Currently Reading

Currently Reading: The Undivided by Jennifer Fallon

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

The First Law Trilogy – Joe Abercrombie
- The Blade Itself (Published 2006)
- Before They Are Hanged (Published 2007)
- Last Argument of Kings (Published 2008)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Epic (at least, in the end)
Completed: February 27 2010

For those in the mood to be uplifted by the heroics of a legendary hero, who defies the odds and overcomes his own flaws to save the world… move along, nothing to see here. Say one thing about Joe Abercrombie, say he’s cynical.

Joe Abercrombie’s trilogy belongs to the (not so) new wave of Fantasy made popular by George R. R. Martin in which wounds get infected, people need to piss (Abercrombie’s word) at unhelpful times and significant characters die, often without warning. And it’s great. It’s true to the world, and well, you have to be realistic.

The pace of the story also rockets along. There’s so much energy and fun (albeit of the twisted kind more often than I’d care to admit). Abercrombie tells a big story in a short space of time, relative to the epic sub-genre. It’s a manageable read for casual fans of Fantasy that tremble in terror at the prospect of The Wheel of Time.

This series is consciously structured as a trilogy. The Blade Itself could not stand on its own, unlike many first books of series in the genre (which authors didn’t necessarily intend to expand). There are three acts spread appropriately across the three books, and while there may be subplots resolved along the way there is nothing self-contained about the books. I came late to the party so I could finish and move immediately into the next book (which I did eagerly – reading the whole series in just over a week). The Blade Itself introduces the characters and the primary conflict is ultimately revealed towards the end of the book, dwarfing the earlier established sub-plots. Before They Are Hanged unsurprisingly expands the scope, with characters visiting other lands, cultures and people… and killing them.

Like many big series, the final payoff doesn’t quite match up to the build up, but in this case it’s because the build up was just so good. The dénouement is similarly disappointing but it’s because it’s real. It’s a reasonable conclusion (or rather, lack of) to the stories of the main characters. Abercrombie doesn’t betray the promises of his characters by giving them false, happy endings (or anything resembling successful romances). I hated it, and felt like Last Argument of Kings was the weakest of the three books. Then I loved it. Now I’m not so sure. Abercrombie may have pushed the cynicism of recent fantasy as close to the line of completely alienating the reader, but his genius is in staying right on that line.

In terms of plot the story has genuine epic scope. The series gets its name from the First Law of Magic – people must not touch the ‘other side’ where all the evil demon stuff is. Naturally people do. They break the Second Law too, which forbids eating the flesh of men. The epic conflict of magical forces is ironically and effectively portrayed as the more intimate plot. Abercrombie has invented a world in which even the greatest heroes of mythology are deeply flawed. The central, focused metaphysical plot is nicely contrasted with the business of kingdoms, invasions and wars which ultimately consumes most of the viewpoint characters.

The harshness of the world allows for small, realistic gestures of kindness and heroism to appear powerful and endear you to otherwise unsympathetic characters, many of whom commit or have committed atrocities. All of the main characters are scarred by their pasts, some literally and some more than others. Even Jezal, the naïve and arrogant young soldier is burdened by the upbringing that has made him so self-centred. It was often hilarious to see Jezal build things up in his mind, and in the mind of the reader, only to have their shallowness and insignificance exposed.

Characterisation is definitely one of Abercrombie’s strengths, as is the dialogue it allows him to capture so believably. He has several significant viewpoint characters and I have never read a book where it was so easy to distinguish between voices. He does use some ‘cheats’ - you have to be realistic - such as repeated phrases and dialect, but they work for him where for other authors they may become frustrating.

On the subject of character I have three words. San dan Glokta. Three more words. Best character ever. Glokta is one of the most complex and intriguingly twisted characters that I have read recently. Plenty of people will probably find Glokta a little too self-aware, not in the sense that Abercrombie breaks the fourth wall, but Glokta can seem too self-assured and has significant amounts of italicized internal dialogue. At one point he has the supernatural world that underpins all of the events in the story thrust in his face, and he is appropriately dismayed, but recovers from the experience very quickly.

There is a point to this behaviour – Glokta has been through hell, and nothing scares him because nothing he is threatened with compares to his past. Even more to the point, every time his arc threatens to head down a well-worn path it dodges away in a different direction. Glokta is the character that seems to understand the most and is probably the character whose personality and experiences are the most indicative of the ‘morality’ of Abercrombie’s world. Logen Ninefingers is also a very original and credible character, though I found the device of the Bloody-Nine, which I won’t spoil, to be irritatingly random and twisted. I mean, I know that was the point. When it was first used I was overwhelmed by how awesome it was, but it lost its luster as the author intended.

Abercrombie has succeeded in crafting an enjoyable story through the perspectives of a series of characters that can only be described as bastards. Even if I was unsympathetic to their personal sufferings (which they more or less cause for themselves) I was intrigued. The whole trilogy was a genuine page-turner and gets 4.5 stars from me.

Read it – if you despair that George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is in fact the infamous Song that Never Ends, and you want to read a gritty, uncompromising series that is actually finished.
Don’t read it – if you want enjoyable, escapist High Fantasy, and the map that usually accompanies such tales. Also, if you aren’t an adult.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, fully agree. Was fascinating that each character was their own antagonist.