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The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
3.5
Book Name: The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Publisher(s): Gollancz (UK) Orbit Books (US)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: May 4, 2006 / March 15, 2007 / March 20, 2008

The Blade Itself (cover)One of the many shocks that George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire gave me was how vivid the narration became by writing chapters from the point of view of many different characters. By showing us how people from different backgrounds react to the events of the plot, we get a portrait of it that is much more diverse and believable than if we only followed a few characters once and again.

The First Law, a fantasy trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, follows the same pattern, though luckily it’s less convoluted than Martin’s hellish labyrinth of houses, places and characters. The narrative is split through three simultaneous stories, each of them with a few point of view characters. As can be expected, as the plot advances, they all end up connected.

The first one is set in the freezing north, following Logen Ninefingers, the most feared warrior in all the land, who is said to have killed more men than the winter. He has just recovered consciousness after being attacked by shanka, inhuman predators that dwell on the savage lands. Chased by them, he painfully travels south, where he meets the mysterious wizard Bayaz, First of the Order of the Magi.

The second story goes on in the city of Adua, capital of the largest nation in the world. Here we meet captain Jezal dan Luthar, a young nobleman whose only interests are drinking and meddling with women. Recently, however, he has been forced to train under a sadistic master in order to enter the kingdom’s most prestigious fencing tournament.

At the same time, we are introduced to Sand dan Glokta, a man who was once the army’s greatest promise. Unfortunately, a rash charge ended with him in the torture chambers of the southern emperor, from which he left gaunt and crippled, a mockery of the man he used to be. Rendered barely able to walk and useless in battle, he joins the ranks of the Inquisition, where he gets entangled in a complicated fight for power.

Finally, in the south, we follow Ferro Maljinn, a savage woman whose life has been completely shattered by the emperor, who killed all her family and made her a slave. Growing into a fierce warrior, she now lives only for revenge.

Before They Are Hanged (cover)The narrative skills of Joe Abercrombie are remarkable, telling a tale that, at least at first, seems highly idealistic. This image, however, gets shattered as soon as we get into the eyes of inquisitor Glokta, showing in gory detail how brutal this world truly is.

The plot advances fast in the first book, with many events going on at the same time. We get a sense of urgency, and there’s barely enough time for us to read about one conflict when we’re driven into the next, in a chaotic whirlwind that doesn’t relent until the end. Unfortunately, this pace doesn’t pass into the second book, where it stalls noticeably: there are still many things happening at the same time, but the pace is much slower. Only in the third book does it recover, when the events are resolved with an incredibly loud bang.

The narrative’s weak point lies, in my humble opinion, in the fight scenes. The world is far from pretty: there are bandits everywhere, those who wage war don’t have the slightest trace of mercy, and violence is the usual way of solving conflicts. Thus, a great abundance of fight scenes can only be thought as natural. The problem is, most of them are portrayed with such minute detail that they quickly become tedious. It might be relevant to know exactly how Logen Ninefingers defeats one of his sworn foes, but when Abercrombie goes on with the same detail for a skirmish with some forest bandits, it starts to get repetitive: there only so many ways of describing a man being disembowelled before it starts losing its appeal.

These flaws in pacing and description, however, are vastly outweighed by the characters’ development. Each and every one of them–especially the ones with POVs–are deliciously complex and infinitely flawed, to the point where it becomes impossible to make a clear difference between heroes and villains: by the end, the only choice we get is which side are we rooting for, nothing more. Moral ambiguity, however, isn’t the same as stagnant characters. As the books go on, most of them must face their own shortcomings and either get over them or be overwhelmed. Fortunately, the author makes sure there’s never an obvious outcome to these conflicts.

The Last Argument of Kings (cover)One point that I think is quite significant in any modern fantasy book is the treatment given to female characters. In this aspect, I think the writer gets it absolutely right: there’s quite a selection of women of different ages, professions and–a detail that shouldn’t be overlooked–body types, meaning not all women are perky maidens or frail crones. A few of them become romantically involved with the main characters, but even then they aren’t mere excuses for the hero to have something to occupy his mind while saving the world, but people with their own hopes, desires and motivations. Furthermore, all the female characters are as catastrophically flawed as all the males: they are in equal standing not only in the good things, but also in the bad. You will find no Manic Pixie Dream Girls here.

In conclusion, this is a thoroughly enjoyable trilogy, though unfortunately not without its shortcomings. I believe that it would be most enjoyed by those who like the gritty, brutal fantasy: the story is so depressing, and the setting so oppressive, that A Song of Ice and Fire looks like The Hobbit in comparison.

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Rating: 7.7/10 (20 votes cast)
The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, 7.7 out of 10 based on 20 ratings
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3 Comments

  1. Khaldun says:

    I’m going to have to disagree with regards to the fight scenes. I think Abercrombie is one of the best fight scene writers in fantasy today, partly because he doesn’t give a simple blow-by-blow but makes the battle feel dirty and dangerous. Agreed re: the characters all feeling fully fleshed out and three-dimensional. Not many people create characters as interesting and flawed as Abercrombie (other than the master, of course, GRRM).

  2. Chris says:

    I really enjoyed this trilogy, but I had a few criticisms of it as well. I agree that the pacing is definitely off in places. The pointless journey that Logen, Bayez, etc took in the second book was incredibly frustrating.

    I don’t think the books did a great job of conveying the threats from the opposing armies. We know that the North and the Gurkish want to invade, but I never really felt there was an imminent threat until the end. This just left me with a feeling that the books lacked direction and I wonder how much of the story was really planned out in advance.

    I still love Abercrombie’s writing though and I am even going to re-read the story through the comics that are now being released. By all accounts, he is getting better and better as a writer, so I plan on reading another of his books soon.

  3. Drekketh says:

    You have to be realistic about these things. Say one thing about Abercrombie’s writing, say that he is talented and offers ecstatic scenes of savagery, violence and reality!

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