What I love about the First Law series by Joe Abercrombie

An enthusiastic, yet critical First Law Review

  • Authentic, thought-provoking, morally gray characters.
  • Upside-down tropes.
  • Fast pace, lack of bloat.
  • Brilliant prose.

“Proof is boring. Proof is tiresome. Proof is an irrelevance. People would far rather be handed an easy lie than search for a difficult truth, especially if it suits their own purposes.” — Joe Abercrombie, Last Argument of Kings

Despite his own quote, Joe Abercrombie definitely prefers writing difficult truths rather than easy lies. This is the case for his characters, for his setting, for his themes, even for his prose itself.

The First Law books could leave a bitter taste in the mouth of readers who are used to traditional, less morally ambiguous fantasy. If you leave your romantic worldview and haughty ideals at the door, however, you’ll find a lot of enjoyment and a lot of value in Abercrombie’s writing.

Below I’ll try to explain why I love the First Law, while at the same time outlining as objectively as possible how the books can put some people off.

If you think The First Law is your cup of tea, you can get it on Amazon to support the author (and the publication, we get a small cut as affiliates!):

First Law’s Setting: cynical, unforgiving, minimalistic

In terms of worldbuilding, First Law is arguably the polar opposite of the Stormlight Archives, the Wheel of Time, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Abercrombie’s books don’t build a world of that scale and scope.

This could be a drawback for readers that love extensive worldbuilding, but it also has one big benefit: it cuts down bloat to the bare minimum and allows the author to keep a great pace throughout the novel(s). In fact, Abercrombie mentions he was frustrated by the bulk of most epic fantasy series and intentionally tried to write something more focused.

The more minimalistic worldbuilding, however, doesn’t mean that the setting isn’t good. Even though the First Law world doesn’t have many unique details, it manages to be extremely immersive.

For example, The North in Abercrombie’s world is obviously inspired by medieval northern Europe. Yet, the culture (values, beliefs, even speech) of the characters who inhabit it are communicated so well that the relatively minor differences it has with the real world set it apart extremely efficiently. The North comes to life more convincingly than most other fantasy settings I’ve experienced exactly because it emphasizes depth much more than scope. The soul of The North isn’t the unique fantasy quirks and features it has, but rather the fully fleshed-out people that inhabit it, and I can confidently say it’s one of my all-time favorite fantasy settings.

Artist: Darya Kuznetsova

If your favorite thing about fantasy is the scope of imagination — the many different races and nations with their deep histories and cultures, then the First Law world wouldn’t be your favorite. If what you are searching for is the exploration of unique concepts — intricate magic systems that influence the story and setting, then First Law would fall short once again.

If what you prefer, however, is depth instead of scope, an unforgiving setting that bleeds realism and is unafraid to expose the ugliness of human nature instead of exporting all evil to an outside source, then you might have found one of the most valuable fantasy worlds your mind can visit.

First Law’s Plot(s): character-driven

The First Law books are undeniably character-driven. It feels as if the story exists in order to force the characters through a process of transformation, rather than the characters existing in order to move the plot forward.

A great example of this (extremely minor spoiler warning) is the fight with the bandits in Before They Are Hanged. Removing it wouldn’t change the trajectory of the main story in any way. Yet, dealing with its consequences is pivotal for transforming one of the characters (Jezal) from one of the most insufferable viewpoints in fantasy to a person you’ll full-heartedly be rooting for.

Another example would be the siege of Dagoska. It’s hands down one of my favorite sequences in fiction. Yet, I can hardly remember its key plot points. What I distinctly remember, however, is that the way the viewpoint character (Glokta) dealt with the impossible situation was undeniably awesome.

This doesn’t mean at all that the story itself is weak. Sometimes the story arc will feel familiar, yet the unexpected will happen every once in a while (with the right amount of foreshadowing) keeping things fresh and interesting.

Unlike most books in the genre, however, what you care about most wouldn’t be if the heroes are successful at saving the world/winning the war/etc. By the end of the books you’d usually have serious problems calling the main characters heroes, and even claiming they hold the moral high ground. Yet, you’d still care immensely about their individual stories.

First Law’s Characters: falling in love with terrible people

“If life has taught me one thing, it’s that there are no villains. Only people, doing their best.”

No heroes. No villains. Just people doing their best. This sums up the First Law pretty well.

Artist: Darya Kuznetsova

The First Law characters are without a doubt some of the most interesting people I’ve reada bout in fantasy. I believe this is true because of three reasons:

  • First, even though they are often archetypal characters, there is always a twist on the trope. It makes them unique and helps them develop in unexpected ways.
  • Second, they are fleshed out extremely well. Their motivations (both wants and needs) and as a result — their behavior, emerge very naturally from their character and personal history. This makes them extremely believable, even when they carry “unrealistic” magic elements.
  • Third, the author never tells (or even implies) what is wrong and what is right. Judgment is left entirely to the reader, as it should be. And even though some of the actions you’ll read about are quite reprehensible, the fleshed-out motivations of the characters makes it extremely hard to be judgmental. First Law is a great testament to the complexity of being human and a breath of fresh air in the current cultural climate, which usually tries to paint events (and even whole groups of people) in pure black or white.

In these articles, I usually try to avoid to get into specifics to avoid spoilers, but I think a couple of examples here would add more value than they would detract (minor spoiler warning):

Logen:

Logen Ninefingers, the Bloody Nine, is the typical tough guy with a dark, violent past. Yet, instead of walking the expected arc of realizing he can use his skills in violence for the greater good, he does something totally different.

When you are introduced to him, he is a likable guy, trying to do the right thing to the best of his abilities. Yet, as you learn more and more about his past crimes, he slowly turns back to the person he used to be.

“If you want to be a new man you have to stay in new places, and do new things, with people who never knew you before. If you go back to the same old ways, what else can you be but the same old person?”

The great thing is, however, that even though he becomes less likable, you empathize with him more and more. By the end of the books, you’ll understand intimately how “monster Logen” and “good guy Logen” can be the same person.

Glokta:

Glokta is the smart-guy — the one that uses his sharp mind to make witty remarks, to do political maneuvers, to uncover plots and mysteries, etc. The twist is that he is a professional torturer, extortionist, and a cripple.

Yet, I’ve heard multiple people claim that Glokta is their favorite fantasy character of all time, and with good reason.

Have you no pity?’ Glokta could only shrug. ‘I did have. As a boy I was soft-hearted beyond the point of foolishness. I swear, I would cry at a fly caught in a spider’s web.’ He grimaced at a brutal spasm through his leg as he turned for the door. ‘Constant pain has cured me of that.

Even though a large part of the things he does are terrible, he does them for extremely believable reasons and surprisingly little malice at heart, considering his circumstances. Moreover, occasionally, he’d try to do the right thing, although his circumstances rarely allow for such luxuries.

Bayaz:

The ancient wizard. The wise mentor. Quite typical, at first. Yet another Gandalf.

Until you slowly but surely start to realize things are not as they seem. At all.

“Knives,’ muttered Calder, ‘and threats, and bribes, and war?’

Bayaz’ eyes shone with the lamplight. ‘Yes?’

‘What kind of a fucking wizard are you?’

‘The kind you obey.” — The Heroes

It gives me great joy imagining Gandalf saying this to one of the hobbits:

“I bought you from a whore. You cost me six marks. She wanted twenty, but I drive a hard bargain.” — Last Argument of Kings

Artist: Darya Kuznetsova

Abercrombie’s Prose

Without a doubt some of the best I’ve read.

As some readers, I’m allergic to flowery prose and strongly prefer a more straightforward, Hemingway-ish writing style. There are also plenty of people in the opposite camp who are fans of beautiful, artful writing.

Yet, there seems to be a general consensus that Abercrombie’s writing is of very high quality and readers in both camps appreciate it. He manages to strike a great balance between those two extremes. The language he uses manages to be beautiful while at the same time he avoids any needless ornamentation.

“Get what you can with words, because words are free, but the words of an armed man ring that much sweeter.”

Abercrombie is not armed, at least to my knowledge. And his words are not free, considering you need to buy the books. Yet, they ring quite sweet nonetheless.

The First Law Reading Guide

Don’t be fooled that the standalones are called standalones. The books deal with familiar characters and the events in them happen in chronological order. In order to maximize your enjoyment its best to read them in the order shown below (i.e. in order of release).

The Blade Itself: Usually, the first novel in a book series tries to stand well on its own — the main reason is that it’s easier to sell it to a publisher that way. This is not true for the Blade Itself. In reality, the original trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before they are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings) is one big novel broken into three parts (not unlike The Lord of the Rings). This means that The Blade Itself on its own won’t give you a complete story arch and a satisfying conclusion of any sort. Yet, as I already said it’s all about the characters rather than the plot. So, you’d still enjoy it immensely.

Before They Are Hanged: The siege of Dagoska is one of the most interesting and satisfying sequences I’ve read in fantasy and Glokta solidifies himself as one of the most interesting characters in the genre. Also, things up North become more and more interesting. Definitely doesn’t suffer from the “weak second book” syndrome.

Last Argument of Kings: A satisfying conclusion — not so much the final battles, but rather where the main characters end up. Some of them have very satisfying conclusions of their arcs, others very frustrating, but either way — extremely well deserved. A bittersweet ending to the trilogy, and even though some people dislike some of the exact details, I think that as a whole the conclusion is quite brilliant.

Best Served Cold: My least favorite First Law book (revenge stories aren’t my first choice), yet one I’d readily recommend nonetheless. The characters are very interesting, and their arcs extremely satisfying. A bitter and cynical person discovering her goodness contrasted with a hopeful optimist losing himself to nihilism and toxicity.

The Heroes: One book. One battle. Probably the most realistic depiction of war I’ve ever read in fantasy. Once again, viewed from the eyes of great characters, with sharply impactful conclusions to their story arcs. The contrasting endings of the young boy with a romantic view on war and the cynical veteran war simply brilliant.

Red Country: Probably my favorite so far, although I think which book you like best boils down to which premise you find most interesting. In Red Country, the main characters want to save their children, who were kidnapped by bandits. Somehow, totally in his style, Abercrombie manages to turn this purest of motivations into something morally divisive. It’s awesome.

The second trilogy in the series (The Age of Madness) is in the works, with the first two titles out: A Little Hatred, The Trouble with Peace, The Beautiful Machine.

Final Remarks:

I’ve been trying to get through this damn book again”. Ardee slapped at heavy volume lying open, face down, on a chair.

“The Fall of the Master Maker”, muttered Glokta. “That rubbish? All magic and valor, no? I couldn’t get through the first one”.

“I sympathize. I’m onto the third and it doesn’t get any easier. Too many damn wizards. I get them mixed up one with another. It’s all battles and endless bloody journeys, here to there and back again. If I so much as glimpse another map I swear I’ll kill myself.

OK, Joe, we get it. You don’t like classic fantasy. Jeez.

This makes it pretty obvious — First Law is the polar opposite of the traditional farm-boy-saves-the-world-from-the-dark-lord fantasy book. If this sounds interesting to you, definitely give it a go.

Or in other words: if you want to stay on the light side of the force, stick to Master Brando Sando’s work. If you’re unafraid to delve in the dark side of fantasy, however, Lord Grimdark, AKA Darth Abercrombius has you covered.

(As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

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Enthusiastic but critical Fantasy and SciFi reviews and various cool SFF content. If you are an SFF fan and use Medium often, make sure to follow us!