I recently read Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy. In many ways, its a very generic fantasy story in its setting but the action and pacing of the books is gripping. The last book ties the plot together incredibly well and it was one of my favorite reads of 2018.
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
When describing the characters of The Blade Itself, other reviewers typically say that its main characters would have been villains in other fantasy stories. That is a bit of an overstatement as the fan-favorites of Ninefingers (the barbarian), Glotka (the torturer), and Bayaz (the wizard) all operate with some sense of a moral code despite their casual use of violence. These three characters are all lovable anti-heroes rather than villains, which is why I actually find two of his other characters more interesting, West and Jezal. West is the Miles O’Brien everyman character but unlike Miles O’Brien from Star Trek, West has everyman character flaws that are harder to forgive. These problems – without getting into details – make me uncomfortable, but I appreciate novelty even if it borders on being shooed in. Jezal on the other hand is the archetypal haughty young noble who gets his comeuppance by the plucky protagonist. I like that Abercrombie eschews this typical narrative by not only making him a main character, but by also making his character development slow and at times in regression. Jezal actually gets more than he rightly deserves which is a bold choice. The best parts of book is that the characters are within close proximity of each other for most of the book and we get to hear their opinions of each other as the story unfolds. Abercrombie’s writing and plotting is utilitarian but good enough to keep the story flowing at a good pace. I’ve come to appreciate clearer writing like his even if it sometimes is lacking in depth.
Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
The writing and character work of the sequel, Before They Are Hanged, is better than the original. However, I prefer the plot structure of the first book which had characters interacting with each other more. Fan-favorite Glotka gets to show off the most as he tortures, cajoles, and surprises his enemies with both his humanity and lack thereof. But the larger problem with Before They Are Hanged is the over-usage of the “idiot-ball.” Too many side characters are characterized plainly by Abercrombie as idiots who make bad decisions. These characters exist only to keep the plot moving quickly rather than being interesting by themselves. Abercrombie’s storytelling is too simplified and too obvious in his attempts to get past the setup and straight to the action scenes already. Still, his action scenes are a ton of fun and I breezed through the book in a little over a day. 3/5 stars.
Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie’s twitter handle is LordGrimdark, perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek but he truly does demonstrate what grimdark fantasy means in Last Argument of Kings. Grimdark isn’t simply the physical punishment and deaths of characters, it’s also destroying their mental wellbeing and their moral center. It makes the characters question the worth of humanity and worse, makes them stop believing in man’s ability to change for the better. Abercrombie really relishes in the suffering of his characters with over 100 pages in the end exploring the consequences of their actions. In some ways, it’s refreshing to experience a straight bitter rather than bittersweet ending (okay there is maybe 2g of sugar in a kilogram of cacao), but it’s not an experience I would seek again. Well done, Abercrombie but I’m going to avoid you for a while.
Spoilers: Isn’t there a plot hole with locking up Tolomei in the Maker’s House? It’s said several times that Bayaz tricked her into unlocking the front gate while she was on the balcony. Therefore, the front gate being locked does not lock the balcony. Tolomei is touched by the other side and cannot die, so if she wanted to escape, couldn’t she simply jump off the balcony once more?