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Is a series of novels by a Lancashire born writer named Joe Abercrombie.

I thought, well, I've read and reviewed enough dross on here, time to review something really, really good. And this is. It's like George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire but with less bloat, less obvious kudzu plotting, and less sex, but more violence, more cynicality, and more snark. I was recommended it by, of all things, a person on the internets who was recommending things for fans of low fantasy while awaiting the next season of Game of Thrones and the release of The Witcher 3.

There's 6 books in the series so far, all of which are titled after a moderately well known quote, or at least part thereof. The first three form a single cohesive trilogy while nos. 4 to 6 are all standalone novels in the same setting but with appearances from recurring characters:

  • The Blade Itself
  • Before They Are Hanged
  • Last Argument of Kings
  • Best Served Cold
  • The Heroes
  • A Red Country

I have, of course, read them because I really think you should also. This writeup, however, refers to the first three, which form a trilogy. I'll probably write up the others under separate titles.

Executive Summary

Everyone gets what they wants, and what they deserve.

A bit more detail, if you wouldn't mind?

Gladly! I'll try not to be too spoilery though.

It's set in a sort of early-Renaissance fantasy counterpart culture, think around 1450 AD or so. The Circle of the World, so called because it consists of a single series of continents stretching in a vague ring around a central continent the size of Australia, is home to a number of polities and principalities. Largest and most powers of these is the Union, a federal monarchy consisting of Midderland (the central continent), Starikland and Angland (two countries on the largest northern and western continents), and the city-states of Westport and Dagoska. The Union is culturally a cross between ancien régime France and the Holy Roman Empire, although Angland is very much British in its portrayal, Westport used to be part of Styria (aka Renaissance Italy), and so forth. Their main rival is the large, powerful, expansionistic Empire of Gurkhul. Gurkhul began life as a single nation state on the large southern continent, referred to as Kanta, but which now encompasses the entirety of the continent. While the Gurkish themselves are a cross between the Ottoman Empire and Sassanid Persia, their citizenry is highly cosmopolitan and encompasses fantasy-counterpart Arabs, Bedouins, East Africans, sub-Saharan Africans, and Indians. All these folks are united between the banner of Gurkhul, its emperor, and more importantly, its prophet, a gentleman named Khalul who they believe is God made flesh.

Then there's Styria (Renaissance Italy, specifically under the Borgias) where individual city-states are all betraying each other willy-nilly, The North (no, that's it's real name) which is populated by Northmen (Viking/Highlander hybrids). Then there's the Old Empire, once the greatest empire the world has ever seen but which is now a motley collection of ruined cities who all consider whichever brigand is most successful as the emperor. The Old Empire is very much Roman but the landscape it is in evokes the steppes of southern Russia, and its principal river, the Aos, is described as so wide one can't see from one side to the other (much like the real-life Volga).

Anyhow. Into this mess come our four protagonists. Firstly, Logen Ninefingers, aka "The Bloody Nine." This is because he has nine fingers. He is very much a Northern untainted-by-civilisation barbarian type, although with a heavy dose of self hatred and a dawning realisation that despite his massive martial prowess he's singularly failed to make the world a better place. Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers, say he's a killer. Because he is. He wants to hang up his sword forever and rule over a principality somewhere.

Then there's Captain Jezal dan Luthar. A Union officer in the King's Own, he's the spoilt son of a rich nobleman (hence the "dan" in the middle of his name, which is a portmanteau of the French "de" and the German "von" to denote aristocracy) who wants glory, riches, and honour and to be in a position of power but spends his days womanising, drinking, gambling, and fencing.

Third, there's Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta. A war hero, formerly, until the Gurkish captured him and tortured him and crippled him. Now he tortures Bad Guys and political enemies of his masters in the Inquisition for a living. If you can call being unable to negotiate stairs due to having a permanent dead-leg, unable to chew solid foods due to having had half his teeth removed (on alternating jaws), and constant aches and pains every hour of every day living, that is. He wants to be doing something meaningful with his life.

Fourthly, Ferro Maljinn. Former Gurkish slave turned assassin, who just happens to be possessed by a demon. Her motive? Revenge on Gurkhul. All of them. Every single last Gurkish person alive.

Anyhow, all is (comparative) sweetness and light. Jezal fences, drinks, and attempts to pull his friend's sister. Glokta has his two assistants salami-slice a rich merchant's fingers until he confesses to tax evasion (at which point I thought, HMRC could do with this bloke on their payroll), Logen falls into a river after a disagreement with his nakama and slays bad guys, and Ferro joyfully offs Gurkish soldiers. Anyhow. Logen comes across, in his travels, a middle aged and rather affable gentleman who claims to be Bayaz, First of the Magi, a figure of legendry within the Circle of the World. Bayaz claims that ever since the Union was founded, there's been a vacant place in their government constantly reserved for him, and that he really is 700 years old. He gathers the protagonists (apart from Glokta, who's sent to another plot thread in Dagoska) and brings them on an Epic Quest for an artifact called the Seed, which will help him exact justice on his nemesis, Khalul. Who just happens to have openly set himself up in Gurkhul as the Prophet and God's living and immortal representative on earth.

A quick deviation here. The First Law is unusual in fantasy literature for being almost aggressively atheistic. Only the Gurkish and their subject peoples refer to any sort of belief in God. It is sort of implied that even they, though, didn't believe it until Khalul rocked up and said he was sent by God as a prophet. But to most folks in the Union, the North, Styria, and the Old Empire, most of them don't seem to consider the possibility of God's existence. And there's a rather nifty reason for same in the background. Hundreds of years ago there was an extremely powerful individual named Euz who invented magic, artifice, and other such stuff, and he had four sons to whom he bequeathed one each of his four arts and who each set themselves up as leaders and authorities in different areas of the world. Naturally, they all hated each other immediately, but that's a bit of a spoiler. Hence, most people swear by the sons of Euz. Euz was also responsible for pronouncing the titular First Law ("It is forbidden to consort with demons") and the Second Law ("It is forbidden to eat the flesh of men."). Either way, the world was built by Man, effectively, so the idea of a higher power that made everything never entered into peoples' consciousness.

You probably think that Bayaz is little more than a traditional grumpy wizard mentor, don't you. Well, you're very, very, very, wrong. Just as in Breaking Bad the whole thing was how Walter White was Scarface pretending to be Mr Chips? Well, Bayaz is Morgoth pretending to be Gandalf, if you will. And Khalul? Well, he's basically Sauron with better PR.

Anyhow, Jezal, Ferro, and Logan accompany Bayaz on a quest to the Old Empire while Glokta defends the city of Dagoska from the entire Gurkish army. It is intimated that he is set up to fail by this and fail he does. While Bayaz and his merry band fail in their quest because it was a bit of a shaggy dog story. Everyone's back in the Union for the big finish. And then, shit gets real. It's gradually revealed that Bayaz is just as much of an utter bastard as Khalul and has been secretly pulling the strings of half the world for centuries, as has Khalul. And, like I said in my executive summary, everyone gets what they want, and what they deserve at the same time. Jezal gets huge quantities of honour and glory but is reduced to a meat puppet, effectively, of Bayaz. Glokta gets to a position where he can do the right thing, but it turns out that position continues to involve torturing innocent people. Ferro gets vengeance, and it's not enough. And Logen gets to rule, but can't hang up his sword. Ever.

The other main theme of the novels is very much that everyone has to kneel to someone, no matter what. One of the largest and recurring periphery bodies in the novels is mentioned as being "the banking house of Valint and Balk." They out of the blue advance Glokta the funds he needs to restore the defences of Dagoska, but in exchange he has to do unspecified favours for them at a later date. He takes it because if he fails to defend Dagoska, in his words, "body found floating by the docks..." However, failure to adhere to Valint and Balk's agreement would probably mean the same thing. And in the end (COLOSSAL SPOILER) it turns out that Valint and Balk is one of Bayaz's front groups. Even Bayaz and Khalul both believe they are bringing the other to account for their past crimes.

It's excellently written as well. It's not lyrically wonderful or beautiful prose so much as functional and with differing tones to get into the mindset of the different characters. Logen's chapters tend to be functional and studded with the occasional bit of braggadocio. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he's a doer. And, of course, the bit where he and Ferro get it on in a campsite on the steppes near Aulcus. The narrative drops out and just has both of them saying "uh." a few times each before it is pointed out that having gone without for so long, Logen's not all that good at keeping "the milk in the bucket." Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he's a lover. But then, you have to be realistic about these things.

On the other hand, Jezal's chapters are characterised by run-on sentences, ever so slightly purple prose, and lots of emphasis on the man himself and his attributes, which reflects the fact that he sees himself as a Mary Sue insert character in the glorious chronicle of his own life. Lots of emphasis he puts on his looks, of which he's inordinately proud, and his cheekbones, which we are told have broken hearts and hymens around the Union. So when he gets his jaw broken in the second novel, it's a bit of a wake-up call and the tone of his chapters changes somewhat.

Glokta's chapters involve lots of italicised inner voices, usually saying things like, "Why do I do this?" or showing off his propensity for saying one thing while meaning another. In many ways, his slightly sneering inner voice makes him utterly terrifying as a character. For instance, when one of his prisoners offers to bribe him, Glokta asks why. "Surely every man has his price?" says the prisoner. What do you want? Glokta's response, punctured by hammer-blows to the prisoner's ankles, is that he wants his teeth back, his leg back, and not to be constantly wracked by pain everywhere he goes. The inner voices also show his increasing paranoia as the series goes on.

You may get the impression that The First Law is pretty brutal and contains strong bloody violence. You are right. Okay, nobody is murdered on the toilet, gets shot full of crossbow bolts while their pregnant wife gets brutally and repeatedly stabbed in the stomach, or has their head squashed by a seven-foot morphine addict. However, there is the salami-slicing and other torture that I've referred to above, Bayaz's agony-beam spell and also his other spell which makes people explode, and of course scars everywhere. Abercrombie loves scars on his characters, it seems. And rightly so. Fights and battles are shown as being nasty, brutish, and short. Contrast Jezal's fencing contest in the first novel and his duel with favourite Bremer dan Gorst with the battle between Logen Ninefingers and Fenris the Feared in the third book. It's also far less bloated than Mr Martin's destined-never-to-end series and less suffering of a Kudzu Plot (if you don't believe A Song of Ice and Fire had a kudzu plot, you've obviously never heard of the Meereenese Knot and that GRRM has a fan-built encyclopedia on standby because he's forgotten some detail that occurred on page 424 of A Storm of Swords that everyone thought was just a piece of set dressing but which turns out to be colossally important to the entire series.) There's less gratuitous sex, though, in The First Law, probably because the one and only romance within the trilogy is 86'd by order of Bayaz.

So... yes, I recommend you read this with all haste.

Title

The First Law

Before They Are Hanged

The Last Argument of Kings

Author

Joe Abercrombie

Year

2006

2007

2008

Publisher

Gollancz

ISBN

978-0-575-07-7-867

978-0-575-07-7-874

978-0-575-07-7-898

The writeup above is a pretty good synopsis of these books. Unlike Mr. Nut, I was not impressed. I did not think the story was exceptional, nor the characters interesting, nor the writing style beautiful (although Hazelnut did not say it was). The quest lacked gravity. The characters lacked nuance. The fantasy world was not fantastic and except for a single episode where a Gestapo like guy (who was obviously one of the good guys right from the begining of the book) threatened the queen, the dialogue was neither funny, nor memorable, nor quotable.

I had bought the book because it was supposed to be like A Song of Ice and Fire. One of the most attractive qualities of ASoIaF is the moral ambiguity of the characters. Nobody is bad without good reason. This book had a bit of that because the morality of the good guys is tempered by reality. The good guys are not completely good (unlike those in The Lord of the Rings) but the bad guys are completely bad (like in Lord of the Rings). However, unlike ASoIaF, it was rather obvious who would not be allowed to die, who would end up with whom and what fantastc thing each of the major characters would eventually do. Speaking of LoTR, the tropes established by that book - a story in 3 volumes, mindless evil minions, a fallen glorious past, and mysterious long lived wizards - have become rather cliched.

I like a long story, so I would not have minded the 3 volumes except that the story was not good. The story could have been condensed into 1 good, fat book, like Clive Barker's Imajica or Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. However, stretching it into 3 books just introduced elements that could have been better as background and thus made the story rather loose and unwieldy. If they had made the story better, I would have said the extraneous elements were good kudzu plotting. The additional plot points here only delayed initial plans without really changing them. It made the story predictable.

The mindless evil minions were just put in there as cannon fodder (or the equivalent from before the age of gunpowder]. Unlike The Others in ASoIAF or even Tolkien's orcs, the minions here were not given any motivation either for initially fighting the humans or for later allying with some of them.

The portrayal of a vanished golden age here was rather good. Although not as good as that in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. However, I disiliked the casting of the protagonists and antagonists. While I understand that reality is a good template for fiction, it is tiring seeing the northwest (corresponding to Europe) always being cast as the good guys. The brave, liberal, resourceful people triumphing against overwhelming odds, figthing against the hordes unleashed by a despotic south and east. This book is even more blatant in its typecasting when it gives the easterners Islamic names, culture and religion. I suppose if I don't like it, I should write a book reversing the roles. Lord knows, the south and east of the Old World have suffered sufficient trauma from the northwest to provide plausible stories where the bad guys come in ships from over the big water. This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a friend whose people suffered at the hands of mine. He had come with a counter narrative challenging the history written by the victors. I reacted rather harshly, not because I am an ethnic champion, but because it was clear to me that his liking of an alternative history is because it agreed with his biases, not because there was any basis for determining how factual that alternative is. It was also clear to me that I disliked the alternative because it challenged my own biases. So, while the vanished past was not done too badly here, I dislike it because it recycled old ideas and it is biased against people like me. 

The wizards here are portrayed really well. It is plausible that beings more powerful and longer lived than humans would not value human life. The good guy, or as Hazelnut says "Morgoth playing Gandalf" views people with contempt, as expendable tools. He even calls them insects at a point. His motives appear altruistic, but the ends justify the means for him. He is amoral. He does not exert himself to save every life. I liked this realistic portrayal of power. Power does not have to be nice in order to be good. I am reminded of Toranaga from James Clavell's Shogun, whose portrayal as tight fisted is shown to be a virtue because it allows him to manage expectations and use resources optimally. I had always been rather disappointed in Gandalf who did not seem to do much of anything. 

These books are readable, I finished all 3 in about 10 days. The story would have been enjoyable if I had not been expecting the quality of ASoIaF. While it is worth reading, I do not think it is a great example of the fantasy genre. 

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