Known for his exceedingly dark and drily humorous fantasy tomes, particularly The First Law series, British novelist Joe Abercrombie recently turned his sights on capturing a younger audience with his latest trilogy, The Shattered Sea. TRAVIS JOHNSON talks with him on the eve of his appearance at the Perth Writers Festival.
Violence. Sex. Deception. Betrayal. Moral ambiguity. Hard choices. More violence. These are the key ingredients of the works of Joe Abercrombie, the British author who took it upon himself to turn the pastoral fantasies of Tolkien and his ilk on their ear with the publication of his first novel, The Blade Itself, in 2006.
He’s not the sort of prose stylist you’d expect to be angling for a teen audience, but that’s exactly what he’s doing with The Shattered Sea series. Currently comprising two volumes, Half A King and Half The World, the books trace the adventures of young Yarvi who, born with a deformed hand, finds himself thrust into a treacherous and dangerous world when he unexpectedly inherits the crown to his barbaric homeland.
Funnily enough, Abercrombie didn’t find writing for a younger audience made much difference to his process or style. “Not a huge difference in a way. I suppose the sort of books I was reading at 12 to 16 were pretty similar to the ones I read as an adult. A lot of them were the very same books. This wasn’t intended necessarily to fit into any category, it was just intended to be the sort of book I would have liked at that age. And really for me, that meant certainly a lighter touch on the sex and violence, a lighter touch on the swearing but, generally speaking, much the same sort of content that I have in my adult ones.
“Mostly it meant a younger protagonist,” he continues. “The protagonists I’ve had in the past tend to be quite used up, world-weary people who’ve been around the block a few times. And also, it was really about the length and the focus, the complexity. I was trying to write something that was shorter, tighter and really had a sort of driving narrative to. Something exciting on every page, with any luck.”
Abercrombie was also mindful of not alienating his core fanbase, who became enamoured of his work because of his dark and dour aesthetic. “I know there are some who prefer the grittier end of things and for them this isn’t as gritty as they like, but I still wanted to write something that would work for the majority of them. And I don’t think there’s any conflict there, necessarily. I think people in that age range don’t want to be treated like kids, they don’t want to be talked down to – they’re kind of experiencing adult life for the first time and they want to read stuff that speaks to those things.”
Abercrombie is in town for the Perth Writers Festival, where he will speak on, among other things, The Hero’s Journey. The irony is not lost on him.
“I like my heroes not very heroic, generally speaking. I read a lot of very shiny, very heroic, very optimistic, very morally simple stuff in the ’80s and ’90s. That tended to be what a lot of commercial fantasy was about. One of the things I wanted was to have darker characters, a bit of a noir sensibility going on. I’m much more interested in anti-heroes than heroes, I think, generally speaking. I wanted to have characters who were willing to do quite dark things, or perhaps forced to do quite dark things in the circumstances in which they find themselves. I always find those people a little more interesting. So, for me, the hero’s journey is as much about discovering the inner villain as the inner hero.”