A version of this post originally appeared on March 25, 2023.
I read Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea trilogy: Half a King, Half the World, and Half a War, capably narrated by John Keating.
The books are marketed as grimdark fantasy, and you can tell the setting is an alternative, medievalesque Scandinavia, though more than anything they feel like adventure stories. The pace is go-go-go, and the battles are plentiful. Be prepared for some extremely descriptive scenes of violence, though no sexual violence. Thank you for that, Mr. Abercrombie.
Prince Yarvi is prepared to enter the ministry, where he will learn to advise kings, when his father and brother are killed in an ambush. No one is happy about this. Because of a birth defect, Yarvi has only one functional hand. This shouldn't matter. He's a head of state, not a concert pianist. But people are not enlightened in their understanding of disability.
Abercrombie's portrayal of disability is unusually good. Yarvi doesn't become a Magical Disabled Person. He doesn't develop special abilities to compensate. His life is much harder, and people treat him poorly.
The storytelling is strong, and more than anything, that's what sells books--but there are some places where the prose could have been stronger. I know you guys are sick of hearing me talk about this, but the dialogue tags, I swear. If I took a drink every time someone murmured, I'd have wound up in the emergency room, getting my stomach pumped. There were also a ton of mutterings, mumblings, and growlings.
A snarl is an inarticulate noise. It is cool to take poetic license with that occasionally, but if you repeatedly insist on using it as a dialogue tag, it becomes a tic.
"I'm going to chop your fucking head off," she snarled.
"I'm going to chop your fucking head off," she said.
Or even better:
"I'm going to chop your fucking head off." She raised her axe to his temple.
Not everyone gets fussy about overused words (or maybe y'all are just better at tolerating alcohol poisoning) but strong prose craft leads to stronger characters, more emotional depth, and more meaningful plot development. Strong prose supports strong action, and makes you care when a secondary character takes an axe to his temple.
Another example: two of the women characters are warriors. To underscore their gender defiance, they are sometimes depicted as picking their noses and doing interesting things with the boogers. This can work once, but only once. Five or six times in a series? That's a bit much. Do it once to make your point, then settle back.
But again: these books have strong storytelling with a cast of well developed primary characters, and I have no hesitation recommending them if you're looking for violent, action-packed books that are light on the fantasy and heavy on the political intrigue.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.