Review of Joe Abercrombie's The First Law Series

I have realized that all but the best authors have verbal “ticks.” The most prominent example that comes to mind appears in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. There, one of the lead female characters, Nynaeve al’Meara, constantly pulls her braid. It is almost as if Jordan, not knowing how to describe her anger (and she is angry most of the time, like everybody else in the series) falls back on this verbal tick. Luckily in the most recent books written by Brandon Sanderson, that constant refrain has slowed. The same sort of tick appears in The First Law series. Here, Logen Ninefingers, one of the main characters, often describes a dire situation with some variant of the phrase, “Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers, say he (insert clever description of the situation he finds himself in here).” If this phrase was used once or even twice, it could be passed off as Abercrombie trying to explore the dialect and sayings of the Northmen. The constant repetition of this phrase (which itself is somewhat grating due to the second “say”), however, gets annoying. The problem with verbal ticks is that although they can be defended as offering structure or familiarity to a work, frankly, they are merely distracting. Every time I came upon this tick it bothered me. It distracted me from the sentence, the paragraph, and the work as a whole. All I could think was “Why did you write that again? Couldn’t you have thought of something else to say?” Having criticized this tick, overall the writing is good -- nothing flashy or astounding, but there are some nice phrases scattered throughout. The books don’t play with language and coax out beauty, but they don’t butcher it either. One other problem did stand out. The books too often tell what is going on in a character’s head rather than showing it. One particularly grievous example of this is after Ninefingers spouts the golden rule to Jezal (another main character), Jezel has a change of heart, as is shown through the blank, verbatim repetition of his thoughts: “You get what you give, in the long run, and manners cost nothing. From now on, he would think of others first. He would treat everyone as if they were his equal.” This is not storytelling at its finest. 

The First Law series falls into the same genre as George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I am not exactly sure what to call it, grim-reality fantasy? The problematic part of that name is “reality,” for just because something is grim doesn’t make it realistic (and aren’t these fantasy books?). And grim these books are. From the repetitive scenes of torture to the countless and pointless deaths, they constantly remind the reader that reality is recounted here – with all its blood and grime and horror and pointlessness. In reality everyone is selfish, all have severe flaws, nobody is who they seem, and life isn’t fair and doesn’t have a happy ending. Just when a character seems to have grown or changed, the story swoops in to disabuse the reader of that notion. Just when there seems to be hope that a character may be happy, “real life” comes by and squelches that hope. Come now, Abercrombie seems to say in another one of his verbal ticks, “you have to be realistic.” 

From here out, there will be spoilers. Skip to the final paragraph for my unspoilerish rating.
This realism stretches to the characters themselves. Let us start with Bayaz. When he first appears Abercrombie signals, somewhat obviously, that this is not your normal wizard, as he is not the old man with a beard and a hat (as the reader is meant to suspect), but the man who has his head shaved and looks like a blacksmith. Fooled you! the narrative seems to say -- things are not always as they appear! But then the wizard acts and speaks like the wizards we are all familiar with: wise, kind, friendly, and knowing.  Little by little, however, the familiarity of this wizard is undermined as hints and allusions are made to an underlying unsavory character, and by the end, this wizard is not at all like Gandalf or Dumbledore. There is real life for you again! This pattern of setting up an expectation and then undermining it becomes banal. The witless swordsman goes through a harsh trial, maturing all the while only to remain a spineless lackey. The bloody warrior tries to change his ways and life peacefully only to be thrust back into war and become bloodier than ever. The wounded woman finds love only to remain wounded and alone. The nitwit apprentice shows signs of progress only to be unmasked as something evil. The only person to buck this trend is, unsurprisingly, the darkest and most tortured character of all. The one who is shown to do the most evil, to cause the most death, to be the most selfish – he is the one who ends up being the hero of the series. But this is just reality!
Even though the character development is predictable, two characters rise above the others. I enjoyed reading about Logen Ninefinger’s endeavor to unite his hostile party on the epic journey to find the seed (which ended up turning out to be not so epic). Ferro is a second interesting character. Her toughness, aloofness, and wounds make her compelling. Her interest in Ninefingers also proves entertaining. But even here, with these two characters, reality come crashing in and stops them from developing beyond the beginnings of greatness. The material for great characters is there, it just never blossoms. 

Aside from these problems, there are also minor issues. The major battle in the second book reminds me too much of Tolkein’s Helms Deep. The early discussion of magic in The Sword Itself seems similar to  Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea magic. The journey in the second book which unites the characters reads like a cheap plot technique, leaving the reader unfulfilled at its end. Ferro’s purpose in the books appears at the end but is weak. Ninefinger’s ability to speak to spirits is underdeveloped. Finally, the reader gets to the end and hopes there will be an exciting climax, drawing the strings together in some unknown way, showing the author knew what he was doing all along, but there is only a puttering out, a slow, soft whimper across the final pages.

I give this series a Read this or not - it doesn't matter. I think that rating encapsulates this series perfectly. If you love dark, grim, reality fantasy, then you will enjoy these books. If you are just a connoisseur of fantasy novels, read other works first and come back to these when you have run out of options.

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