The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
The Blade Itself
Before They Are Hanged
Last Argument of Kings
A wizard gathers a ragtag bunch of misfits to go on an epic quest for a mystical artifact so he can defeat his rival. Sounds like your typical fantasy novel, right? Except The First Law trilogy functions as a major deconstruction of the fantasy genre in general and is one of the pillars of what has been dubbed “grimdark fantasy.” Grimdark is defined by realistic characters, black and grey morality, a high degree of violence, and protagonists who would more commonly be villains in any sort of standard fantasy novel.
All of the characters in The First Law Trilogy are tragically flawed, yet despite that, you can’t help but feel for them. Be it Logen Ninefingers, a warrior cursed with a split personality that manifests as a psychotic berserker rage, or Jezal dan Luthar, a spoiled aristocrat who learns humility the hard way, or even Sand dan Glotka, a crippled inquisitor and torturer, Abercrombie shows characters that are changed by the circumstances they find themselves in, having to make hard decisions, and worse of all, having to live with the consequences.
Without a doubt, one of Abercrombie’s strengths as a writer is his depiction of fight scenes. They are brutal, to be sure, but done with a level of action that it jumps off the page. His battles and duels are vicious, but also show off his ability to paint descriptions and to move action along at a breakneck pace. Abercrombie never lets the reader feel comfortable that the characters will pull through a give action, which helps to ratchet up the dramatic tension.
His other strength is the deft way he maneuvers from point-of-view to point-of-view. Each character has their own distinct voice and viewpoint, and in doing so Abercrombie forces the reader to, if not outright sympathize, then at least consider the motivations of the character from their perspective. Be it from Glotka’s struggles with daily life (the man has good cause to hate stairs and dimply getting out of bed in the morning is a monumental task), or that moment went Logen gives in to his berserker rage and you realize just what kind of monster is lurking under the surface… Abercrombie gives characters a depth that other writers can only hope to, and which provides a contrast between the people they hope to be and the decisions they actually make.
One thing that is also worth noting is just how damn funny the books can be. Maybe it’s because I am warped, but there is a dark undercurrent of humor that runs through the trilogy that Abercrombie wields with a deft hand. It’s definitely gallows humor, but given the world Abercrombie creates, well, sometimes that’s the best you can hope for. There are moments you will find yourself chuckling along too… and then probably hate yourself for laughing.
The good news is that if you finish The First Law and are hankering for more of Abercrombie’s writing, he has three other novels and one set of short stories, all in the same general setting, even if they are following different characters. Yes, they are distinct tales, but some characters make appearances among the different books. He is also (at the time of writing) working on a new trilogy in the same setting, only several decades later.