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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.