And with the final book in the First Law trilogy (there are follow up books set in the same world but this book completes the original trilogy)...more3 Stars
And with the final book in the First Law trilogy (there are follow up books set in the same world but this book completes the original trilogy), I remain more unconvinced than ever by Joe Abercrombie’s reputation as a master of fantasy. Sure, he subverts the cliche heroic fantasy tropes and stock characters to turn them on their head – but barely anyone writes that sort of heroic fantasy anymore anyway. And he still falls into that worst of fantasy author habits: writing way more than he he needs to, needlessly spinning a simple story into a whole trilogy. None of his books need to be as large as they are. The ending, while I admit it could have been a genuinely great end to standalone or a first novel in a series, feels anticlimactic after three books and roughly 1,700 pages. Especially when so little of relevance really happened in either book one or two. The whole series would have been massively improved by hacking out all the filler, maybe reducing the number of POV characters, and condensing it all into two books instead (one would probably be pushing it).
While Last Argument of Kings is probably the best book in the trilogy – the most action, the most plot, the most character revelations, it’s just a really really unsatisfying conclusion to the series. Now that’s part of the point, I’ll admit. It's a subversion of traditional ‘happily ever after, tied up neatly in a bow, no more problems ever’ fantasy. But for me it wasn’t the satisfying sort of unsatisfying where such an ending is pulled off well - the sort that just seems right and gets you really thinking. It was the ‘huh…I really read three bricks just for this?’. And, to be honest, it didn’t seem all that much of a subversion either, I’d flagged up that a certain character was a bit of a shit back in book one, had it all but confirmed in book two, and once I’d decided that he was clearly a shit of the first order, it was really easy to see where the plot would end up – with him being a shit. I only misjudged a little in how much of a nasty shit he would be.
My main problem with this series though is the length. It’s far far longer than it needs to be and by the end, instead of feeling a deep connection to the characters, I was completely and utterly bored by them. The interest I had in book one had been eroded by overexposure, repetitive phrases and lack of development (Jezal is really the only one who gets any). Glokta, who had been the best part of The Blade Itself had overrated his welcome to become a tiresome narrator repeating the same tired complaints about stairs and constantly ‘tonguing his gums’. And Logen, well I don’t think the reveal that people really hate a man that goes on indiscriminate murder sprees really counts as character development. Like, no shit, of course his own people hate him. They should hate him. By the very end I had stopped caring what happened to any of the characters.
There’s a lot more I could complain about – that Ferro never did anything more than be a walking plot device, that the central ‘breaking the First Law’ plot was way less interesting than any of the subplots, the way the world building was drip-fed in a way that made it hard to care about the big mythology that underpinned the whole story…but I’m just going to leave it at that. And also mention there was plenty I enjoyed too – mainly the parts set in the North.
I think Abercrombie had some great ideas, that the story could have been done really well. But having it drawn it out into such a massive trilogy just didn’t work for me (though I accept it seems to have worked for plenty of others). It was simply way more pages than either the story of the characters warranted.
I’m not actually giving up on Abercrombie yet though, my housemate lent me her copy of one of his standalones at the start of term and, despite my disappointment in the trilogy, I am going to read it. I’m honestly really interested to see if I prefer his stories when he restricts himself to using just one book to tell them. Also from the blurb the main character is female, and considering how one dimensional I found his female characters here when compared to the men, I’m really interested to see how he manages.(less)
Before They are Hanged was, for me, a big improvement on the first book. After the first book ambled along following various characters and pro...more 4 Stars
Before They are Hanged was, for me, a big improvement on the first book. After the first book ambled along following various characters and promising an overarching plot if only they could all just get together in the same room, Before They are Hanged, while still primarily character-driven, has a sense of direction to it, a much stronger narrative, and real stakes to be won or lost. The players are all moving towards something now, and it makes for a much more satisfying read.
True, some of the plot lines seem like shaggy dog stories and most won’t get resolved until book three, but I can see, roughly, where the story is going now, what the main themes and points of it are. It’s no longer just a disparate bunch of people scattered across the world all doing their own thing. Abercrombie is still reluctant to reveal too much of the main plot, but we finally get some more of the mythology of the world, an explanation of who certain characters are and why they are important. I do still feel that more could have been done to make me care about certain things – Khalul is evil because he is and because he broke ‘the second law’, but there’s no sense urgency to defeat him and it’s hard to care about the atrocities we’re informed he’s committing. Overall, though, I felt much more drawn into the world and characters this time around.
Part of that is probably because the action has all but moved away from Adua, the rather generic-european-fantasy city of the first book. Glokta has been ‘promoted’ to head inquisitor of one of the union’s colonial cities in the south – a city of massive inequality and racial tensions, schemers and traitors, about to come under siege from the Gurkish armies, and he’s been tasked with the impossible mission of protecting it. Major West is leading armies in the north against an invasion by King Bethod, having to contend with army incompetence, poor supplies, in-fighting, oh and the enemy forces as well. And most of the other characters are off on a quest through the ‘old empire’, exploring ancient ruins, developing their characters, and learning lots of world building and mythology.
Aaaad it’s probably obvious which plot line I found least interesting. Although I like most of the characters – well, Logen and Ferro – Bayaz’s quest to the edge of the world was the hardest plot line to become emotionally invested in. As I said before, it’s hard to care for the ultimate aim of defeating Khalul with the information we've been given, especially when Bayaz himself is shady as fuck. And the fight scenes here seem a bit artificially thrown in, as if put there purely because trudging through the desert makes for dull reading. I also found Jezal’s sudden change of attitude from the whiny brat he was in the first book a little too sudden and too soon. I am interested, however, in both Logen and Ferro and in what’s going on with apprentice magi, Malacus Quai. Will be interested to see where all those characters end up in book three.
All in all a better book than The Blade Itself. I still don’t feel that Abercrombie is the best fantasy writer ever, but I am looking forward to book three. Though I do wonder, after two books of very slow plot development, how he can pull the conclusion off in just one book without it feeling rushed.(less)
If I’m honest I’m still not sure what to make of this book yet. It was a fun enough diversion, exactly the sort of thing I needed when I went...more 3.5 Stars
If I’m honest I’m still not sure what to make of this book yet. It was a fun enough diversion, exactly the sort of thing I needed when I went into the bookshop and asked for ‘something enjoyable I don’t have to think about too hard’ (it’s all I can manage these days now I’m back at uni). But, given the praise for Abercrombie that I’ve been hearing from various people who’s taste I normally trust, I have to admit I do feel a little disappointed and underwhelmed. Where were these clever subversions of fantasy tropes? The female characters? And where, dear god where, was the fucking plot?
The answers, apparently, are in the second and third books (I hope!), because there wasn’t really any of that stuff in this one. The Blade Itself is pure set-up, introducing the cast of characters and some very basic world-building. Logen Ninefingers is a barbarian who’s given up barbarianing, Jezal is a self absorbed fencer, Bayaz is a powerful old magician, Glokta is a torturer for the inquisition, etc. etc. And this is simply the book about how they meet. Imagine The Lord of the Rings, if Fellowship ended at the council of Elrond, after having followed not just Frodo’s, but each of the nine walkers individual journey’s and trials to get there – and if Gandalf then never got around to telling them about the One Ring but started leading them into Mordor without any explanation of what they were doing or why. That’s kind of what this book felt like.
Which isn’t to say it’s bad. As I said, it was just the sort of stop-thinking-and-read book that I sometimes need and there was stuff that I enjoyed about it, but it could perhaps have done with less stuff that felt like filler and more actual plot.
And yes, I understand the need to avoid info-dumping in fantasy, really I do. But the opposite, not explaining anything, is almost as bad. On the very first page of the book we get introduced to something called a ‘Shanka’. And if you don’t know what that is, well, you’re in the same boat as me. Is the Shanka a tribe of people? The hold weapons and wear fur. Are they creatures? They are only referred to as ‘it’ and can take a chunk out of a man’s leg in a single bite. Even when their origins are revealed (400 or so pages in) I still have no fucking clue what they are or what they look like. From what I gather though, they’re basically serving the narrative role of The Others/White Walkers from A Song of Fire and Ice - creepy unnatural creatures who people think are a myth but actually live in the far North and are gathering in number ready to fuck everyone over when they head south – except that they really aren’t at all menacing or scary because I literally know nothing about them.
The Shanka are only a minor part in the story so far (presumably they play a bigger role in later books) but they’re the most obvious example of Abercrombie’s frustrating failure to explain things adequately. I don’t want a massive info dump, but I need to know enough so that I can understand and, perhaps more crucially, care about what’s happening. Without the context of what things mean or what their significance is, things that should be grand epic events like the visit to the House of the Maker just kind of fizzled because, unlike the characters, I didn’t have the information to understand why it was a big deal.
This sounds like I didn’t like the book at all. I did. Although it’s just setting up characters and gathering them together I did really enjoy some of those characters. Glokta as the embittered torture victim turned torturer is, quite clearly, the bestest but Logen Ninefingers is fun too, even if his plot line took forever to converge with the other two main strands. And Jezal…well he’s very believable as a completely shallow, self absorbed prat who’s had everything handed to him on a plate. In fact he reminds me disturbingly much of a guy I once had a thing with, and whilst I'm still friends with that guy, Jezal is definitely the least sympathetic or likeable character. But he is believable.
Women characters, however, fare less well. There’s really only two of any importance in this book. One is a badass runaway slave bent on vengeance and killing everybody. She’s only introduced halfway through and I haven’t managed to form much of an opinion on her beyond ‘I think I like her’. The other is a common born love interest who is just so clever and funny and pretty, but in a non-fashionable way, and is so not-like-other-girls’™ that I want to vomit. Why do writers do this, seriously? Is it only possible to praise a female character by pissing on absolutely all of the other ones? Fuck you (and yes I know this viewpoint is coming purely from Jezal’s hugely sexist unreliable thoughts but it’s still vomit inducing and makes me want to punch both of them in the face). We know she’s clever and funny because Jezal says so, but we never actually see proof of her being either. She has sexy dark hair, tanned skin and womanly curves in a world where the noblewomen are skinny white blondes who are only capable of the most vapid conversation! Spare me. But we know that she’s tough and not-like-other-girls™ because she drinks alcohol and says ‘fuck’ a lot.
And that’s the other thing about this book. There’s a lot of swearing. Which normally doesn’t bother me even remotely (being that I’m a huge swearer myself), except that it's overused to such an extent that it serves to make every character’s dialogue, from the well-dressed head of the inquisition down to the exiled barbarian warrior, sound pretty much the same. Everyone says ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ all the time, even when the swearword doesn’t really fit with the tone of what they’re saying. It often feels as if it's been shoehorned in for ‘realism’ points rather than put in to reflect how real people actually talk.
So yeah… an enjoyable read, really. It’s just easier to write about things that bug you than things that don’t. At this stage in the series though I don’t quite understand why everyone loves Abercrombie so much*. It was a fun book in a generic ‘low fantasy’ political intrigue-y kind of way and I’m expecting the next couple of books to get better as more stuff about the setting, characters, and plot is finally revealed. But, if I had got this out of the library rather than purchased the first two books on special offer, it would probably be one of those series where I never find the motivation to go looking for the sequel (much like Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb…I think I can admit now that I’m probably never reading the rest of that trilogy).
So three and a half stars. I enjoyed it, I really did. It made for a very fun, action-packed read and a great break from university work and I will be reading the sequels but, as a standalone book, it’s really nothing all that special.
*Though I am prepared to revise my opinion of Abercrombrie with books two and three.(less)