Friday, May 01, 2009

Review: The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie


Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy presents an alternative interpretation of the relatively standard epic fantasy quest. Abercrombie takes the trope of a guiding, mysterious wizard with a traveling group of people of wide-ranging origins and tweaks the formula, creating a story in which said wizard may actually be a malicious manipulator with self-serving goals and the traveling troupe may not become poster children for an after-school special.

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.”

This single exchange may best sum up Abercrombie’s thoughts on epic fantasy and show what The First Law is answering to. Of course it’s tinged with sarcastic humor and I can’t help but chuckle knowing that Abercrombie’s forthcoming book set in the same world, Best Served Cold (
US, UK, Canada, Indiebound), does have a map, unlike books of The First Law.

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

9 comments:

etrangere said...

You know I don't think yours is the first review of The First Law that do not even mention Ferro at all, but it always weird me out.

Wise Bass said...

Excellent review, Neth. I disagree slightly on the prose (I like Abercrombie's prose), but the characterization is definitely the biggest focus in the story.

Good point on Bayaz. I was more than angry - I was horrified to see what he turns into by the Third Book, when all the masks come off, because I'd liked the character and . .. well, you know.

Glokta is so interesting in that you can sympathize with him, but when you step back, you remember that he's actually quite an awful person. He has some redeeming components, but that's about it.

It's definitely one of the more unhappy endings to a trilogy that I've ever seen.

ediFanoB said...

Great review! I read the trilogy last year and I have been impressed. From my point of view the prose fits to the story and the characters.
Now I look forward to read Best Served Cold.

Janet said...

I haven't read any of these books, but I like the intelligent, thoughtful way you review things. Keep up the good work.

William Paul Young said...

Great review Neth. I'm starting to like your way of thinking and judging, I haven't read this book yet but consider it done. Keep it up.

Neth said...

-estrangere

For whatever reason, Ferro just never stood out for me as a character. I also didn't really see much subversion in her character, so she didn't fit well into the review.

-Wise Bass

thanks for the kind words - keep in mind that Bayaz didn't turn into anything or even change much in the trilogy - it's just that we finally got to see what he really is.

-ediFanoB

Thanks for the kind words

-Janet and William Paul Young

Thanks for the kind words and I hope you enjoy the series.

Fyrefly said...

I've got these on my TBR pile (well, not physically on the pile; they're on loan to a friend, but still...), and I really, really need to just hurry up and read them already; they sound great!

~*¨`*.~*¨*.¸¸.~*¨`*. said...

I got about 1/3 through the first book and had to quit. I found the super-choppy writing style extremely distracting, and the characters I met (with the exception of Glokta) to be cut from the same old boring archetypes; I'm glad to hear they developed a little more and surprised people... But I don't feel that really makes them unique (just a little more exciting than your standard Dragonlance series). Remember that for hundreds of years everyone thought Saruman was a great guy-- it was only as FotR was starting that he showed his true colors.
Every epic fantasy review I see lately has been about how this or that author managed to ambitiously thwart the expectations of the genre, but I don't feel that any of them have really wowed me in a long time. Maybe I'm getting a little too jaded and need to move on for a while!

Neth said...

@the strange symbol I'm not going to try and replicate

To be fair, you really have to read much further than the fisrt 1/3 of the first book in the series to get a sense for how Abercrombie subverts traditional epic fantasy.

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