Review: The First Law trilogy

So how many things have been said for Logen Ninefingers? The answer is 19, according to this post.

I'm going to preface my review of the First Law trilogy by saying if you have the slightest inclination to pick this up, do it with as little prior knowledge as possible for maximum enjoyment. Otherwise, read on if you'd like a little information to help you decide whether to give this 1600-pager a shot. I promise to do my best to avoid obvious spoilers.

I was hankering after something medieval and gritty, and even though I'd enjoyed the Game of Thrones TV show, I was never particularly interested in 'grimdark' books a la Bakker and Donaldson. One, I wasn't sure if the violence would be more than I can tolerate; and two, I prefer darkness in fiction to thrill and to explore interesting themes, rather than bum me out in the service of 'being realistic'.

Over three books, we follow a cast of walking fantasy archetypes: there is Logan Logen, the hirsute barbarian with a murderous reputation; Jezal, the dashing captain and skilled fencer; and Glokta, the unstable and crippled inquisitor. There are wizards, too. Trouble brews in Adua, the heart of the Union, with enemies looming from the north and the south. All that sound familiar? Well, the First Law series wears its subversive heart proudly on its sleeve, as you'll see quickly. The story is written from the third-person limited point of view, with the perspective switching frequently among the multilayered characters.

The Blade Itself is an unexpectedly slow burn, and the ending makes it clear that this is a prologue. Its purpose is clearly to introduce the cast of characters and set up plot points. Normally, I'm reluctant to go through an entire book that is nothing more than setup, but the narration is so compelling and the character voices so distinctive that I didn't mind that at all. I started the next book immediately after finishing this one.

And the next book is excellent. Before They Are Hanged enters full-blown quest territory, and the action kicks up a good few notches. It has the same characters you love/hate/love-to-hate/hate-to-love from The Blade Itself, but with a plot that moves more quickly. The world opens up beyond Adua and the North, and the characters are thrust outside of their comfort zones. A delicious sense that sinister happenings are afoot permeates the whole book.

I feel more ambivalent about Last Argument of Kings. While the narration remains intimately focused on the characters, the stakes are raised to epic proportions. My problem with it is the oddly detached tone—I don't know if it's because the writing gets a little repetitive, or if it's the recurring sense of resignation. By the time I reached the end I was surprised to find that I didn't hate it, though I felt the story had already lost some steam before that point.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised to find many small pockets of hope throughout the trilogy. One central theme is that change for the better is hard, whether on an individual or a societal level. That doesn't stop the characters from trying, in their own stumbling or deeply misguided ways. This tiny spark of cautious optimism stays alive to the very end of the trilogy.

"Then you've got the chance to do better next time."

"Next time?"

"'Course. Doing better next time. That's what life is."

Logen to Jezal, from Before They Are Hanged

Abercrombie's writing style is neither beautiful nor ugly, but it is evocative and instantly recognisable. It serves the story perfectly well: whilst not a thing of beauty in itself, it flows naturally, paints atmospheric scenes, and, above all, creates the darkly humorous tone that carried me through this bleak story. Action scenes are cinematic, impactful, and don't drag on forever. The result is a story that is more cynical than overtly nihilistic.

Want fantasy that ventures outside of medieval European settings? This isn't that, I'm afraid. Adua is part of Midderland, with England Angland to the north, and the Scots Northmen further north still. The Ottoman Empire Gurkhish Empire, led by Uthman-ul-Dosht and the prophet Khalul, encroaches upon Europe's the Union's doorstep. There are citadels and army barracks and parapets, with a healthy dose of feudalism. The geography of the larger world is somewhat more interesting, however, and I personally didn't mind the generic setting.

For all its twists and critiques of heroism, I'd argue that the First Law trilogy can be just as predictable as the type of fantasy it's in conversation with. But ask anyone who enjoyed this series why they like it, and you'll undoubtedly be told it's because of the character work. The First Law is about more than just Logen, Jezal, and Glokta, and no character feels too minor. Most of them are multifaceted, and all of them exude a distinctive personality. Whether you enjoy this series or not will hinge on how much you're invested in the characters: you may not like them, but if you're not interested in what happens to them, you're going to have a rough time.

Thankfully, the First Law isn't as gross I feared it might be (although everyone has a different bar, of course). The physical violence is brutal, there are a few explicit torture scenes, and swearing is a given. There are at least a couple (heh) explicit depictions of consensual sex, and one mercifully short attempted rape. My subjective experience was that they rarely felt gratuitous and never felt like the central focus of the story.

Make no mistake, this was a really fun experience and I'll definitely continue with the rest of Abercrombie's books. Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he's a—you get the idea.

Day 31 of #100DaysToOffload

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