Joe Abercrombie, The First Law Trilogy (2007–2009)

Ola: It’s been a while since Abercrombie wrote his first grim dark trilogy – and yet it still reads like something new. Why? Abercrombie did something seemingly unusual: he took most of the major tropes of epic fantasy and put them on their heads. He infused his books with a such an overwhelming dose of cynicism, bleakness and grimness that was rarely seen before.

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Piotrek: Cynicism, bleakness and grimness indeed. Abercrombie’s twitter account – @LordGrimdark. One of the definitions of grimdark subgenre? “The proximity to Abercrombie theory” (described by Mark Lawrence, one of the acknowledged grimdark authors). GRRM is supposed to be the father of a kind of fantasy that replaces Tolkien’s idealism and Good vs Evil narratives with gritty, dark realism. Short Wikipedia article shows us what grimdark authors think of themselves, and let me just quote my favourite fragment, itself a quote from Jared Shurin’s Pornotkitsch post:

Ultimately, where grimdark differed from its literary predecessors is that it featured characters carving out their own destinies: for better or for worse. High fantasy is the high church of predestination; grimdark is fantasy Protestantism – characters choose between good and evil.

It sounds very cool, but I have two big problems with that view. Firstly, I love GRRM, but it’s not like he build something entirely new in Tolkien’s fairy land. Not so long ago we had a post here mentioning Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson and early resistance to Tolkien’s legacy, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Secondly, GRRM is only Martin Luther to Pope Tolkien if we reduce Tolkien works to their oversimplified parody (like Shannara, for example). But I digress. I just wanted to put Abercrombie in the wider context of meta-discussions dominating fantasy of today (or, at least, r/fantasy 😉 ). And remember, grimdark is old enough subgenre that we have many terrible books, by people who wanted to cash in on a splendid idea that there was not enough graphic violence and sex in “Lord of the Rings” movies. And I enjoyed Smylie’s graphic novel version of grimdark immensely, but it’s not for everybody.

Ola: The general opinion is: grimdark fantasy offers no hope, no catharsis, no feeling of greater sense and order in the reality it portrays. But is it true? Let’s take a closer look. Warning: this time spoilers really can’t be omitted.

Piotrek: Spoilers we will try to keep to the level that wouldn’t spoil the book even for first-time readers. But I would strongly recommend to read the trilogy first and only after that to read this review. The very fact that everybody knows it’s grimdark and it’s supposed to be reversal of all the major tropes of fantasy spoils some of the fun, makes one expect some of the turning points. But back to the tropes

Ola: First of all the tropes used in the First Law Trilogy should come the coming of age story. We have a reckless, haughty and vain boy who needs to become a man in order to save the kingdom and fulfill a prophecy. We’ve seen this one before so many times that I’ve lost the count a long time ago. But nothing in Abercrombie’s books really is what it seems. The reluctant hero does what is required of him, and indeed even he is given a chance to grow. But in the end, when we start to like him, Jezal is revealed as a mindless tool, a useful toy in hands of someone much older and smarter and much more ruthless, who knows enough to keep to the shadows and rule from there.

We have a wise man, an old and powerful magician, to whom the fate of the kingdom seems the most important thing in the world. The fate of the kingdom, or maybe the fate of the whole world – anyway, that’s enough to lure him out of his self-imposed exile and force him to act. An old, mighty owner of magical secrets and knowledge from the beginning of time. He must be one of the good guys, surely – mustn’t he? If you know Abercrombie, you know the answer is an emphatic NO. SPOILER! Bayaz is one of the ugliest, meanest and most repulsive human beings you will have the doubtful pleasure of meeting in Abercrombie’s world. What he does has nothing to do with greater good and everything to do with keeping his wins. Won by treachery, treason, being simply more ruthless than the other side, lies and murder.

Piotrek: And yet…where would you prefer to live, in the Union or the Gurkish Empire? Whatever his misdeeds (and I agree, after final chapters of the third book we have to see him as the villain, but I was resisting that as long as possible), he created a relatively stable system and a country where live is significantly better than all around it. His rare interventions, when he needs to play the next round of chess against his old enemies, might be considered a return from his investment in a small country on insignificant island, that thanks to him became The Union. He’s a Machiavelli, an ultimate magnificent bastard – brilliant, devious, driven, even genre-savvy. If we have to choose between him and Khalul, what choice is there? Or indeed between him and any other politically significant figure from the trilogy… as ruthless as anybody, but smarter and capable of devising – and overseeing realisation of – long term plans. I, for one, welcome such an overlord 😉 This Gandalf-like figure speaks to the darkest parts of my political mind…

Ola:Well, yes. I’m sure that was the intention 😛 But to call Bayaz Machiavelli – that’s an overstatement. He’s a petty tyrant who doesn’t like to dirty his hands. When you think about the fact the we only ever see the Union side of the things – maybe the view on the Gurkish Empire is also simply warped by Bayaz and his little helpers.

Anyway, back to the tropes. Next comes an old barbarian. Fighter without peer, bringing to mind Conan the Barbarian, Druss the Legend, and so many others. His name is said, if at all, with awe and fear and hatred. There’s a slight problem, however: this killing machine has gotten old. And doesn’t want to fight anymore. His battle prowess is his biggest weakness – because it comes with a terrible cost of losing his humanity altogether. Logen Ninefingers has a rare talent – or a curse, depending on how you look at it: he can become a berserk. In this state, he is alienated from humanity, above or maybe below it, somewhere in between, where things like fear or love don’t exist. It allows him to survive – and it makes him suffer. Logen is my personal favorite – the most humane of all, surprisingly thoughtful and realistic in a slightly fatalistic way, fighting with himself all the time in order to remain even remotely human, losing and getting up and losing again.

Piotrek: Logen… a great character. Dark past – and a very dark one, he wasn’t just a violent Viking-like warrior, he was a murderer, destroyer, and an overeager lieutenant of Bethod’s brutal conquest of the North. Many decent people have valid reasons to hate him and he finds it very difficult to make anybody believe just how much he’s changed. Impossible, in the end. But he is one of my favorites, and his attempt at redemption is very moving. His ontological status at the end of the trilogy is ambivalent, but I’ve heard it’s clarified in one of standalone novels… he deserves some peace, I hope that he gets it in the end.

Ola: There’s the trope of true love overcoming differences of position and birth, of characters and every other obstacle imaginable. Abercrombie tells us it’s a fat old lie. The girl, even though she is strong and intelligent and brave, is used like everybody else; and when her usefulness ends, she gets discarded. The happy end is that she isn’t killed outright and, like a stray dog, she eventually finds a home. Nice.

Piotrek: Ardee West. A strong, intelligent and brave girl in a world that does not offer much opportunities for such women. Family not good enough for a beneficial marriage, unhappy childhood she wasn’t able to escape from, like her brother – an officer and another POV character. Decent man of humble origins, who rose to became the main commander of the Union army, and gained the nickname “Furious” from his Northmen companions. Competent, smart, loyal, no known skeletons in his closets. SPOILER! Sad end, due to bad luck, death I wished not to have happened the most.

Ola: Yes, West was definitely one of the good guys, even if Abercrombie himself would cringe upon hearing that :P.

Piotrek: But back to Ardee – one of two strong women among main characters of the story, one whose strength lies mainly in character and does not make her life much easier. The other one – Ferro Maljinn – is also very strong. As in – lethal. Ex slave, changed her life into a bloody vendetta against the Gurkish Empire. A noble goal, but does not make for a very complicated character. A lesson in futility of vengeance also, or at least its high cost.

Ola: But to say that all of this is grim and dark would be untrue. There are characters who eventually get their redemption, who find their happy endings, who thrive even in the world created by Abercrombie. The author wouldn’t be who he is, however, if he didn’t make the “almost always good guys” a little bit odious. And here comes Glokta, former fencing champion who now, after the last war, is a crippled, bitter and angry torturer who excels in breaking other people. Making him one of the most moral characters shows exactly to what extent Abercrombie pushes or breaks the rules of epic fantasy.

Piotrek: Sand dan Glokta. A knight in the shining armor, young man with great prospects. He had white horses and ladies by the score but he wasn’s very lucky in the Gurkish war. He had not enough decency to die in battle, to everybody’s embarrassment he returned from Empire’s torture chambers, a bitter cripple but not as broken as it might seem. SPOILER! His ascension at the end gives some hope for the Union’s future and he even gets the girl.

Ola: I would argue, however, that in the place of old tropes Abercrombie puts other, maybe slightly less used, but still long-existing ones. Evil politicians, history as a pliable, protean phenomenon, written by the victors, and the old, old song of unfairness of the world. After the initial shock wears off you find it surprisingly easy to root for some characters and vehemently hate others, to predict the story arcs with at least some accuracy, to find a tiny bit of catharsis when some of the heroes escape the overbearing net of influence and power. And, last but not least, the morality is there. Hidden, yes, but not muddled.

Piotrek: Yes, and it is why I cannot see Abercrombie as an Evil Lord of Grimdark. The First Law Trilogy is not The Lord of the Rings, but there is some good hidden here, more that can be seen at first glance. Enough so that I’d call it not an anti-Tolkien, but a Grim Tolkien, we get as much catharsis and redemption as possible in this depressing world.

Ola: Finally, there’s the character of the Dogman. I should rather say: a sketch of a character – I see Dogman as a voice of the author, too contemporary in his thoughts and commentary, too civil for a barbarian, too educated for an analphabet. Frankly, in my opinion he’s an author’s insider in this imaginary world of swords and sorcery, politics and magic. Useful and likeable, but regrettably not fully fleshed out.

Piotrek: It’s only three books 😉 I really like all the Northmen characters, Logen’s estranged band of brothers. Possibly there will be more about the survivors of this group in Heroes…

Ola: The First Law trilogy is written very well. You may not like how it ends, you may not like the choices given to the characters, or (especially) their outcomes, but Abercrombie really can write. There’s no artistry, only raw meat and bones. It’s a bit schematic, one stereotype instead of the other, but there are some very powerful scenes. I mostly enjoyed the battle scenes with Logen – they’re just great. All in all, the First Law trilogy is written in a gripping, gritty way, very realistic and imaginative at the same time – and he surpasses what he did in the trilogy in the Heroes. But that’s an entirely different story.

Piotrek: Yes! I agree fully, and I would like to add that I loved the ending. SPOILER! I was afraid that Abercrombie would be afraid to let Bayaz win… I was afraid there will be some easy cheesy happy end. No. He went for a great, delightfully twisted and evil (as a blurb from The Guardian says on the cover) one.

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Score:

Ola – 8/10 for the entire trilogy

Piotrek – 8,5/10 for books 1 & 2, 9/10 for book 3

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6 thoughts on “Joe Abercrombie, The First Law Trilogy (2007–2009)

  1. Great post. I haven’t read books #2 and #3 yet and had to skim through some of the spoilery paragraphs but overall I must say you guys hit the bull’s eye with all the points.

    Like

    • We’re very glad you liked it – we have tried to omit as many spoilers as possible, but there were instances where the choice was between spoilers and total silence. Obviously, if we preferred total silence, we wouldn’t start a blog 😉 If – or when – you read books #2 and #3, please let us know what you think about them!

      Liked by 1 person

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