Abercrombie achieves his unique take on epic fantasy by first embracing many of the tropes commonly found. We have a wise, guiding wizard, we have a brutal barbarian from the north, we have a spoiled nobleman, we have a long-lost king, we have a raging war in the north, we see a siege, and a threat that could destroy the world. It’s the way in which he defines and combines these elements that sets The First Law apart.
Abercrombie chooses to emphasize characters in The First Law. The world-building isn’t as grandiose as typical of epic fantasy and while the plot is good, it takes a definite backseat to characterization. Bayaz is the all-knowing wizard and guiding force of The First Law. When first introduced, he does have the jolly, Gandalf-feel of the standard, wizened, fantasy wizard. However, Abercrombie quickly shows that Bayaz is not the copy and paste wizard expected, but someone with a biting sense of humor, a spiteful temper, and a mysterious agenda that may not be all that ‘good’.
Logen Ninefingers (the Bloody-Nine) represents the standard, ‘good-guy’ barbarian – a fierce warrior from the north with a bloody reputation and a tendency towards an insane, bezerker, fighting style. He is also kind, thoughtful, and introspective – that is when he isn’t killing children and long-time companions. It is this slight, but important dichotomy and Abercrombie’s skillful portrayal that makes Logen succeed. The trilogy begins and ends with Logen as Abercrombie shows that in spite of everything that happens along the way, any growth experienced by our characters is arguable.
Inquisitor Glokta is the friendly neighborhood torturer – a once spoiled nobleman, captured and brutally tortured by a ruthless enemy, he provides the reader with a supremely cynical internal dialogue. Glokta lives a life of pain in the middle of deadly, Machiavellian politics, and is entirely aware of the irony that his life has become. Throughout the trilogy Glokta grows and digresses as a character, provides stunning insight and horrible pain through the dark wit that makes him the strongest character to come out of epic fantasy since George R.R. Martin’s Tyrion.
Jezal dan Luthar is the spoiled-rotten noble to balance the scarred torturer of Glokta. Jezal is blissfully ignorant, short-sighted, and an overall idiot. He’s also one of the most skilled swordsmen in the kingdom, an up-and-coming military officer, and quite the ladies man. Through the course of The First Law, it’s arguable that Luthar sees the most change and has his world shaken more than the others, but just how much this matters is up for debate.
There are a whole slew of other supporting characters including love interests, more barbarians from the north, and an actual decent human being. Out of a need for at least some sort form brevity, I’ll not cover them any more than to say that the same philosophy towards their characterization – they are both full of surprises that fly in the face of most epic fantasy and they are exactly as they seem and as they should be.
I’ve concentrated heavily on characterization as I believe it is Abercrombie’s greatest strength in The First Law, but the plot certainly deserves discussion. The plot really isn’t all that complicated and as with the characterization, the plot first embraces convention before turning an ugly mirror to it. In this, it is subversively clever. Epic quests turn out with unexpected results and the ultimate conclusion to the trilogy is so unsatisfying that it distinguishes itself as one of the best ends to a fantasy series that I can think of. The way that Abercrombie presents this is equally stunning – I can almost see him flipping the bird to epic fantasy.
The glue that holds all the above together is Abercrombie’s tone of seething, dark, sardonic wit. Most fully embraced in characters like Glokta and Bayaz, it is the satirical feel to this dark humor that binds it all together. The language is dirty, vivid, and perfect for the goal of subverting the traditional epic quest. Two examples still stand out above the rest. There is a moment in the first book, The Blade Itself, when Logen, Bayaz and an apprentice enter a costume shop because they need to purchase clothes that are more suiting to their positions – apparently the wizard needed to be more wizard-like and Logen more barbarian-like. Stereotypes are wonderful thing in Abercrombie’s world. Another moment comes in the final book, Last Argument of Kings, in an off-hand comment.
“I’ve been trying to get through this damn book again”…
“The Fall of the Master Maker”…”That rubbish? All magic and valor, no? I couldn’t get through the first one.”
“I sympathize. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up one with another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.”
While my discussion has been overtly positive to this point, The First Law isn’t a series for everyone. Abercrombie’s unique writing style can be grating, especially as its novelty wears thin. The dialogue is loaded with grunts and other fragments that will drive some readers bonkers. The story won’t appeal to all and some people will be left thinking ‘I just don’t see why people speak so highly of this series’. Of course, it’s the same for everything, and can be summed up by saying that Abercrombie’s writing isn’t for everyone, though it certainly resonates with me.
The First Law Trilogy begins with The Blade Itself (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound, my review), follows with Before They Are Hanged (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound, my review), and concludes with Last Argument of Kings (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound, my review). This series stands apart of the vast majority of epic fantasy available – while embracing cliché, the tropes are of the epic quest are thoroughly subverted with a dark, satiric wit and clever vision. I highly recommend this series for fans of epic fantasy, particularly those who have subversive tendencies. 9/10
Related Posts: Review of The Blade Itself, Review of Before They Are Hanged, Review of Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie Answers Questions Five, Review of Best Served Cold, Review of The Heroes