Book Review: The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

What first attracted me to the Frist Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie was the covers. If anyone tells you the cover of your book isn’t important, they lie, especially if you are a first time author. I never would have picked up any of these books if it weren’t for the cover of The Blade Itself, the first book. It’s a very simple cover, and that made the book compelling.

The copy on the back never interested me enough to buy it, though, not until I found it again in a used book store after I started my new commute (where I have 2 hours to read, every day). I remembered looking at it time and again because of the cover, and I finally picked it up. I also grabbed the second book, Before They are Hanged. It’s cover art had the same simple, compelling quality of the first book.

The Blade Itself introduced me to many characters. Some I cared about, some I didn’t. I only found one or two even slightly likable, and the one I liked most I liked a bit less at the end of the book. But the writing was compelling, and I started reading Before They are Hanged immediately after finishing The Blade Itself.

Before They are Hanged had some more character development, but also plot development. I started to see where things might be going. I grew to like some characters more and others less. I started to see how they all fit together, and I was intrigued to learn how it all would end.

It was a month or so after finishing the second book that I found the third book, The Last Argument of Kings, in a used book store and picked it up.

The writing remained tight and compelling. Everything fell into place. And in the end, I can’t recommend the series.


Let me digress. When I finished The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes, I couldn’t wait to get other friends to read it so that I would have someone to complain about the epilogue to. That book would have been so much better if the epilogue had never been written. But I really, really needed other people to read it so that they could understand, and to appreciate how a writer could mess up an otherwise beautifully written novel. The Somnambulist still has some of the most beautiful writing in modern fantasy, and I would highly recommend listening to it as an audio book or reading it out loud. The language is gorgeous, and the book is worth reading just for that.

The end of The Last Argument of Kings soured me on the whole series. Let me be clear, the writing in the first two books was good enough to get me to buy the third. This is not a poorly written series. But it does not end well. This is both true for the characters and for the general nature of endings (which are almost as hard as beginning to write). At the end, I felt like I had gained nothing for reading the books.

I am not looking for profound, world changing endings. A book does not have to be Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, where my mind is reeling from the trip I’ve been on for me to feel like I have gained something from reading it. I truly enjoy many pulp style books and authors. In fact, I count Steven Brust, Jim Butcher, and Lilith SaintCrow among my favorites. What I gain from those books is adventure, fast pacing, and an ending that leaves me satisfied.

Books don’t necessarily have to have happy endings for me to like them, either. If a book can make me think, if it can leave me in tears, those are good things. But I’ll be honest, I do like my stories with a little bit of hope at the end. I read for enjoyment. I don’t read horror for a reason- I don’t enjoy it. If you are not going to give me a happy ending, or at least a moment of hope (Children of Men is one of my favorite movies ever, though I don’t know that I will ever watch it again. It decidedly does not have a happy ending, but there is a sliver of hope that makes the whole journey worthwhile), your book needs to give me something else.

The Somnambulist gave me gorgeous writing, so I’ll still recommend it. The First Law trilogy, while well written, did not give me a particularly unique plot, nor a character so different from any I’ve other read that I can recommend the series just for that.

In a sense, the ending was very much like that of one of Shakespeare’s Dark Comedies. Sure there was some death at the end, but there were also some marriages, though marriages that made you feel a little squicky. Characters got what they had “always” wanted only to realize it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  But others, including the character I grew to dislike the most (which I believe is what we are meant to do) get away scott free. In the Dark Comedies, no one gets to just walk off stage.

Maybe if this had been a single book, a Dark Comedy ending might have worked for me, but after three full length novels, it just did not cut it.

Throughout the books, one character says over and over “you have to be realistic” (if you equate realistic to mean pessimistic), and I think that’s where it went wrong for me. I don’t read fantasy novels for their realism.

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There is Value in All Critique

I feel bad that it has taken me this long to write this post. While I do believe there were parts of the critique I got at NorWesCon that could have been better, I did get value out of it. This post is specifically about that value.

The 9,400 words the panel got included probably the most boring 8,000 words I’ve written for my novella. I am very bad at beginnings, especially for sci-fi or fantasy worlds when I feel the need to get explanations about the world in. The very first thing they read was essentially a guy reading an encyclopedia entry. BORING! So I need to re-write my first meeting scenes, the ones where the reader first meets each character and the one where the main characters first meet each other. There needs to be action, not just expository.

To go along with that, readers now a days are much more picky about their science fiction worlds. I need to make sure the science of my world, climate, ecology, how the moons, work, etc, is possible. Even if my work is a tribute to a style of fantasy that was popular in the late 1970s and early 80s, I need to write it for today’s readers. I cannot get away with the same shortcuts.

Each of my main characters has a secret, something they are trying to hide from each other. And there is a consequence to others finding out their secrets. However, their secrets are, in no way, on the same level. One is personal and one is the fate of the world. That means they do not balance, and while the characters do not know each other’s secrets for most of the story, I need to find a way to make the lesser secret have a deeper emotional impact so that the readers just don’t write it off.

To go along with that, in the critique of my synopsis, it was pointed out that in some ways, I let my characters off the hook. I was not making them face the full consequences of their actions and their secrets. I cannot do that. I cannot go easy on my characters. That does the reader a disservice. I must make them face their fears. The consequences of their actions must be real, they must be felt by the characters and by the readers. That means they must be felt by me. I cannot go easy on myself. Authors have to make hard choices. I have to make one here.

These are important notes to make. Notes I probably would have come up with eventually, but in all honesty, in some cases it is easier to get them before some of those scenes are written. As it is, I’ve already rewritten the first scene of the story. It still has a bit too much expository, but it is much better than it was before. I think I want to get the rest of my first meeting scenes rewritten, too, but after that, I need to hold off on the rewrites.

I need to move forward with the novella as I now want it to be. I need to get a complete first draft, even if there are inconsistencies between early scenes and late scenes. I will know the inconsistencies exist, and I will fix them on second, third, and later passes. The important part for me is simply to get the whole thing down, beginning to end. Because the truth is, I’ve never completed a story over 10,000 words before.

If I can write the whole thing, I can edit the whole thing. But if I start editing the beginning too much, the rest may never get written.

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A Critique of a Critique

Months ago, I submitted the first 9,400 words of the novella I am working on to the Fairwood Writers for critique at NorWesCon. It was the first time I had submitted something for critique outside my classes and my critique group. I’ve submitted pieces for publication, but not for criticism. I was excited and nervous. And on Friday evening, I had my critique.
I am going to follow my own rules, and start with something positive. I did get some very valuable critique out of the session. The members of my panel were not trying to mean, but to honestly give me their feedback. And it is useful, some of it very useful.
Despite all of that, this was not something I would have called a successful critique session. If I did not have over 10 years of having my writing critiqued, if I had not had the wonderful training from Pam Goodfellow’s classes (just smile and nod), I would have been able to get through this session. The fact that I was able to get value out of it is a testament to me as a critique subject, not a testament to the critique I got.
That sounds absolutely snobbish and even a little mean, and I feel kind of bad about that. But let us be honest- when at the end of the session, you feel the need to compliment author on not shutting down, on being able to listen and process what you said, there is, in fact, a problem with what you did. The point of critique is to help the author improve. That can not happen if they stop listening to what you say. Which means, you need to structure your critique in such a way that they author gets some kind of praise in addition to all the criticism.
Pam taught us to always start with something positive, that no matter how many issues you had with a piece of writing, you always needed to seek out the positive and start with that. You’ll notice that that is one of my rules for posting critique here, too. My experience this weekend truly validated the need for that rule.
I have seven pages of notes from what my panel told me. On those seven pages, I have 4 “+” marks written down. In my notes, a “+” indicates something that the critiquer liked. The first of those did not come until the second page of notes from the first panelist to critique me. The next ones came at the bottom of the first page/top of the second page of notes from the second panelist, and the last one on my last page of notes.
That’s write, before telling me anything positive, each critiquer essentially gave me a page worth of notes about what I had done wrong. The positives were buried in the middle of their comments, and often spoken of mostly in passing, or (in the case of the first positive) used to tell me what was wrong with the rest of the scene. In fact, my critique session opened with the first panelist telling me my work was derivative and that he did not care about my characters. That is honestly the very first two things he said.
I also find it pretty amazing that I managed not to shut down and to continue to engage in the process. (I want to note that it is a very important piece of critique to know that a reader does not care about your characters. That’s huge, but it’s not a way to start off a session if you want the writer to keep listening.) And I will admit to being annoyed by being told this was derivative- not because I do not think it is, but because I know it it is. It is purposefully derivative. And the cover letter I remember writing to go with my submission made that very clear. Now, there is the possibility that all the panelists were not given my cover letter, but then that would be a problem with the writing group that sets this up. Why have me write a cover letter if you are not going to share it with the people who are going to read my writing?

A couple other notes about the session.
They claim they use a modified Clarion process. If you do not know Clarion, it is a hugely well respected writers’ program that you must submit and be accepted to, and then requires you to spend like 6-8 weeks away from your life in an intensive writing workshop. They have major authors as part of their panels. (This year’s Clarion West panel, situated here in Seattle, include George R.R. Martin and Connie Willis.) I will be honest, I doubt I will ever be able to afford the time away from my life to even apply to Clarion (forgetting whether or not I would be accepted), but, if this is how they run their sessions, I do not know that I would ever want to participate anyway. If you want people to keep writing, you have to give them some reason to hope.
The other impression I got, from talking to my panel and to others at the writing meet and greet they had, was that some people continue to submit every year, and that first time submitters, like myself, tend to get the harshest critique, because the next year, the panelists get to comment on how much the author has grown. And I guess that does give positive reinforcement for being a repeat customer, but you can not get repeat customers if you shut the author down in the first session.

Will anyone from the Fairwood Writers see this? I do not know. But I hope they do, or that someone else running critique panels like this sees it. You need to have rules, and you need to make sure your authors have a reason to keep writing, and specifically to come back to your event.

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