Book Review: The First Law

[Originally posted January 11, 2009]

Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law is a three book fantasy series which is heavier on sword than sorcery. The basic story centers on The Union, a medieval style kingdom which is threatened on two fronts by the barbarian hordes of Northmen and the religious zealot empire to the south, Gurkhul. The main characters are the most-feared Northman warrior, Logen “Bloody-Nine” Ninefingers, a Union military officer and minor noble, Jerzal dan Luthar, a crippled Union Inquisitor (ie. torturer) Glotka, and a several thousand year old mage, Bayaz.

When I first started reading the first book in the series, The Blade Itself, for the first 50 pages or so, I have to admit that I wasn’t really comfortable with the writing style. I’m not sure why exactly, but it just felt very stilted and undeveloped. After I got into the story, I no longer had any problem with the writing, but I don’t know if that was a result of its improvement, or just my enjoyment of the story. And I did enjoy the story. After all, I read all three of the books in less than a week. The story itself has a very solid plotline, though nothing there is entirely surprising. You have character growth, a grand quest for a magical item to defeat the enemy, several pitched battles, and interesting development of the relationships between the characters.

But what is really striking is the way that Abercrombie takes the standard fantasy character archetypes and twists them in ways that are quite unexpected. And I have to admit, that as a result I ended up not liking characters that I expected to like. Some of this twisting is done through the actions that the characters take, and some through the things they say. For example, what really startled me was that Bayaz, who I expected to be this wise and generous mage who evokes a spirit of egalitarianism and promotes the worth of the common man actually promotes the view that the common man is too stupid to care for himself and that he needs the nobility to care for and protect him. There are similar flaws in all of the characters, though developed to different extremes. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but in some cases, I felt that Abercrombie sort of cheated in how he went about presenting some of those flaws, violating the writing principle of “Show, don’t tell”, which weakens the overall effect of the story.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Definitely worth reading, simply because of the great action writing and the turning on their heads of traditional fantasy archetypes.