Or why you should read The First Law Trilogy and semi-Sequels by Joe Abercrombie.
When I was in highschool (grades 8-12), I was pretty into the Fantasy genre of books. I had exhausted the supply of easy and moderately difficult to find Star Wars expanded universe novels and was looking for another epic and very geeky genre of books to read. I found that in Fantasy novels. Oddly enough, I think my first Fantasy Novels were a trilogy by Chris Claremont (of all people), which were imaginative, adventurous, and just that little bit sexier than a Star Wars novel. I later got me into some R A Salvatore, some Ed Greenwood, some Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I loved the Dragon Crown War Cycle of novels by Michael A Stackpole (the author of my favourite Star Wars books), and still love them with the fires of nostalgia. I tackled The Lord of The Rings, and struggled through its (as I felt then) detached storytelling while still acknowledging its brilliance and influence. I read a lot of objectively terrible D&D tie-in novels in several universes.
I did not read Harry Potter.
Eventually though, my love affair with Fantasy waned. Part of it was the rapidly decreasing stock of unread fantasy novels at my library. Another part was that fantasy novels, particularly of the D&D spin-off ilk, had repetitive plots that were mostly just subtle variations of Tolkienian fiction which when it’s all you read gets pretty stale. The final nail in the coffin for me as a prolific fantasy reader was that most of the books I was reading were not particularly well written, and as I matured and gained other reading experiences, I started to want more sophisticated fiction. Of course, this also coincided with me rediscovering more literary and mature Science Fiction novels that wanted to discuss big ideas about society while still having awesome adventures and thrilling plots.
The net result was that I more or less stopped reading Fantasy novels, with a few remarkable exceptions: those few Fantasy novels that deliver well written, mature stories that, thematically, explore larger concepts.
Joe Abercrombie’s novels are just such exceptional Fantasy novels.
On The First Law Trilogy.
The First Law Trilogy, Abercrombie's debut novels, are essentially his take on Tolkienesque epic fantasy, with a genre appropriate amount of swords, sorcery and journeying. The story follows a thoughtful barbarian with a bloody past, Logen Ninefingers, a self centered nobleman fop, Jezal dan Luthar, and a crippled torturer, Sand dan Glotka as they, and their world, are embroiled in a war started centuries before by a schism between the Order of the Magi and the legendary Master Maker. So in a broad strokes way epically epic fantasy.
Except it's kind of not.
The key difference between The First Law Trilogy and other post-Tolkien epic fantasy, besides it's superbly crafted prose and it's fantastically vibrant characters, is that these novels add a layer of moral ambiguity to the Tolkien equation. Where most epic fantasy tends to boil down to good-verses-evil with clear, black-and-white distinctions, Abercrombie's novels exist in a much more murky and complex moral structure: no faction or character is completely good and no faction or character is completely wicked and where even the worst atrocities can be rationalized. This adds a layer of maturity to the story that is often lacking in Fantasy novels and makes for some truly shocking and thought provoking moments.
The first law trilogy also differentiates itself by its deconstructionist approach to the genre. Abercrombie is fully aware of the hero’s journey narrative structure and while he superficially crafts his novels around it, he gleefully and frequently subverts it. Beyond being a great way to generate plot twists, Abercrombie’s subversive breaks from genre conventions outline what makes Fantasy tick and really emphasizes how much a Fantasy audience relies on these genre conventions to inform their understanding of the narrative. Or at least to predict the shape of the story. While the moral ambiguity makes for a more mature and nuanced story, this deconstructionist aspect of the story adds an element of genre analysis to the Trilogy: what is Fantasy and how do we define it as a reader. It’s smart stuff.
Of course, when trying to convince friends to give The First Law Trilogy a try, saying things like “Fantasy deconstruction” and “challenging conventions by introducing immorality” don’t typically get people super excited. Instead I point out how funny these books are. Joe Abercrombie, despite the aforementioned academic aspects of his books, is a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously. His books are fully willing to acknowledge their internal absurdity and to basically satirize fantasy. Abercrombie is also adept at throwing a lot of jokes into his work, although, keeping with the morally challenging nature of the novels, a lot of the jokes approach gallows humour. Very funny, pretty dark. Still, one of the more funny series of books I’ve read, and easily the funniest Epic Fantasy series.
In a nutshell I’d say The First Law Trilogy is a mature, intelligent, and humourous take on the Epic Fantasy genre that manages to tell an exciting story with amazingly realized characters.
Okay, I want to discuss his other novels, but this is already kind of long… So I’ll continue it after the cut.
On Best Served Cold
Best served cold is a semi-sequel to The First Law trilogy, sharing a setting world, era, and some characters. This novel follows Monzcarro Murcatto, the mercenary leader known as the Snake of Talins, in her vendetta against the seven men who murdered her brother. Barely surviving the betrayal herself, she gathers a diverse array of murderers and sociopaths and cuts a swath of escalating violence as she pursues vengeance at all costs. The trademark coupling of epic fantasy to moral ambiguity, black comedy and genre subversion that Abercrombie perfects in The First Law Trilogy is again gloriously present. However, Best Served Cold is further infused with the trappings of Pulp Crime fiction: plots, double crosses, dangerous liaisons, wanton drug use and that breathless downward character spiral as everything falls apart. It's a smart, funny, and unflinchingly brutal book and my favourite of the series.
On The Heroes:
Joe Abercrombie's newest novel is his take on modern (compared to Fantasy novels) War fiction set in his Epic Fantasy universe. The book tells the story of the events of a single battle and follows a diverse cast of characters from either side of the conflict. The broad plot of the book is exceptionally simple: two armies come to a location and fight over a hill during only a handful of days. What elevates this book, then, is all in the details. War fiction and the Fantasy genre frequently straight up glorify and romanticize violence and warfare. The heroes, set as it is in Abercrombie's morally complex and unflinchingly brutal universe, pairs its Epic Fantasy warfare story to the horrible consequences of actual violence. The Heroes really hammers home that war is horrific and romanticizing it is insane. The heroes also explores certain classic male ideals of heroism (courage, strength of arms, steadfastness) and systematically undermines them by separating the ideal from the horrible reality. In war there are no heroes, merely victims, survivors, and monsters. It's easily one of the most thematically complex fantasy novels I have ever read, but still exceptionally exciting, darkly funny and rich in characters. A smart book, but still an entertaining one.
I would recommend all of Joe Abercrombie’s books to anyone who is an active fan of Fantasy: they are great Fantasy novels. I would also recommend his books to any lapsed Fantasy fans out there as they have a level of maturity and originality that really elevates them beyond what the genre typically has to offer. Come to think of it, I’d recommend these books to anyone:1 they are exciting, funny, full of amazing characters, and are really smart and well written books. I am constantly surprised that these books haven’t found a larger audience than they have, and I can’t help but think they eventually will.
1: Maybe not children and the very squeamish.