In Spring this year, I finally got all caught up with A Song of Ice and Fire and joined the lengthy and impatient queue for The Winds of Winter. Although I, like many others it would seem, had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the series since the lacklustre A Feast for Crows, leaving Westeros behind for the time being left something of a void in my reading life. Searching for something equally immersive to take its place, I stumbled upon Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy.
In many ways, this trilogy was the logical next step after A Song of Ice and Fire. The latter is a textbook example of the grimdark approach to fantasy writing, which simultaneously borrows from and inverts the Tolkien tradition. In this respect, Abercrombie follows in Martin’s grimdark footsteps, with morally grey characters and anti-heroes in abundance.
Indeed, it is the characters that make this trilogy a standout in my opinion. It is hard to pick a favourite but, if pressed, I would probably plump for Sand dan Glokta. Glokta was once a dashing young hero and a renowned swordsman. Something of a hero, he was captured and tortured during an earlier conflict. Broken, crippled and bitter, he is now a torturer for the Inquisition and the sort of appealingly cynical character that can give Tyrion Lannister a run for his money.
Glokta’s closest rival for my affections is Logen Ninefingers, a deeply feared Northern warrior who is desperate to escape his violent past and his brutal alter-ego, ‘The Bloody Nine’. I am also inordinately fond of Jezal dan Luthar, a promising swordsman who starts off as insufferably selfish, shallow and vain and becomes … ah, well. That would be telling.
Joyously, there are some intriguing female characters here, too: the fabulously flawed Ardee West and the ferocious Ferro Maljinn. Looming large over all the aforementioned, however, is Bayaz, the First of the Magi. Bayaz has been in self-imposed exile for generations but has recently returned. What are his motives and is he a Gandalf or a Sauron? In this world, it isn’t easy to tell, and it isn’t impossible for one character to be both.
Abercrombie’s characterisation may take top billing but the sheer quality of his writing comes a very close second. Pithy, witty, sharp and wise – I highlighted something every few pages.
The plot focuses on the conflicts of several different continents. It would be a crime to give too much away here, but I did feel that the trilogy fell down a little plot-wise. Whilst I am fully aware that this sense of disappointment was the Whole Point, the finale does raise the question of the extent to which a fantasy novel can flout the conventions of the genre and still deliver. Which is interesting enough in itself, really.
Although I found the plot slightly shaky at times, The First Law Trilogy makes it onto my favourites shelf on the strength of its characters and on the quality of Abercrombie’s prose.
There are three standalone novels also set in the same world: Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country. All three are pretty high up on my (ridiculously long) TBR.