*This is a review of all three books
Themes Explored: revenge, torture, magic, politics, wizardry, tragedy, death, fulfilling potential, love, hate, past mistakes
The Blade Itself (Book 1): Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Nobleman Captain Jezal dan Luthar, dashing officer, and paragon of selfishness, has nothing more dangerous in mind than fleecing his friends at cards and dreaming of glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules. Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then Glokta hates everyone. Enter the wizard, Bayaz. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he’s about to make the lives of Logen, Jezal, and Glokta a whole lot more difficult. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Before They are Hanged (Book 2): Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem – he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world. And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: My introduction to fantasy literature began with JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia, and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time Quintet. I set a high bar for my fantasy fiction. Granted I have never written a book, though I am trying, so anyone who manages to complete one deserves praise. However, some fantasy narratives work better than others. The First Law Trilogy takes place in a medieval world similar to the Dark Ages, just with magic and no protestant reformation. Abercrombie manages to build a world that seems both familiar and foreign, which does make the narrative easier to digest.
I started reading The First Law Trilogy since it kept popping up on all the “best” fantasy series lists. The series started out decently but I really struggled to finish. Normally, I quit reading books if I do not like them, but I wanted to know the ending so I gritted though the narrative. Since fantasy fiction forms the cornerstone of most of the books I read, I tend to judge world building, underlying philosophy, and magic systems with a critical eye. In my opinion, building a realistic world takes more skill than developing strong characters. Abercrombie writes fairly well-developed characters. Everyone has a reason for existing and generally fulfill their character archetypes. In that regard, this trilogy does make for an entertaining read.
The action takes place in the central realm called “the Union”. The Union is besieged by savages and orcish type monsters from the North (not a direction, the name of the continent), the Gurkhish Empire to the south, mercenary bands from Styria in the south-east, and the crumbling Old Empire in the far west. Essentially, The Union exists in a state of perpetual war and lacks strong leadership. Dog-eats-dog adequately sums up the philosophic underpinnings of this series. Everyone looks out themselves and rarely offers help with no-strings attached. Of all the characters, Logen-the barbarian-comes across as the most sympathetic character. He at least tries to help others, even when his efforts generally cause more problems. Bayaz, Glotka, and Jezal attempt to improve their own lots in life through manipulation, blackmail, and the chopping off of fingers/forceful dentistry.
Magically speaking, the mystical system in this trilogy does not receive a lot of attention. Most of the “magic” explanation reads like an afterthought. Abercrombie never really explains “the first law” and why magic fell out of prominence. The entire magic system and corruption of the Magi boils down to an argument between two arrogant men in the distant past. This argument led to a meltdown in the magical community and the Magi faded out of existence. Then Bayaz shows up, waves his fingers in the air, mumbles some stuff and magic suddenly reappears. Bayaz is not a great character. He disappeared for centuries and then reappeared only to reveal that all the events in the books occurred due to his long ago manipulations. He is either a hero or the world’s worse seer. All the bad or good things that occur to the main characters all originate with Bayaz’s actions. While thematically interesting, this ploy makes the other characters’ decisions meaningless. As a master puppeteer Bayaz maintains surprisingly little control over his puppets.
From a world building perspective, Abercrombie manages to fit in every fantasy trope possible. Crumbling Old Empire, Northern Aggression, Southern Aggression, terrifying Orc Monsters from a Distant Land, weird Magic Creatures, Sword Fights, an Old Decrepit King, a Weak Crown Prince, and a scheming Privy Council, just to list off a few. Every fantasy novel contains one of these tropes since they form part of the backbone of the genre. However, I do not think Abercrombie managed to make them believable. As I was reading the books, I could predict each twist and turn. Read enough books in any genre and you can accurately guess how the story will unfold. Real writing genius lies in taking those predictable concepts and making them interesting. Maybe I just struggled to connect with the books, but I thought the world building in this series verged on fantasy paint-by-numbers.
Overall, The First Law Trilogy delivers a fast paced, extremely violent, and foul mouthed version of the medieval fantasy narrative. If you are looking for an easy read that does not push too many literary boundaries, this is a respectable series. While I personally did not enjoy these books, I can understand the appeal. These books belong in the “pop fantasy” part of the genre. They are not high literature, so do not expect Tolkienesque prose.