Monday, May 8, 2023

Is it Appendix N worthy material? The Sword Itself by Joe Abercrombie (Review & my Appendix N)

This is part 2 of our book review series. "Our" meaning that Eric Diaz over at the wonderful blog Methods & Madmen and yours truly started readig books together and share our thoughts about them on our respective blogs. I'm a little late for this one, so this one better be good. What I can say up front is that I did NOT like the book, and I could go on in detail why it is objectively bad just by comparing it with the book I read after The Blade Itself, which was Ravenheart by David Gemmell ... A book so much better, the thought Abercrombie is a younger author, standing on those mighty shoulders just to take a piss, almost brought me to tears. Instead of  being negative about a bad book, I'll also offer my Appendix N at the end. Never did that for some reason, and this is a good opportunity.


Before I start doing my thing and embrace my feelings for this grotesque mockery of a "dark fantasy story", you might want to go and check out Eric's take on the book here.

If you are just here for the Appendix N, and not for the rant, please feel free to scroll down to that part.

Kudos for writing a book, champ ...

I'm not trying to be cute here. Writing a book, quality not withstanding, is a HUGE task. If you manage that, and even end up with something close to coherent, you deserve praise. There are no two ways about it. It shows dedication and stamina. But to write an atrocity like "The Blade itself" and end up being called an "authority" in the dark fantasy genre is a bit much. Gemmell could have written circles around the guy after having a stroke, it's so bad.

Calm, calm, calm ... All I'm saying is, we have very capable fantasy authors out there writing good books, even setting new standards. Go as far back as the pulps and you already get Burroughs and Lovecraft and Howard and Turner and Moorcook and Farmer and even Heinlein. Add Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis to that and don't forget Tolkien, Peake and Ursula K. Le Guin, voices so strong, they shaped fantasy for centuries to come.

All of them providing more than enough reading material to have you set for a long time before you have any need to look for something good next. And an even longer time before your eyes should fall on Abercrombie's atrocity.

There is free amateur translated Chinese fantasy out there that is better than this shit. Microsoft AI could write a better novel than that, it's that bad.

Anyway, there is better. You go contemporary, you'll find Pratchett there on the high throne all things fantasy. There's also Robert Jordan worth mentioning, as well as Neil Gaiman (although they'd be on different ends of a spectrum that could be considered "fantasy"). Simon R. Green has some very solid entries into the genre, and there are Joel Rosenberg, Garth Nix, Paul Kearney and Philip Pullman to check out as well. Or have you seen what Piers Anthony is offering? Roger Zelazny needs to be on this list, too!

And that's just a superficial look at my book shelves, not even going beyond the native English authors. There's lots of great French fantasy, for instance (if you can track down the books by Gilles Servat, for instance, that's good reading), Poland has a strong scene as well (the Witcher series is quite popular, it seems), and Germany isn't that bad either (Cornelia Funke, Wolfgang Hohlbein, Kai Meyer, Walter Moers ...). Doesn't matter where you go, you'll find something that shines more than this turd. Even if you use google translate to read them, you'd end up having a better reading experience.

It's that bad.

You just want it dark? There's also lots to read: G. R. R. Martin has his cult following, Steven Erikson's Malazan series is among the best dark fantasy you could read, Glen Cook wrote lots of great dark fantasy (although I really love his Garrett P. I. series more). And David Gemmell is up there, of course. As is Stephen R. Donaldson.

What gets a good book recognized? Time!

I always loved to read. Right now I manage to read round about 40 books a year. It'd been more for a long time, it'd been less for a bit of time. I'm also, as you might know, a bookseller. One of the things you learn when becoming a bookseller in Germany is that every category has its jewels, its great books. Doesn't matter if travel or IT or fantasy or, say, women's books, you look long enough, you'll find something worth your while (although I always found it strange that women get their own category of books while men don't).

Another thing is the idea of fixing prices for books, which we still have in Germany. That's a good thing, and I'll tell you why as well. For one, big publishers cannot strong-arm small publishers out of business with price dumping. Seen the other way around, small publishers can make a living with their products and that leads to more diversification. It gives people a chance who wouldn't have one otherwise, which leads to an enrichment in culture.

And those publishers do get their chance here. Maybe less so than 20 years abo, but they still do. Book fairs, for instance, are great for the small press, the book sellers still go through all the catalogues and complimentary copies they get sent, and there still are solicitors sent by publishers that aim to shine a light on new books we'd miss otherwise ... 

... because here's the thing: in Germany we get round about 90.000 new publications per year. Books, all of them. There are school books and all that jazz among them, but still, it is a humongous amount of books. If you were just to trust the industry, you could, for a long time, see a process at work

  • where people write a book, then
  • go to find a publisher (first gate to filter out trivel like that Abercrombie book)
  • if, done, have the book edited, printed and marketed (another filter, if a finer one ... your book may come out, but without getting some love from the publisher, so no one notices), then
  • book sellers get their dirty paws on it, maybe read it (sometimes even before publication), maybe give it a special place in their shop with higher visibility, maybe recommend it, and then
  • people buy it and read it and, ideally, talk about it or buy it again as presents for others or review it, to finally
  • the book gaining some profile in the general public.

And that is a lot of rings to jump through. Usually, the way it is set up, it might be hard on authors, as they have to actually manage to carve out a place among other well established authors, old or contemporary, but for a culture it is what you'd want to have, as (ideally) you'd build excellence on excellence.

Now, we know that things have never been easy like that. You'd have phases of (unfounded) elitism surrounding literature, you'd have societal trends that bring specific needs that wouldn't last but earn a pretty buck in short terms. And still, over time those established systems would produce results. Quality (usually) will be recognized over time.

Nowadays it is somewhat different, however, as all active elements in the list above try to subvert that system for as long as it exists, obviously. We also experience a severe form of cultural stagnation right now as the mainstream will not stop ruminating the last 40 years of the 20th century. To a degree where the only innovation in that regard seems to be to charge old ideas with new ideologies. Established publishers are not immune to those trends, and it shows.

Add to that desktop publishing and self publishing and all the other new and beautiful ways that allow authors to directly market to their audience ... with all the good and bad that entails.

But the far bigger problem, the problem that allowed for something like The Blade Itself to not only be published, but even gaining popularity, is that publishers try to sell us the same ideas again and again by claiming it'd be something "new". It is why you don't see as much Pratchett or Gemmell in book shops anymore. They are dead, so there won't be any new books written by them, which is why they aren't presented as options anymore.

In a way, The Blade Itself is what 60 years of cultural incest looks like. The good genes authors like Tolkien provided diluted over time into something that lacks in every capacity. And that The Hype Machine (tm) never looks back and compares, well, looking at D&D 5e we know what that looks like. Reviewers want free shit and money, they don't really care what they are hustling. Or even what they are saying, most of the time. It's only always just about pushing the next hype in order to milk it.

And it needs to happen fast, too. Good example for that was the finale of Game of Thrones the tv show. You could see what disregarding quality in order to keep the pace HBO deemed necessary lead to: a total train wreck, with the author of the book series not even having a say in how it's going down nor getting a chance to have his final book in the series published.

See what I mean? You can't take 4 years to write a book. You need to have published at least 2 books a year to get a chance.

Those cycles are so fast right now, the only thing still working properly in recognizing something worthwhile is time combined with the experience to sniff out bullshit before buying it. Most of the time that means taking a step or two back from what's happening in book shops and forums, and branching off from titles you know instead. What did authors like who wrote books you liked? What did they recommend? Find opinions you can trust (actually one of the original functions of booksellers, believe it or not), go it from there.

That's at least what I'm doing ... Even so, every now and then you'll encounter a stinker like The Blade Itself. Which is okay, as long as you learn from it and adapt. In this case, I really hope Abercrombie got better in his later books, but I won't find out until some very compelling evidence emerges that it's not all unjustified hype. Same goes for Brandon Sanderson, btw. Another highly overrated fantasy author I won't touch anymore after reading one of his abysmal books.

Sanderson is also bad memories ... [source]
You might wonder at this point what has me so riled up, so here are some highlights. All the characters are one dimensional, there is no development at all, there is no growth or interaction. A character is one thing, and that's what they are throughout. Since they are all "dark" in addition to being flat, you'll end up only getting the superficial trifle of unlikable people.

The world building is atrocious. You have pseudo Scandinavians in the north, pseudo Renaissance in the middle and pseudo Persian in the south, all of them portrayed as their worse cliches and with a bit of magic mixed in to cut even more corners. No variety, no color, no depth just arrogantly uneducated surface perceptions. Not only is it a very low resolution understanding of history, it is also in almost all cases the most boring choice of world building imaginable (a modicum of research would have rectified that, but even that seemed too much effort).

The story is so flat, it can be summarized in two sentences. Instead it is spread over more than 500 pages. And nothing happens. If something interesting happens, it does so between chapters. Example: There's a big fight scene, built up for over two hundred pages ... and it is skipped. What we get, as far as combat goes, is uninspired at best. The dialogue is lacking as well. And all of it is riddled with stupid cliches. The king is fat and unable to function, so others do his job, but they are corrupt meanies ... Oh, also no relevant female characters worth mentioning.

And don't get me started with the "monsters" this book tries to establish. One is introduced in the first chapter, the so-called "flatheads". But they are neither described nor distinguishable from humans and we learn only some 400 pages later that they are supposed to be the creation of some evil wizard back when ... So they are something like orcs. But actually, they are not established beyond being a MacGuffin. No culture, no color, no details ... you get my drift.

As for being "delightfully evil" as the Guardian seems to put it (and whatever that is supposed to mean, btw), I couldn't agree less. Nothing in this book is "evil". I've seen evil (listen to her story, for instance ... the part with the dog? that's pure evil), this ain't it, and I actually despise people that try to make "evil" look "cool". Who wouldn't after seeing what evil does?

It is an awful book. Not recommended, and people doing so should be regarded with suspicion, imho.

Concessions ...

Let me be clear: I don't regret one word I wrote about The Sword Itself. It is a bad book, published in a cruel marketing scheme that aims for quantity before quality, that wants you to buy, not necessarily to read or even think and compare, and is feeding a whole industry that is more about looking good while standing in front of a wall of books than about actually talking shop.

Customers are fucked with this scheme, and usually you won't have more than one in five people not going along with anything like this and being open about it. 20% will just drink the cool aid, 60% will not challenge it, and 20% will be really pissed when falling for books like that or the hype surrounding them.

That said, I do recognize that hyped books like this are one way to motivate newbies into looking for other books in the same genre, which will, which MUST lead to better options sooner or later. So if you don't know better and ended up liking the book, not all is lost.

I'll also concede that taste is an evolving phenomenon. The more you read, the more refined your taste will end up being. Not sure I could stomach some of the books I liked, say, 30 years ago, and I might, after rereading some, change my opinion on others. All part of the process. For sure.

I'm also willing to concede that taste is a spectrum. To a degree, and with the constraints, that "popular" doesn't mean "good" and that cultural standards are necessary to get some evolution going, even only to have that evolution challenge the standards. Same goes for opinions, while we are at it, as it is easy to see why you would not just trust anyone, and instead hope that the standards you have for opinions actually bring good results in your everyday life. You wouldn't trust a six year old with their opinion on what car to buy, for instance. 

Which has nothing to do with Abercrombie's writing here, as that's just unacceptable all around. 


Anyway, enough of this. You wanna see why this is a bad book, and mine or Eric's take aren't enough, check out the one star reviews over at good reads. They seem to sum it up well. I'd rather end this with something more productive and positive! Hence ...

My Appendix N

It is always fun to learn what inspires others, so I decided to share what works inspire my writing and game design (as far as I'm aware of it). It is also in the hope that others will do the same. I'm sure it has been an OSR trend at some point in the past. Even so, remind me then, why not?

A few caveats: I'll go with "inspirational and educational" first, so this might end up including creators of movies and music instead of "just" authors. I'm reluctant to share works I know to be only available in German, or at least not in English, because what would be the point of you knowing I liked something that is completely out of reach for you? If you are interested in that, say so in the comments and I will oblige.

I'll also order it alphabetically within different groupings and I'll spare you recommendations for Tolkien, Herbert and K. Le Guin, authors you'll still easily find in well sorted book shops anyway (and if I end up recommending another classic, then I liked it more, hehe). No hierarchy is intended, nor do I believe that this trumps the original Appendix N (which is very much its own thing). I think it is a fun thing to do, with a good chance of being informational for people*.


Richard Adams -  Watership Down is one of the great adventure stories out there. A must read, imo.

Peter S. Beagle - Mainly for The Last Unicorn. He caught magic in a bottle there.

Glen Cook - While all his other work is very well worth checking out, the Garrett P. I. books are what brought me joy for decades (I'm a sucker for "fantasy noir" that is also funny). Great world, great voice, fantastic characters, and funny as well.

Warren Ellis - Transmetropolitan (comic) is the ultimate cyberpunk story, imho. And he did way more great work than that. Wrote some really weird and funny books, too: check out Crooked Little Vein for a wild ride.

Steven Erikson - Malazan Book of the Fallen ... this series had me laughing and crying and thinking. And binge reading hundreds of pages in sleepless nights (to be young again ...). Such impressive world building, mixed in with epic battles and complex characters. Can't recommend enough.

Philip José Farmer - Have yet to read a book penned by him I didn't enjoy. So many great ideas through all genres.

Neil Gaiman - Great comics, great books. My favorites are: Neverwhere (proper dungeon under London), Stardust (great story, made for a great movie, too!) and The Graveyard Book (a child growing up among the ghosts of a graveyard ... what's not to like?!).

David Gemmell - Start with Knights of Dark Renown, his second novel, and the Drenai Saga ... go from there. His last books are so well written, it is a marvel to behold.

William Gibson - Such an unique and innovative voice ... All his books are demanding and fun experiences.

Katharine Kerr - I immensely enjoyed here Celtic fantasy series about reincarnating souls, the Deverry Cycle ... very unique way of telling stories. And she's rpg nobility, too! Co-wrote an AD&D module and some Pendragon adventures, among other things (check out her wiki ...).

Michael de Larrabeiti - The Borribles is one of the more obscure titles in this list, but still a great trilogy. As far as adventure stories go, I'd rank it up there with Watership Down, actually.

Garth Nix - The Abhorsen Books (Old Kingdom) are why I wanted him on this list. It is among the best world building out there (alternate steampunk UK with old magic and zombies). And he wrote a lot more than that ...

Mervyn Peake - Gormenghast is poetic and funny and weird ... believe people telling you those books are among the best out there. They are.

Terry Pratchett - His Discworld books are among the best fantasy you can read. Funny, humane, stimulating ... and full of great characters. But I guess everyone knows that (still had to make the list).

Joel Rosenberg - The Guardian of the Flame is a series of books about a group of role-playing gamers that magically gets transported to the world of their gamemaster and into the bodies of their characters. If that doesn't sell you for the books, it's well written, too.

James Stoddard - The three books that make the Evenmere series are an alternate take to the idea of an endlessly sprawling dungeon world (a mansion so big, it has kingdoms in the lower levels). Fantastic world building and storytelling.

Jack Vance - The only author I learned about through the original Appendix N (the rest I had heard about through other channels), but such a great discovery. I have yet to read a book by Vance I didn't like. All of it fascinating and entertaining, not only the Dying Earth books.

T. H. White - The Once and Future King is another classic series that made the list. Although the first one is the most famous (for the obvious reason that Disney made an animated version of it), I loved all four books (if for different reasons, as each change tone as Arthur ages).

Roger Zelazny - The Chronicles of Amber books ... I binged an omnibus of the first five books of this series when I was 13. A great and epic story about powerful plane shifting nobles fighting The Court of Chaos.


Charles Bukowski - So much talent, always a great read.

Kinky Friedman - Surreal crime fiction, very drug induced, pretty weird, always funny.

Harper Lee - I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, so it made the list.

Elmore Leonard - Among the best writing out there. Good reading, all of it (and some great movies and TV series as well!)

Chuck Palahniuk - Everyone knows Fight Club, the movie. He wrote the book and you could guess by that alone that he's as weird an author as they come. I love him for it. No book is like the other and they all are wild rides into the unknown and unthought.  Funny, too.


Ken Webster - The Vertical Plane is the over four decades old account of a "haunting" that hasn't been debunked yet. No one reads this (or looks into this) that doesn't go away thinking "This might actually have happened ... but what the fuck would that mean for our understanding of reality!?". One of the best books I ever read, I kid you not.

Jeffrey John Kripal - Authors of the Impossible is another one of those books that pushes the boundaries of reality. Highly recommended.

Truddi Chase - When Rabbit Howls is a book written as the collaborative effort of the roughly 100 souls of Trudi Chase, a very well documented case of multiple personality disorder. And a very tough read that is VERY hard to stomach, but all the same endlessly fascinating.


Lao Tse - The Tao Te Ching introduced me to a new and different way of thinking compared to what I was used to, growing up in 90s Germany. I still read and re-read it (different translations, different languages ... stuff like that) and it inspires my thinking to this day.

Chuang Tse - If you read the Tao Te Ching, checking out Zhuangzi is the next logical step. And also, for me at least, a life-long exercise.

I Ching - Basically the shamanistic roots of the Taoist books quoted above, and a great oracle (in my experience). You want to play around with it, check it out here.

The Edda - The older I get, the more I appreciate that these old stories are attempts to describe a long gone reality, and as such they are immensely precious. The Edda especially so, since it is about the pre-history of Europe and as such of great interest to me.


Wes Anderson - A director with such a distinct and beautiful voice that he had to make the list. Movies I grew up with, so to say. some are outright perfect, all of them have something magical (personal favorites right now are Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch).

David Lynch - Yeah, he pushes all the buttons. I love Twin Peaks. All of it (third season was ... not what anyone expected, which is what Lynch aimed for). Dune is a piece of art (and one wonders what he'd done with it if the studio hadn't interferred!). Blue Velvet was the movie I shouldn't have seen as a kid ... Mulholland Drive is such a trip. I love it all.

Shinichirō Watanabe - The original Cowboy Bebop (not the live-action atrocity that is on Netflix) and Samurai Champloo are fan favorites everyone should have seen. But all his anime series are fantastic for one reason or another, and I have a special weak spot for the genius that is Space Dandy. So much fun.


Edvard Grieg - Norwegian Composer, mostly know for his Peer Gynt Suite. Such a great entry point for learning about classic music.

Tom Waits - I discovered him late in his career and worked my way through all of it. A great musician, of course, but where he always gets me is the lyrics. So inspirational. Favorites of all time are the albums Alice, Blood Money and Real Gone.

Gautier Serre (IGORRR) - Strangest for last, I guess. A weird mix of all musical genres I like. Always fresh, always different, very complex ... fun all around! Here, check it out.

So this is where it ends, the strange tour through what inspired me for the last decades. I'm pretty sure I missed something and it'll come to me later ... It's also part of a journey I'm still on, of course. My reading list is HUGE, and I'm bound to discover more gems like the above (at least I hope so). I already mentioned my approach: look closer at what you like and follow the bread crumbs.

Either way, 37 entries that should keep one busy for a long time. I hope you all found something you didn't know but is interesting enough to follow up on. I definitely had fun with all of it. Just one more thing before I wrap this up: I'm sure all the people linked above had their flaws. I just don't care. What I shared here is in appreciation of their art, of the positive marks they left on the world. Everything else is just noise. 

So what's your guys' Appendix N? What did you find here that intrigues you?

* Monkey Business and ORWELL both feature lists like that to help readers getting an idea where I'm coming from, same is the case for be67 (as shown here).