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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