Apostates and Old Men: Abercrombie and Abraham

I just picked up a couple of new (to me) books by two authors I admire: The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie, and The Dragon’s Path, by Daniel Abraham. Curious to compare styles, I read the first chapters of each back-to-back. As expected, both snagged my attention immediately; it’s going to be tough deciding which book I finish first. The differences in authorial approach, however, are revealing.

As in some of his earlier books, Abercrombie relies heavily on voice. The initial words are, in fact, a quote: “Too old for this shit.” Compare with the opening sentence of Abraham’s novel: “The apostate pressed himself into the shadows of the rock and prayed to nothing in particular that the things riding mules in the pass below him would not look up.” As it turns out, the apostate has his own interesting voice, one that beings to emerge over the course of the chapter, but Abraham is more interested, right here at the outset, in pulling us into his story through what appear to be some pretty wide-reaching mysteries: Why is this guy an apostate? An apostate from what? What things are riding the mules, and why are they referred to as ‘things’?

Abercrombie, for his part, capitalizes on his ability to paint sharp, engaging portraits by introducing us to almost a dozen characters in this first chapter. It’s a bold move, as it risks confusing the reader, but, given his skill with dialogue and his keen eye for unique and telling detail, he manages to pull it off. By the time the chapter finished, I found myself eager to follow these people for a few hundred more pages. Abraham, by contrast, only gives us one other character in the first chapter. Instead, we get even more material that can only be described as ‘epic’: spiders in the blood, swords that kill their users, a spider goddess, and thirteen humanoid races. This is great stuff, the kind of material that whets my appetite, and how different from Abercrombie, who, in his first chapter, eschews almost all supernatural or magical elements, choosing instead to give us some weary and confused warriors verbally sparring over a hill.

Both writers are working in the third person limited point of view, also known as free indirect style. Abercrombie, however, aligns his authorial voice far more closely with that of his POV character than Abraham, going so far as to amend spelling to capture the relevant dialect. You can feel the pull towards first-person narration here, especially at the start, although as the exigencies of introducing so many characters start to press down, his own authorial attention decouples slightly from the attention of the POV character; if this sounds like a mistake, it’s not. It’s a skillful and nuanced approached to a tricky technical challenge. Abraham’s main challenge is the amount of world-building and back-story that he wants to pack into the first chapter. Long exposition can get tedious, but Abraham’s a good enough writer to weave it skillfully into the larger narrative of flight and evasion, so we don’t bog down.

Abercrombie is known for his dark humor, but I very much enjoyed the wit in Abraham’s opening chapter as well. Even terrified, even running for his life, the apostate isn’t above a quip. Of his pursuers, the ones with the uber-deadly swords, he thinks, wryly; “At least it was flattering to be taken seriously.”

This is just a glance at the two books, both of which seem very promising. I’m curious to hear from others which style appeals more and why. For my part, I wouldn’t want to have to pick.