Joe Abercrombie is a relative newcomer to Fantasy literature circles, having published three books in his series, The First Law. Containing The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument Of Kings, Abercrombie delivers a tight-knit, gritty and above all rewarding read. For the first time in a while I found myself reading late into the night, unwilling to stop for mere sleep.
The First Law is a Fantasy series but not in the typical Fantasy sense. If you’re expecting Elves mincing about in tight fitting clothing, admiring each others bows or Dwarfs stamping around grumbling, making tired beard jokes and mining for some mysteriously extra-strong metal you’ll be disappointed.
The First Law is gritty. It has characters that at first glance seem tired archetypes of Fantasy literature, a torture victim turned torture, a self obsessed young noble military officer, the barbarian from the snowy North, and the First of the Magi. Don’t let the descriptions on the back of the books fool you. As the series develop, so do the characters and they follow paths that make sense based on their motivations and what’s happening in the world around them. It’s refreshing to see characters act sanely as if they were responding to events in their world, not to the authors need to forward the plot and reach a predetermined point.
I very much enjoyed Abercrombie’s writing style. Somewhere between juicy pulp fantasy and action packed literate fiction. The writing is intelligent enough to appeal to me while retaining that fast paced, got to find out what’s happening next feel. Abercrombie switches off through six or so character views throughout the series, with each character averaging about ten to fifteen pages at a go. This means tight pacing and it’s also a useful device to keep the reader returning for more. What’s more, Abercrombie manages this without giving his audience a contrived cliff hanger ending at each chapter. They end on natural notes that peak our interest without making us feel like we’ve been cheated out of the continuing story and will have to slog ahead to pick it up again later.
I’ve heard these books described as ‘blackly humorous’ which I find interesting. While there is humor to be found I didn’t find these books to be a laugh out loud romp. There were a few chuckles – particularly at the character of Glotka the torturer who’s outlook on life is rather unique. If you’re looking to be waking your spouse up at night with laughter, you may not find that in these books.
The Blade Itself, the first book in this series is the weakest. This isn’t to say that it’s not done well but Abercrombie is visibly growing as a writer while writing this book. You can feel everything getting tighter as the story moves forward. He starts off as a decent writer and finishes this book as a very good writer with a firm grasp of where he wants to go from here.
This first book serves as an introduction to the characters and plays to a bit of world building. All of the major plot points for the series make an appearance but aren’t necessarily connecting in this first volume. There are some good action scenes – which Abercrombie puts forth with a bloody and realistic style that reminds me a bit of S. M. Stirling’s work. There’s certainly enough meat to keep you reading in the first half of the book but the second half is where the pacing really picks up (and it continues throughout the rest of the series).
From the book:
Logen Ninefingers, a barbarian on the run from an ex-employer who’s now king of the North, finds his loyalties complicated when he switches sides and becomes a valuable source of intel to the beleaguered Union. Glokta, a torture victim turned torturer, gets roped into securing the Union’s position against both the invading Northmen and the incompetent Union king and council, and ruthlessly wields his skills in attempts to weed out traitors. Foppish Jezal, a preternaturally excellent swordsman, works to win the contest to become the Union champion, thanks to a little help from Bayaz, a mage with his own agenda.
Abercrombie spends some time developing these characters, most of whom interact with each other at some point in the book before they split up into several groups and go their separate ways. At the conclusion of book one, I was hooked.
The second book, Before They Are Hanged picks up right after The Blade Itself. It starts off running and never stops, never looks back. Here is where Abercrombie really hits his stride. Complicated plotting emerges – complicated enough to fascinate without losing the reader in a mire of obscure characters and events. Where Abercrombie’s characters stand out is that they do not see the world in black and white nor do they appear to the reader as black and white either. They’re dynamic, living in a dynamic world where they are forced to make hard choices.
The second book finds our characters far flung from the Union itself, trying to manage diametrically opposed generals in the fields of the North, venturing to the end of the earth in search of a potentially lethal solution to a potential invasion from a class of magicians who get their power from eating humans and trying to fend of a siege of gigantic proportions in the South.
Last Argument of Kings, the final volume in the trilogy comes to a brilliant conclusion, although I dare say it will leave a few folks wanting a different ending. The series doesn’t necessarily end on a high note – but again it’s not high Fantasy we’re talking about here. Like Logen Ninefingers says “You have to be realistic”. There’s no fairy tale ending – although the majority of the plot points are brought to their conclusions (sometimes unexpected but fitting conclusions) there are a few that are left hanging. The possibility of more books set in Abercrombie’s universe is certainly there.
If you are looking for a great Fantasy series that is able to step outside of the Fantasy box and really shine as a work of writing I’d highly recommend this series. As long as you’re not hooked on beautiful and complete Tolkienesque endings. These characters exist in a cynical world and the ending of this particular story works in that vein. Having said that, I was completely satisfied with the ending, even a bit thankful that Abercrombie trusts his audience enough to be able to end not on a high note but on a note that is realistic within the settings of his world.
[tags]literature, fantasy, the first law[/tags]