The First Law trilogy can be considered one of the classics of contemporary fantasy: playing with the conventions, and actually keeping to a trilogy. What does that tell me? I'd better get the review right, otherwise the consequences may be rather... Glokta-esque. (Body found floating by the docks...)
A cover you needn't be ashamed of? What's next - characters?
This is the first time I've reread The First Law: and the first things you catch are the quotes. Each of Abercrombie's titles comes from a quote - and rather wry (in context), they are too. And it's this which gives us the first hint of the trope-flipping, character-inverting work that is The First Law. That, and Jezal dan Luthar, the most self-centred excuse for a protagonist in the fictional universe...
The Blade Itself begins with... not-so-momentous events. Jezal dan Luthar, nobleman of the Union, is being pressured into taking part in this year's Contest: fencing. He's lazy, doesn't take his duties in any seriousness, and is looking at his friend's sister in a way which may not entirely please his friend. Logen Ninefingers, barbarian-with-a-twist, has fallen off a cliff - and word is that Bayaz, First of the Magi, is looking for him. Sand dan Glokta used to be a fencer. Now he's in the inquisition, doing much nastier things with pointy objects, and struggling with stairs. But he's caught the beginning of a trail of corruption, and intends to follow it...
These are the three unlikely protagonists of our novel - and Jezal, the one closest to our idea of the 'fantasy hero', is worst of the lot. Abercrombie plays with every archetype: Byaz, the 'wizard mentor', has a seemingly hidden agenda, Jezal dan Luthar is empty-headed and -more traditionally- very egocentric. And in The Blade Itself, we have a look at what happens to each when not-so-momentous turns into very-much-so: Bayaz's return to the Union, and the threat of war.
It initially seems a clear-cut struggle - with a touch of dark humour. But we soon realise that of the many sides - the Arch Lecter and Glokta, Bayaz, the Union, the North, Gurkhul - not one of them is as black or white as it seems. (In fact, destroying a world with Jezal dan Luthar in sounds like a positive pleasure!). It's a nice touch, and it's always entertaining - both in humour and in the revelations at the end of Last Argument of Kings.
The low point of the series for me is the obligatory heroic journey: to the edge of the World, in fact. Although the revelations are fascinating, every fantasy reader knows that when we ask for the backstory, we don't just want exposition. And unfortunately, compared to Glokta's attempts to defend the city of the indefensible, and West's struggle to get the foppish Crown Prince to realise they're at war, the journey just doesn't quite meet Abercrombie's standards.
Thankfully, we're back to 'fascinating' for the finale: and yes, Last Argument of Kings delivers. It's the kind of ending which neatly spins your perspective on what you've just read - revelation, action and intrigue packed into a conclusion which leaves nobody with a happy ending -except the reader. Thankfully.
Be warned, though - Abercrombie isn't for everyone! There are few happy endings, and that one of the protagonists is a torturer may give you a clue that the Circle of the World is not a happy, happy place. There are some fairly graphic scenes. However, if you can get over this, Abercrombie's is a fantasy which redefines: inverting, subverting, and just having fun with fantasy tropes we take for granted. This is a full-blown classic of modern SFF, and if you haven't read it yet - you should.
Read these books, or plan to? Comment below and tell me!