Fresh from the success of his Shattered Seas trilogy, Joe Abercrombie has returned to the world of the First Law series with Sharp Ends, a collection of thirteen short stories. Some have seen print before – either in anthologies or as extras at the back of novels – but more than half are new to this volume.
It's fair to say that Abercrombie took the fantasy genre by storm ten years ago with his debut The Blade Itself, and the tone of that and his future work would become core texts of the Grimdark sub-genre. Reading that book a decade ago sent a thrill through many readers of fantasy, who sensed something special was in the making, and Sharp Ends brings back that sense of wonder. The first story centres on someone who features heavily in The First Law series, as does the last, and is saved from being self-indulgent by Abercrombie's dark wit. It's fascinating to see these two characters from the eyes of others – whether they be admired or downright terrified – giving further depth to his creations.
Two newer characters –Javre and Shev – form the spine of this collection, featuring in five of the stories. By setting the tales in chronological order (except the very last, for reasons which do become apparent) Sharp Ends charts the relationship between this fighter and thief duo. They're great; a pair of women that bring laughs, disaster, betrayal and bloodshed aplenty, along with the intimate moments that Abercrombie can do so well.
There might not be much sorcery in the stories, but there's magic in Abercrombie’s way with words; his prose almost borders the poetic and he has an uncanny gift of being able to put the reader right in the characters heads, even in stories where the point of view switches multiple times. However powerful or incompetent, these are people with hopes and dreams, not all of them fulfilled, some of them not quite what they expected and disappointing. Yet, the deeper the darkness, the stronger the light; there is hope, in the form of friendship, honour and trust. They may be rare commodities here, but that makes them more precious and worth the sacrifices, some of which may find even the most hardened readers having to wipe away a stray tear.
The consistently high standard of the stories in Sharp Ends make it a triumph. Granted, readers would be advised to acquaint themselves with their setting, but anyone who was excited by Abercrombie's debut ten years ago will feel those butterflies again. It's a masterful approach, displaying everything that's great about the short story format, from a writer at the height of his powers.
SHARP ENDS: TALES FROM THE WORLD OF THE FIRST LAW / AUTHOR: JOE ABERCROMBIE / PUBLISHER: GOLLANCZ / RELEASE DATE: 26TH APRIL