earlier books. I was over the moon to have snagged a copy of an ARC and finished this off yesterday night, reveling in that besmirched, blood-spattered, double-crossing world, in his trademark writing that smacks of gallows-humor drenched in black about  hopeless situations and also touching upon the futility of violence and war beautifully conveyed in that unflinching unapologetic prose of his.

I make no bones about how big a fan I am of Mr. Lord Grimdark! My love and belief stands vindicated by this triumphant return to form - after a brief outing into the world of YA ( and of course, basking in the warm glow of accelerated success) in the Shattered Sea series, I liked the fact that he's back to adult fiction. Without the cordon of having to write for a younger audience ( I really don't think that bothered him while writing the previous series ! but he seems to have shaken off whatever reserves he may have had!) Joe goes the full distance in these stories. Though, short in format, all of them pack quite a meaty punch in its delivery and style and the conveying of that deliciously ironic feeling at the end of each story was a reward in itself.

There are characters here whom we loved and loathed - Glokta, the cripple in all his glorious pompous younger avatar or of course Logen Bloody Ninefingers. Joe starts and ends his collection with these well-loved characters from the First Law trilogy, in a bid to start and round off the stories in a spectacular fashion. He does to an certain extent as we were giddy with anticipation about these stories never told before. But personally, I loved the stories of Shev and Javre best. The notorious duo who featured in the Tough Times All Over story from the Rogues collection ( edited by George RR Martin & Gardner Dozois) get their dull due in this collection. They are much more fleshed out, starting of with an 'origins' story and then paired up in a number of interesting adventures till the last story many years later where they finally bid goodbyes. These should probably feature in a full length novel sometime - I would definitely be a front-line shopper for that one!

There are plenty of stories that I want to croon about - and not stop. The Beautiful Bastard reintroduces the readers to Sand dan Glokta - the vain, conceited bastard that he really is, from his vainglorious younger days. We knew the cripple's history and the reason for all that vileness but it is truly in this story that Joe strips away the veils and get us to face the truth. Presenting a young man at the peak of his physical prowess, reveling in his superiority and then intentionally rubbing the others' faces in the muck, just to see himself as a victor. A cold-hearted man so caught up in the invincibility of his image that he willingly canters off to war - seeing it as a further instrument for glory and self preening. I believe I had begun to like Glokta by the end of the First Law but his younger self is a cocky bastard that I want to take his own torture implements to.

Shev - the self-styled best thief in Westport is a character that fully won my heart and sympathy. Perhaps because we've had several stories to make her acquaintance and watch her character evolve. But her heart is fimrly in the right place, Shev cannot really stand any wrong-doing and this frequently lands her in heaps of trouble. But all of it comes with a price. Like the friendship of Javre, the Lioness of Hoskopp. She was definitely the most intriguing of the lot, what with her fascinating history and complex relationships that lends an aura of mystery. Her scenes were positively thrumming with a kind of manic energy - because you know, violence is not far away. And of course, the fact that she can swing a sword or two endeared her to me, big time.

Shy South's story ('Some desperado') that is backstory to the Red Country was something that I had read in the Dangerous Women anthology. There was Temple's backstory too, something that probably came up in his memories in the Red Country - but beautifully brought out in this story called Hell. One of the more moving touching stories in this collection.

Tough Times All over - was a clever story. Switching POVs to all the different characters who are part of this game, to get their hands on the 'package' - we are left guessing through the story about who are in for what gains, who is getting screwed over and who is screwing whom. As I said, clever.

Abercrombie's characters all follow a pattern here - In spite of being dead tired and exhausted by the hand dealt out by life, not even one of them is giving into the depravity and insanity that defines the world around them. There is always a sliver of good hope and a genuine fire in them to go beyond this muck that threatens to overwhelm them. But sometimes, reality wins out. We are only too craven to take that first step out. These characters are just like you and me. Not super heroes. Not heroes for sure. This forms a wonderful bond with readers like me - and his ability to spin out axioms of life about all those situations that smack of death and disaster still remains uncanny.

But reading similar stories again and again - filled with darkness, black humor and non-stop gritty action - can be exhausting. I had to frequently stop, pull myself out and read something light before I got back to this gore-spattered, treacherous world of First Law.

And of course, there is Logen Bloody Ninefingers at the last. Made a Monster is a poignant story - from the point of view of King Bethod, a man who wanted peace in the North. I will leave you guys to experience Logen once again.

Though I must warn you that, here, all that glitters is never gold. Men are only men. and succumb to the decadence and evil that is the mark of life in these times. The wry observations of life laced with bitter humor are again the gold nuggets you will mine from these stories. Classic Joe Abercrombie, dished out in smaller quantities, that nevertheless sock you right in the guts, Sharp Ends is a winning collection of stories from the world we have all grown to love and loathe at the same time.

Welcome back to the Circle of the World - the depraved blood-soaked alleys of Styria, the cold miserable, unpredictable North, the quiet treacherous streets of Westport, these places seem as familiar as any. This time, though they hold secrets, some old, some new, in those shadowy alcoves. Tread carefully. 


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