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The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
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Book Name: The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Publisher(s): Gollancz
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Dark Fantasy
Release Date: 2006 - 2008

The term ‘gritty’ is quickly becoming overused in fantasy and it’s all thanks to Joe Abercrombie. Certainly, if you look at who earned its first usage and to this day remains at the forefront of ‘gritty fantasy’ it is Mr. Abercrombie. It seems that the term has been on the tip of blogger’s and reviewer’s tongues since the release of the first book in this series, The Blade Itself, in 2006. Things got grittier in book two, Before They Are Hanged, and grittier still in book three Last Argument of Kings. But…well…What does it mean? The easiest way for me to explain it is tell you about Joe’s series and then if you are still wondering at the end…well, we’ll cover it at the end. Sound good? Cool, let’s begin!

I firstly need to tell you that the series as a whole is hugely original. Essentially, this is the tale of a strange and mysterious wizard of unknown origins who forms a band of unlikely heroes from various races to complete a seemingly impossible task. No-no, wait – it is original I swear! The story as a complete piece may not sound that original – but it’s the way it is told, the unforgettable characters and the epic sub-plots that weave together and split apart consistently through it that really make The First Law one of the finest series to have emerged in recent years.

The_First_Law_Trilogy

To put this piece in historical context (that’s what us literary scholars do you see) fantasy really was getting a little stale. So much so, that things were looking more and more likely to branch off down the speculative fiction route (the China Mieville style fantasy). Martin, Brooks, Anderson, Williams and Gavriel Kay were still publishing the best sellers they always had, but they were all those big long epics and all fell in well with what came before them so to speak.

Then came The First Law Trilogy. As a fantasy fan, it was like nothing you’ve ever read before. You weren’t following noblemen who you could call heroes, but you weren’t following villains either. Not even anti-heroes.

FedMore and more characters join the cast throughout the First Law Trilogy, however our initial five ‘companions’ are Logan – a barbarian who has been in one scrap too many and following a falling out with his King has now been split from his companions. Sand dan Glokta – a once fearsome warrior who is now trapped within his useless crippled body. Jezal dan Luthar, fencing extraordinaire who, for lack of a better word, is up himself and for a man who has never swung a real sword in his life – far too confident. Bayaz – a strange old mage who seems to have some kind of plan in mind for the other characters. Finally, we have a character known as Ferro – a strange one her…she likes being dirty and killing people. She’ll grow on you though.

The characters certainly rule the story, but there is a living, breathing world that resembles our own underneath them. We are made aware of three nations that are spread across their world – The Union, The Gurkish Empire and the Northmen. The Union are more upper-class and noble and their war is currently with the Northmen, who are a Barbarian type race. It seems the Northmen’s King is keen to acquire some regions of the Union’s Empire, but they of course are having none of it. The Gurkish seem to have risen more recently, but there is much mysteriousness to their brutality and concern about how they’ve gotten so strong so quickly.

The story of North vs Union vs Gurkish is always there and the characters share various roles within, but essentially you are following the characters as opposed to the war. Men and women at war who themselves are not even sure whether they are the good guys or the bad guys. They, like us as readers, change their views on this numerous times throughout the book. And I think the questions that Abercrombie raises in regards to ‘What is good and what is bad?’ and ‘Who decides either way?’ will stay with you for a long time following the series.

GloktaThe reason these questions press upon us so heavily is that Joe Abercrombie takes us right down deep into the trenches with these characters and they are characters we learn to love. We follow their progress and share their inner-monologue to a pretty much unrivalled level of depth. Most people like the character of Logan. Logan was King Bethod’s most feared man. He has killed countless people with his combat skills and won numerous duels on behalf of the King. Since then though, he has fallen out with the Northern King and completely lost all that is familiar to him. He seems to have no purpose until Bayaz picks him up and adds him to his band of unlikely heroes. The unfamiliarity of the Southern world he enters and his coming to terms with not having to kill for a living any more is a fantastic journey to share. Personally though, I like Sand dan Glokta. A man who was once feared by all and known as the most skilful man in the Union. Notice I said ‘once’ – that was before he was captured and tortured – now he is a cripple who’s biggest fear is stairs because of the pain they bring his sliced leg.

He still has a place in the union though as a torturer in the Inquisition. But that’s not enough for him. For a man who could once have any woman he wanted, caused men to either cheer or look away in fear – it’s no life. I’d say he is one of the most unique characters I have ever come across in fantasy and one of the most enjoyable to read about. His inner-monologue is both intellectual and sarcastic (*cough* like Joe Abercrombie himself if you ever meet him at a convention *cough*) as well as provoking within you strong conflicting emotions. This man tortures often innocent individuals and yet somehow we still like him. You will find yourself arguing with yourself time and time that you should despise this man, but I assure you – you won’t be able to. I don’t want to spoil too much by spoiling the remainder of the cast, but Bayaz will keep you endlessly entertained as he winds up the cast as a kind of parody version of Gandalf. Jazel and Ferro are great characters to track and watch grow as the trilogy develops too – you’ll also see more of them in later novels by Joe Abercrombie if you decide to follow his later work. So as you can see – you’ve got some new friends you can look forward to meeting.

Finally, I would like to mention something that bothers me because I think it is a bit of an injustice to Joe and that is the quality of his prose. Even with Abercrombie’s well deserved fame there is this brilliant element of his work that gets very little discussion and it seems unfair. Joe Abercrombie’s prose are some of the best in the genre today. I guess with themes of ‘gutting bastards’ and ‘fucking’ his beautiful prose are harder to spot then say Rothfuss whose themes are of ‘love’ and ‘discovery’. Still, his blend of description, dialogue, inner-monologue works seamlessly together in a way that will have you shocked to find you’ve devoured a good hundred pages since you last looked up.

joe_abercrombieSo…Gritty. I was going to attempt to explain that wasn’t I? The dictionary tells us, it is either:

1. Containing or covered with grit.
2. Showing courage and resolve: “a gritty pioneer woman”.

Yeah, doesn’t help. I suggest to you that the word ‘gritty’ warns us that within this book is a kind of truth. Okay, that may sound odd when we deal with fantasy – but I mean truth in the sense of human nature and experience. Not everything is going to turn out OK, there is violence within and the characters in the book are not black, white or even grey. If that sounds familiar, then good – because it’s the world you live in.

Well, thank you Mr. Abercrombie for a fantastic series that I truly believe will be remembered as one that rejuvenated and changed fantasy forever. If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly suggest you pick up this fantastic series and let the roller-coaster ride begin!

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Rating: 9.4/10 (26 votes cast)
The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, 9.4 out of 10 based on 26 ratings
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17 Comments

  1. Paul Wiseall says:

    My Amazon order containing The Blade Itself is meant to be here tomorrow morning. Can’t believe I’m so late to the game with these books! Fantastic review as ever Marc!

  2. Jo Hall says:

    Only read the first two so far, but they’re some of the best modern fantasy I’ve read in a long time. Really gritty (in all senses of the word) and engaging. They deserve to be more widely known.

  3. Overlord says:

    As an added bonus, we interviewed Joe Abercrombie earlier this year.

    INTERVIEW CAN BE FOUND HERE: http://fantasy-faction.com/2011/joe-abercrombie

  4. Ted says:

    I loved these books (read the trilogy and 2 sequels)! As mentioned, they have great characters and dialogue, especially Logen who has some great quotes, “You have to be realistic about these things” and “Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say that he’s a …”

  5. Scott says:

    I think a better term than gritty fantasy is splatterpunk. He’s gruesome, but man, what a writer. His language is pretty much up there with Kay (my favorite writer in the genre for sheer turn of a phrase), although not in the “pretty” category. As you said, he sucks you right in.

    I’m torn between Glokta and Logen for favorite character, and that’s good — both are so deep, you can’t help but love them both.

    The books aren’t for the faint-of-heart. You will be horrified at what the characters go through, but man, what a trip.

    I’m reading The Heroes now, and looking forward to the four planned books set in this world.

  6. Stephanie says:

    I loved this series,

    I’m not a big fan of his latest book The Heroes, I feel that took the grittiness to far.

    But The Blade series is fantastic, it feels so real, and the anti-hero Glokta is my favourite character. I just love his tenacity.

    Buy it, read it, and start smiling.

  7. Alister says:

    The Blade Itself is the book that brough me back into fantasy. Great review, Marc.

    As for quotes, “a man can never have too many knives”.

  8. Ewan says:

    The first law trilogy had absorbing characters who’s well crafted dialogue and personal development made for some very entertaining moments. I was particularly impressed with Glokta and the way in which Abercrombie seemed to play with the reader, almost making Sand endearing at times (the occasional blast of morality, reflection and of course black humour achieving this) before yet again reminding you what a sinister person he is.
    I am a fan of character driven genre fiction, so these books ticked many boxes. However, I personally would have liked more of a pay off on the plot front. I felt that the books dragged at times and even the ‘charming’ character banter could not keep me as enthralled as I would have liked.
    I felt that the overarching plot was stretched a bit thinly over three such long books and some of the scenes within them felt somewhat staged without reason (this happens a lot in books I am reading at the moment, perhaps it’s the current trend in books)
    Overall though the quality of the writing was very good and Abercrombie has a very readable style. This is a good read, but it left me wanting more and not in a good way.

  9. You have to stop adding to my TBR pile, Marc… :P

  10. Khaldun says:

    Joe Abercrombie is awesome. Didn’t enjoy the finale to the series as much as the first two, but it was fine. Loved the Heroes, and thought Best Served Cold was pretty good too. Definitely must read fantasy (after the obvious ones like ASOIAF)

  11. RSAshark says:

    Never use the word “splatterpunk” ever again. Sheesh.

    This is one of my favourite series ever. I picked up the first one because the map cover looked awesome. Two days later I was back for the other two books! Logen/The Bloody Nine is one of my all time favourites, Glokta is a fallen hero but done brilliantly, Bayaz is an ass, every character is brilliant. I especially like Abercrombies fight scenes. The desperation shines through brightly. There really are no heroes in the book, but no villains as well. It’s marvellous. It should be compulsory reading for everyone.

  12. Dornish First Sword says:

    Have to agree wholeheartedly with the comment about his prose being underrated. I think he should be given an award for best dialogue as he is the best in the business for writing dialogue at the moment, in all his books that has what stood out to me.

  13. nilling says:

    Great review Marc, now must get around to finish this series :D

  14. Elfy says:

    Nice review of the trilogy, Marc. You especially nailed my feelings about Glokta. I shouldn’t like him, I know that, but somehow I did.
    I don’t personally think the whole ‘gritty’ thing originated with Abercrombie, though. If you haven’t already read them have a look at Glen Cook’s Black Company books, they were getting down and dirty years before Joe had even put pen to paper.

  15. [...] Joe Abercrombie is the author of the brilliant First Law Trilogy. You can read a review for this here. [...]

  16. [...] Joe Abercrombie is the author of the brilliant First Law Trilogy. You can read a review for this here. • Our first interview with Joe Abercrombie can be found here. • Our Podcast with Joe [...]

  17. [...] (so far) in a world not too dissimilar from our own in the late middle ages or early renaissance . The First Law Trilogy (1. The Blade Itself, 2. Before They Are Hanged, 3. Last Argument Of Kings) is an epic, humorous, [...]

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