After an abortive attempt at picking up the Wheel of Time series, I decided it was time to get into a slightly grittier kind of fantasy. In the post-George R R Martin world, this is now a field that’s flush with strong contenders. One recommendation that I heard time and again was Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings), and that’s where I decided to begin.
Set in The Union, an overconfident and decadent empire with the shadow of war looming on the horizon, The First Law is a delightfully ambiguous tale of power and conflict that turns many of the classic fantasy clichés upside down. Our protagonists might initially look like your stock fantasy cast, but it soon becomes apparent that they’re far more complex than their stereotypes would suggest.
Logen Ninefingers, the first POV character that we meet, is the most feared barbarian in half the world with a long trail of bodies in his wake. Unlike the legendary warriors of classic fantasy however, the distinctly un-glamorous reality of a life of violence has left Logen short on friends, rich in enemies, and trapped in a cycle of violence that he’s struggling to escape from. Jezal dan Luthar, dashing and chivalrous swordsman in the King’s Own army, quickly reveals himself to be both a coward and an insufferable snob who is blinded by his own sense of entitlement. Perhaps the most fascinating of all however is Inquisitor Glokta, a former war hero left crippled and morally destitute after years of brutal torture at the hands of his captors. Now a pawn in The Union’s political machine, Glokta finds himself visiting those same atrocities upon the kingdom’s political enemies in the name of extracting confessions, whether they’re guilty or not. At the centre of everything is Bayaz, a legendary wizard who seems to have a complex agenda of his own.
Abercrombie’s is a world without heroes, and he doesn’t pull his punches. Even his most sympathetic characters have the potential to commit the most abhorrent acts should circumstances push them hard enough, and push they do. As the story progresses, characters on all sides are increasingly forced down roads where there are few good options, and where doing the right thing and keeping your own head above the waves are often mutually exclusive. Judged on their actions alone many other stories might consider such characters to be villains, yet one of the beauties of The First Law is how well it walks that blurred line where good and evil are little more than a question of whose side you’re on.
Magic in the world of The First Law is rare and mostly the stuff of legend. Its influence however can be felt throughout the story, driving the plot forwards from somewhere just outside of the reader’s vision. Indeed, one of the trilogy’s central themes is the tendency of true power to lurk behind the scenes, to the extent that very few of the characters ever truly understand the nature of the events that are unfolding around them. This ignorance extends to our point of view characters – they see the cogs turning, but the machine doesn’t really come together until well into the final book.
While this makes for an incredibly explosive finale, it does also mean that these books really have to be read as a series in order to fully appreciate them. I enjoyed The Blade Itself in its own right, but when asked what the book was about I realised that I didn’t actually know. There was a guy trying to win a fencing contest, a torturer uncovering a trail of political corruption, and a barbarian who for the most part seemed to be wandering around after an old wizard without really understanding where he was going or why. The characters were fascinating and the action was incredible, but I had no idea where the plot was actually going. Before They Are Hanged raises the stakes considerably as the world’s fragile status quo begins to crumble, but its three main story arcs still remain largely independent and deliver very little in the way of a satisfying conclusion. Everything finally comes to a head in Last Argument of Kings, with the entire second half of the book racing from climax to glorious climax. Abercrombie continues to upend our expectations right up until the last moment, and while those looking for a neat and happy ending will most likely find themselves disappointed, I found it to be a beautifully dark and gripping resolution to the series.
Abercrombie’s writing style is punchy and to the point, and his action scenes are incredibly visceral. Forget your choreographed fights and heroic victories – fighting in The First Law is a messy, confusing, and above all, incredibly dangerous affair that often leaves everyone involved worse off than they were when they started. While the level of grit might be considered excessive by some standards, these novels rarely feel like hard work and the overall tone is dark but by no means depressing. The characters remain relatable and in many cases likeable, despite their acts to the contrary, and there’s an undercurrent of dry wit that makes the whole series remarkably entertaining. Aside from perhaps a little dragging-on during the second book’s main quest, I felt that the trilogy maintained a strong pace and there was very little between its covers that didn’t need to be there. Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he doesn’t need nine books to tell a good story.
If you like your classic fantasy and you’re used to getting what you came for, then this is a series that might leave you more than a little frustrated. However, if you find yourself bored with the classic fantasy tropes or interested in exploring a world where the people are complex, good doesn’t always triumph, and things aren’t always as they seem, then The First Law is exactly what you’re looking for.