Conan the Barbarian meets The Lord of the Rings is the premise of Joe Abercrombie’s debut fantasy series. One anti-, the other pro-civilization, the impasse of this combination is only exasperated by the author’s subversion of the clichés of sword & sorcery using sword & sorcery. The resulting paradox renders the series no more than manipulative storytelling that falls short of the modern standards of epic fantasy despite the quality of dialogue and brief moments of unique imagination.
The First Law trilogy is set in an unnamed medieval land and focuses on three characters. Logen Ninefingers is a world-weary, Conan-esque warrior who starts the series wandering the wilderness, seeking his sworn enemy Bethod. The second is Glokta, the intemperate torturer of the Union, who fights through the pain of old injuries to give pain to others, extracting information in the process. The third main character is the arrogant young noble, Jezel, who at the start of the series is training for a sword competition. Secondary stereotypes—I mean, characters—include the requisite female warrior (you know, the character with breasts who behaves like a man), the all-powerful wizard, and the group of rough and tumble warriors to back Logen’s adventures. These and other characters move in and out of each others lives as Abercrombie weaves the story of the Union’s fate in the face of foreign attackers.
Before the complaints, I should first give credit where credit is due: Abercrombie writes quality dialogue. The conversations of the characters, based on the situations they're in, their attitudes toward life, and the language they use while in action, feel spot-on. The group of Viking-esque warriors assembled, for example, can easily be visualized warring and fighting, later drinking and discussing the matter around a fire. Sarcastic, nihilistic, humorous, poignant, and all manner between, the books can be recommended based on this aspect of the writing.
Unfortunately, the series falls flat in many other important categories, including plotting, story structure, and story purpose—an unenviable list. Given the specifics of each of these issues, it is obvious that Abercrombie pays much attention to forums and contemporary commentary on fantasy, particularly derivative sword & sorcery and the cardboard characters so many fans rail about. In writing his own tale for the ranks to discuss, Abercrombie overreacts in his attempts to subvert these clichés. The following are some examples:
#1 - In one part of The Blade Itself, a character seeks a wizard. Coming to a castle, they find an old man with a white beard, pointy hat, and long staff sitting quietly on a step, intentionally leading everyone to believe that, yes, the wizard has been found. But suddenly from behind appears a fat, bald man who introduces himself as the sought-after wizard. Ha-ha, good one Abercrombie, you really tricked us! Such subtle use of literary tools to subvert a fantasy motif!! A minor example, I know, it nevertheless hints at what’s to come.
#2 – In another part of the series, a group is sent on a quest—a stereotypical fantasy quest, complete with a motley crew and a numinous object as its goal. Covering a book’s worth of action, the group arrives at the end only to find what they’ve been seeking doesn’t exist. Ha! the author says, I just made you read several hundred pages for no reason! How’s that for subverting the quest motif of fantasy?!?! But, the devil’s advocate says, that’s called character development. Then, I ask, why is the group’s return to the Union covered in four sentences with no hint of action, transition, or “character development”??? Needless to say, the mood and series fall flat after this grand revelation. (See E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros or Steven Erikson's Malazan books for a more literary way of subverting the quest.)
#3 – My last example is when one character kills another character—a fan favorite—in a fit of uncontrolled rage. Surprising yes, but does the death do anything to advance plot or character? No. Like a cat with a mouse, Abercrombie is only playing with the reader, saying: “You like that character? Ha-ha, I killed them! That’s how you subvert Tolkien-esque fantasy!” By comparison, George R.R. Martin’s style of killing characters, including fan favorites, is to do it naturally, in the flow of events. Readers may love or hate him for it, but all understand how the death fit into the story’s context. Abercrombie simply assaults the reader with a “Gotcha!!” moment that doesn’t affect plot in the least, leaving one to understand it was for manipulative purposes only.
Suffice to say, these methods of subverting the traditional tropes of epic fantasy are a bit immature. Those who read only epic fantasy will consider them “entertaining”, “interesting”, and maybe “a completely new take on fantasy!!”. Others will roll their eyes.
But beyond manipulating readers, the most troublesome aspect of the series is the lack of consistent plot development. Battles and bloodshed occur and occur often, but rarely take the story to a higher level or another phase. The brilliant moments of dialogue are sped along by disjointed action scenes. Logen, for example, kills hundreds; but the majority is nothing but digressive and gratuitous scenes of violence. In major battles it can be forgivable, but in random moments, e.g. walking down a road, it’s cheap sensationalism. As a result, tension may be well-built in the moment, but is quite poor across the series as whole.
A problem resulting from this is that some of the characters developed with intent go unmentioned the remainder of the series, useless to the overall narrative. Bremer, for example, is essentially absent after The Blade Itself. All of the time and care Abercrombie took to develop him is wasted despite the plethora of opportunities that would seem to present themselves for his later use.
Symbolizing the series' problems are the volume titles: The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings. Looking great on paper, sounding properly epic to the ear, and seeming to define a grand story arc in the offing, nothing could be further from reality. Not one of the titles can be tied to any idea in the books. There are no blades of significance—literal or figurative—in The Blade Itself ; there is no moment of suspense leading to the next book as the title Before They Are Hanged would imply; and Last Argument of Kings is a phrase Abercrombie borrowed from Napoleon’s cannons, nothing whatsoever to do with the series’ closing events. In short, the books open with empty titles and close with empty story.
If Abercrombie learns to give purpose to his scenes and fit them into naturally progressing time frames, not to mention adjust his methods for undermining cliché to a more intelligent style, there is hope that he may have something meaningful to add to the genre. Otherwise, just by being anti-cliché, he admits cliché its value. More than just reactionary, Brian Ruckley, R. Scott Bakker, Paul Kearney, Steven Erikson, and Martin’s series are developed with stronger purpose. Give them a try first if you want a taste of modern fantasy that embraces cliché while at the same time evolves the genre in new directions.
Note: Dissatisfied with the original, this review was entirely revised on September 3, 2012. What you have read now is a more detailed and convincing version of what I felt the faults of the series to be.