Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Whole Bloody Thing - The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

Caution - Spoilers Ahead!
When I finished The Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin, I contemplated joining the tent city on his front lawn and wailing and gnashing my teeth while I waited for the Winds of Winter to be released.  Instead, I decided to read The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie.  I think it was the better choice.

The First Law kicks off in style with The Blade Itself.

On the run from a king he once served, barbarian Logen Ninefingers finds himself in the Union's capital, aligned with Bayaz, a legendary wizard long thought dead. Meanwhile, nobleman Captain Jezal Luthar trains for The Contest, a fencing spectacle, while lusting after Ardee West, sister of one of his comrades. Inquistor Glokta, crippled former swordsman, skulks around in the darkness, torturing the answers he seeks while searching for treason at every turn. What is Bayaz planning? Will Jezal bed his best friend's sister? Will Glokta be able to outmaneuver the other inquistors?

The Blade Itself reads like Terry Pratchett on the mother of all bad days. While there is a surprising amount of humor, there are also buckets of blood and gore. Abercrombie writes fantastic battle scenes, which get better and better as the saga progresses.

The strength of The Blade Itself is in the characters. While many of them fit standard fantasy archetypes, they also are far from typical. Logen Ninefingers is a barbarian that spends a lot of time thinking and being scared, guilty of a hundred atrocities. Bayaz is an ages-old wizard that looks like a blacksmith. Inquistor Glokta seems like a pretty reprehensible torturer and guardsman at first glance but there is a lot more to him than meets the eye. Jezal is a great swordsman but also a snobbish bastard. I'm also very interested in Yugei and Ferro and Logen's former band of not-so-merry men.

The second book, Before They Are Hanged, dispelled all of my fears that Crombie would suffer from the sophomore jinx.

While Superior Glokta holds Dagoska against the Gurkish, Collum West endures untold hardship in the north in the companion of the Prince and Logen's six barbarian friends. Meanwhile, Bayaz, Logen, Luthar, and Nessa head toward the edge of the world for something that should best be left buried...

Middle books in a trilogy are tricky business. While you occasionally get one the literary equivalent of The Empire Strike Back, most of them are more like Temple of Doom. This one is way closer to Empire in terms of quality. It even has an ending as shocking as "Luke, I am your father."

Where do I start? How about Glokta? Glokta is the Tyrion Lannister of the First Law trilogy as far as I'm concerned. He's crass, crippled, and very complicated. His protectiveness toward Ardee and dedication to the hopeless task of defending Dagoska against overwhelming odds won me over. More Glokta in the next book, please!

As for the other characters, I love how Bayaz keeps trickling out details of the history of the Magi, all the while not being completely trusted. The friendship between Logen and Nessa seemed fairly natural and I love what's going on with Luthar. The events in Aulcus were gripping page-turners. It was really hard to put the book down at the end of my lunch break. Qwai and Longfoot could be fleshed out a bit more but you can't have everything. Where would you keep it all?

Colonel West and the barbarians enduring the hellish Northern winter made King Stannis' march toward Winterfell seem like a breeze. West pushing the Prince off the cliff was one of my favorite parts of the book.

The ending was better than my highest expectations. I wonder how Bayaz and company will rebound from that, as well as Glokta and the mess he's found himself ensnared in.

The saga draws to a conclusion in The Last Argument of Kings.

As the Gurkish march on Adua, Bayaz schemes to defeat them, Jezel discovers his secret parentage, and Glokta tries to learn things no one wants him to know. Meanwhile, the Northmen are holed up in a fortress in the hills with Bethod's army at their gate, waiting for the Union army to arrive. Will they arrive in time? Is even Bayaz enough to defeat the Gurkish?

Apart from my Dark Tower reread of 2011, It's been a long time since I read the final book in a fantasy series. I guess re-reading the Elric books was the last time and probably Amber before that. The Last Argument of Kings, final book in the First Law trilogy, is way up in the series ender hierarchy.

The manure hits the windmill in a serious fashion in this volume. Several pretty important characters die. The rest of them have their lives change in real ways. Who would have Jezel dan Luthar and Logen Ninefingers would wind up kings? Or what would happen after they did?

Glokta and Bayaz were by far the most captivating characters in this volume. Glokta shocked me time and time again and I'm still not sure if Bayaz slew his mentor or not, only that he has his fingers in most of the pies in the bakery. All the revelations toward the end blew my mind.

There are so many things I want to gush about in this volume, like Bayaz using the Seed against the Eaters, Glokta marrying Ardee West, and the fight between The Bloody Nine and the Feared. I knew the confrontation was coming as soon as the Feared was introduced and I was pretty sure of his weakness. I just didn't picture the battle to be so brutal.

The character development over the course of the three books was pretty damn amazing considering where Jezel, Logen, and the rest started. The ending was the icing on the cake.

Like I said, people compare these books to George R.R. Martin but they aren't that similar other than the brutal deaths. The First Law is way more like Pratchett. This particular volume reminds me of Watchmen quite bit when the heroes find out just how thoroughly they've been jerked around.

Closing Thoughts - Why I like The First Law Trilogy better than A Song of Ice and Fire:
  1. It is finished. 
  2. There are more than three likeable characters
  3. The books aren't large enough to club baby seals to death with.
  4. Joe Abercrombie can write a bloody battle like nobody's business.
  5. Abercrombie's depiction of war is both brutally realistic AND not a slog to read.  How long as Stannis Baratheon been marching on Winterfell?

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