Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The First Law Trilogy

by Joe Abercrombie


The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1)
I’m going to do something that's a little disrespectful and start this review by talking about another fantasy series that I’ve enjoyed: A Song of Ice and Fire. That series rules. It has everything I’ve wanted in a series since Tolkien but there’s one thing to be said about it, neither good or bad, that is a big part of its impact: it is dark, very very dark. The darkness comes, as it should in all quality fiction, not necessarily from the actual bad things that happen to good people, but from the depth of the characterizations themselves. Bad things happen to very real, very well-characterized, and truly understandable people, and so those bad things are made all the more upsetting, all the more hard to read.

So that’s where The Blade Itself comes in. It is a funny thing for me, reading the reviews. Everyone goes on about how bloody it is, how graphic and hardcore, etc etc. How it is a part of the “George R.R. Martin tradition”. Of course there is truth to that: much blood is spilled, incredibly tragic things happen, and hell, one of its central characters (in fact, its best character) is a torturer with an awfully painful past. But what I rarely see mentioned is the wonderful lightness of tone that makes the novel such a pleasure to read. For all its tragedies and darkness, the tone is amusing, light-hearted, comic, and never in awe of the various mysteries depicted. I laughed out loud many times. It is also a surprisingly tender novel. That comment may be hard for lovers of this book to read. But The Blade does not demonize any of its characters, it allows all of them (even Black Dow!) their moments of decency and kindness, it views all of them in such a cheerful, upbeat way, that never did I feel a sense of bleak heaviness at the tragedies displayed. Those tragedies are shown to be a part of life, for some, and although they are impactful, the characters are not beaten completely down by their pasts. It is not a sentimental novel, but it is a very sweet-tempered one. The down side to this is that, at times, the characters and situations have a vibe to them that is almost close to being a sitcom. The upside is that it is wall-to-wall pleasure and at the end of the novel, I felt uplifted, rather than weighted down. It is a wonderful antidote to the compelling but grueling Song of Ice and Fire. A kind of tonic.

Oh yeah, almost forgot to mention: the author knows how to write action sequences.  They were truly exciting, even cinematic in the clarity of what was happening. Often fights are confusing affairs in fantasy, but that is not the case here. The whole novel had a brisk yet cinematic feel to it. I choose Matthew MacFayden to play Inquisitor Glotka!



i read a lot about the supposed dearth of likeable characters in this series. bah! what we have here are:

(1) a barbarian with a heart of gold. sure, he can turn into a mass murdering psychopath when pressed, but my gosh, that doesn't happen too often!

(2) an ex-slave who lives to destroy her former abusers. yes, she's grouchy & savage & suspicious of everyone, particularly white people. do you blame her? she was a former slave, abused and raped repeatedly. come on!

(3) a centuries-old sorceror, also very grouchy. hey, he's been alive for centuries. he's seen the rise and fall of men. he's trying to stop the world from ending. give him a break!

(4) a spoiled nobleman. he doesn't stay spoiled for long! the reader clearly sees him grow and discover new-found empathy, freshly-discovered understanding of the world and the people around him. a person can change, can't they?

Before They Are Hanged (The First Law, #2)these are all completely loveable and endearing creations; i understood their bitterness and suspicious nature and off-putting high-handedness, but i also cheered their slow movements towards understanding each other, towards kindness (of a sort), towards decency. their courage has always been obvious, but with this novel, they become much more recognizably human. reading about their journey was pure pleasure. and the end of that journey? a great bit of dark, dark irony. it is a rather a brave and surprising thing for Abercrombie to pull off. although i am confident more will come out of that journey.

also pure pleasure: the continuing misadventures of the torturer Glotka. i was pleased to see a decrease of his italicized snarkiness. it is still there, of course, but it is not everywhere and no longer functions as a kind of shorthand for actual characterization - it is just a part of who he is. was anyone reminded of Tyrion at King's Landing when reading about him seeing to the city of Dagoska? i was. Glotka remains a wonderful and unusual character. as do West and Dogman and all the rest. sure these are all some bitter folks, but they barely even qualify as anti-heroes. to me, they are heroes.

Before They Are Hanged is a great middle book. unlike many second novels in a series, it does not feel at all like it is treading water. if anything, this is where the action of the series truly begins. the description of the various travels, battles, and siege are all riveting and Abercrombie retains his status as a writer who truly knows how to describe action. the depiction of magic and of mythology remain compelling. the mysteries remain mysterious - but not in a confounding way; we learn more but just enough to keep things tantalizing. and the writing remains "muscular". i usually hate seeing that word to describe prose because i'm often not sure what it even means, but in this case, the word fits. the writing is tight, sardonic, self-aware, and muscular. this was more than a good read, it was a wonderful experience and i am really stoked to see how it all turns out in the third book.



and so the excellent First Law trilogy concludes. this was a splendid experience and certainly a hearty one as well. many things to consider and many enjoyments to be had. a full meal! and quite a bitter feast at that.

and here is the Last Argument of the title, succinctly delivered by the ferocious sorceror Bayaz:

Last Argument of Kings (The First Law, #3)"Power makes all things right. That is my first law, and my last. That is the only law that I acknowledge."


this is a really marvelous series. bold in intent, clear in purpose, both a strikingly rigorous critique of the systems of power and a fun, fast-paced adventure that turns expectations around narrative & characterization upside down. it is not perfect; the most egregious fault is a certain shallowness in the dialogue - many lines read as if they are coming from a particularly snarky tv sitcom. i do not like. but that fault, and other minor ones, pales in comparison to all the positives of the trilogy.

the first book basically functions as a a prologue. indeed, in other books, the entirety of the action in that book would probably have been dispensed with in a chapter or two. but The Blade Itself sees the building of character and the constructing of a strong foundation for its overarching narrative as key to its design, and so The Blade Itself sticks in the memory as one of the most in-depth introductions to the action that i've experienced. a bold move; i like. the second book is where all the action is at. but man does Abercrombie fuck with reader expectations in Before They Are Hanged. there are two primary narrative threads in the second book: a Quest for a Band of Adventurers and the Defense of a City Under Siege. for such a contrastingly (to the first book) action-packed novel, the decisions of how to end these two adventures is rooted in the need to illustrate failure - so much so that the novel functions as a sardonic critique and attack on the use of Quests and City Sieges in fantasy. the Quest goes nowhere; nothing is gained and the whole thing is pointless. the Defense of a City fails; good people are slain, a city is taken, and then the 'hero' is rewarded for doing a good job in drawing out the Siege - his actual failure being preordained by his loathsome masters. truly a a kind of rough justice in terms of reader expectations for classic narrative pleasures; i like.

Last Argument is likewise determined to smack the reader upside the head with their own complacent desires. this happens in two distinct ways: (1) showing the true darkness at the heart of its sometimes rather loveable characters and (2) giving the novel's various narrative threads some of the bitterest versions of happy endings that i've experienced.

to the first goal, it is important to point out what Abercrombie did in the second book: he made his characters highly appealing. their courage & loyalty & cleverness are highlighted and they are given amusing character traits to make them charmingly down-to-earth. they grow and they do brave things and the novel shows that they can be better human beings, if given the opportunity. the third book is counting on the reader to remember those positive little bits - all the better to sting that reader when they are reminded of these characters' true natures. the only person who escapes unscathed is the most unloveable character of all - the savage and bloodthirsty Ferro, who is my own favorite character.
other characters do not make it out with their loveability intact. Logan the berserker barbarian's stomach-turning past is actually explored (with an emphasis on his various mindless atrocities) and, most importantly, we are given a scene where we witness Logan's terrifying alter ego do truly horrible things. my God, he cuts a child in half! he becomes distinctly un-loveable after that little bit. and the same goes for the rest: anti-heroes who Abercrombie set up to be surprisingly sympathetic are given their chance... not to shine, but to molder. Glokta tortures innocent people that he knows are innocent, simply because he is following orders. Jezal overindulges his tendency towards frustrating ditheriness. Ardee becomes a self-pitying, self-loathing lush. Black Dow, Frost, and Severard betray those who have given them trust. Quai is shown to be a foul imposter. and most stark at all, Bayaz the Eccentric Magician is shown to have the true colors of a classic megalomaniac, uncaring of who he hurts & kills, primarily interested in maintaining his authority, a liar and a bully and a murderer, contemptuous of all who do not share his goals, and willing to do literally anything to further those goals and gain more power. Bayaz the Eccentric Magician - the only character who seeks to truly protect a kingdom against the powers of darkness - turns out to be the darkest monster of them all. i like.

to the second goal... well, i don't want to do what i did above, and list the viciously ironic happy endings delivered on all the remaining characters. one example will suffice: a Happy Marriage for a king and his new bride. a happy ending where a lesbian is forced to pretend to be deliriously happy to bed her man night after night - or else her lover, a stalwart lady-in-waiting, will be tortured and killed. a happy ending where the naive new king is so pleased with his wife's change of heart that he never questions how that radical change of heart occurred. he finds her crying at the window each night after a session of lovemaking... well, it must be because she is homesick!

the cumulative effect of all of Abercrombie's bleakly sardonic decisions is one that gave me a hollow, depressed feeling. and yet i was thoroughly engaged and challenged by each of his decisions. i felt attacked; i felt like the rug was pulled out from under me; i felt as if all that i held to be important and meaningful were simply false constructs based on lazy thinking and a complacency with what i have automatically considered as "good", as "right". being challenged like that is a rare thing. i like.

1 comment:

  1. Well put, Mark. Great reviews and I couldn't say it better even though somehow you were able to take all my own thoughts and feelings and put them into a review. :D