Posted by: Ken Brown | August 20, 2013

Review of The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie

Abercrombie - The Last Argument of KingsDoes the devil know he is a devil? – Elizabeth Madox Roberts

Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy is a breathtakingly original work of fantasy, built on memorable characters, intertwining plotlines and remarkable world-building. It may also the most cynical and depressing fiction I have ever read. In the end, it did not go at all where I expected it to go, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

Through the first book, Abercrombie’s brand of “realistic” fantasy seems little more than a lesser cousin to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, to which he clearly owes a great deal. But by the second and especially the third book, The First Law Trilogy finds its own distinctive voice. Like Martin, Abercrombie offers a diverse cast of memorable anti-heroes and villains, set in a well-developed world of political intrigue, warfare and compromise. Its deeply troubling depiction of the mage Bayaz is well worth the cover price by itself. Its story is engaging, original and rarely predictable, and the dialogue and description steadily improve as the trilogy goes on. But it is the ending that really establishes the series’ greatness, as it transforms itself into a surprisingly effective—though inevitably one-sided—dystopian fantasy.

Like any good dystopian story, its core is an implicit critique of contemporary society, in this case the domineering influence of big business and banking interests on political action, and the abuses of the “war on terror.” Nor does Abercrombie settle for cheap political points; he also efficiently explores how even well-meaning leaders can find themselves drawn into willing participation in a corrupt system beyond their control. Unlike many similar works, in which the hero struggles honorably, if unsuccessfully, against the system, this series rightly emphasizes how the selfish, cowardly and unintended choices of the “heroes” themselves can lead to lasting harm. It also highlights our tendency to exaggerate our own moral progress and convince ourselves that our relapses are necessary or unavoidable. Most of all, it offers a haunting illustration of the concept that “history is written by the victors.”

But at times the series undermines its own message. Showing the aftermath without reveling in the bloodbath itself is one thing Martin’s A Game of Thrones did especially well (though later books in the series less so), but Abercrombie doesn’t seem to have the same knack for it. Like Braveheart or Avatar, The First Law Trilogy wants to critique our easy acceptance of war, but in practice it seems a bit too interested in the details of violence. Showing one of the heroes kill a friend in the closing moments of a battle, or having the victorious general muse that his men’s “we won” sounded a lot like “we lost,” only goes so far to balance out the hundreds pages of detailed description of battle itself. Whatever Abercrombie wishes us to feel about the horror of war, the fact remains that a significant portion of the story—especially in the third book—is filled with detailed and exciting depictions of violence.

In fact, this case is in some ways even worse than Braveheart, as it does this for both war and torture. One of the main characters is a torturer for “the Inquisition,” which in this world is purely a tool of the state—or anyway of those claiming to speak for the state. But while the story regularly emphasizes the way torture can be used to make anyone confess, in practice the books often drag out the violence itself well beyond what is necessary. Moreover, and perhaps without meaning to, Abercrombie ends up implying that torture works. Judging from the results our anti-hero achieves, it would be difficult to escape the conclusion that torture is reprehensible but effective means of accomplishing the torturer’s goals.

More deeply, however, the genre itself is problematic. By presenting itself as a kind of “realistic” fantasy—a genre it maintains pretty faithfully through the first and much of the second book—the series’ late turn towards dystopia leads to a distorted picture of human nature. As a critique of our endless capacity for self-delusion and compromise, The First Law Trilogy is effective, but like any dystopian story, it must leave something important out. Most obviously, women and children rarely appear in this story, and every single one of them either once was or eventually becomes a victim of some act of violence or another. The only female character whose point of view we are given is–literally–part demon, and driven almost entirely by an insatiable wish for vengeance.

Yet even among the men who dominate the story, there is little friendship or kindness. There is lust, but no genuine love untainted by abuse. They occasionally show mercy, but rarely act unselfishly or sacrificially. In the end, Abercrombie does not just give us a cast of broken people in a broken system; he gives us a group that is rarely fully human at all.

And I can’t help wondering how much of this reflects back on another thing that has been left out: any sense of the sacred. Though there are some religious believers in this world, they are virtually all among the enemies, and their faith is more likely to lead to violence than prayer. The central society in which the story is set is thoroughly secular, perhaps even atheistic, and while it becomes clear that they are ignorant of larger forces at work, those forces are inevitably dangerous and uncaring. Indeed, a major theme is that the average person is blissfully unaware of how strongly their society has been shaped by powerful men (almost all men) wielding dark supernatural powers.

This is a world in which hell exists but heaven probably doesn’t. A world full of devils but no angels, where men are little more than monsters, and where people never truly escape what their past has made them. A world in which the idea that human beings have inherent worth is never seriously considered, and no one really believes in a future beyond the grave. If there is a God out there somewhere, he never speaks or acts, and is appealed to only to justify war, slavery and vengeance, never faith, hope and love.

As a dystopian critique, the story works, but as an authentic portrait of humanity it leaves a lot to be desired. The world isn’t full of white knights and black hats, where the guilty always pay and the righteous always prevail. But neither is it a fading grey, where grace and warmth and victory are never more than an evanescence.

Abercrombie is right that even the best among us struggle against our own vices and regrets, follow our own self-interest, and generally fail to overcome the system. But human beings are not mere self-interested devils, and our attempts at justice no more always fail than they always succeed. Not every tale needs a “happily ever after,” and it is generally those with the most ambiguous endings that prove the most thought-provoking, but in the end I guess I want my fantasy more “realistic.” That doesn’t just mean more violent and morally ambiguous; it also means more honest about the worst and best of humanity.

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Responses

  1. A writer can’t escape writing some of his own perspectives and beliefs into his stories, so I would tend to think that a very dark, dystopian book like this reflects the attitudes of the author to some extent. And of course, there are plenty of people today to reject any belief in a benevolent God, who see power and our political institutions as utterly corrupt and self-serving, who have a very nihilistic view of life and a great deal of cynicism about religion and religious believers. So I suppose one could write such a book as a means of trying to show what a world truly lacking in anything redemptive might look like. But who would want to read it?

    It sounds like a heavy-handed attempt by the author to sound an alarm, and in working so hard to pound home his point he managed to lose all sympathy for his readers.

    • It’s good to hear from you Charlie!

      It is not as though the series is completely without grace or self-sacrifice; it is just how small and fleeting a role they end up playing. Still, I am not ready to dismiss the series as a whole as merely cynical, since dystopia does serve a valuable cautionary purpose. I wouldn’t complain about 1984 or Brave New World for their similar pessimism, and even if this falls well short of those masterpieces, it will still stick with me.

      • I recently re-read Brave New World, and it was much darker than I had remembered. Dystopia does serve a valuable purpose, as you say, and I remember finishing BNW and thinking that we are a lot farther down the road to Huxley’s vision than I might have guessed.

      • The more I read about what has been happening in Syria, the more I think our war stories are not nearly pessimistic enough. The societal collapse that country is facing is staggering, and no matter what the rest of the world does, there is no obvious path to peace. There is certainly no great act of heroism that will magically destroy evil, as we so love to pretend in all our stories. Every option entails evil, and it is not even clear which is the “lesser.” Maybe Abercrombie is right about that. Or maybe I’m just feeling too cynical today.

  2. It’s a gnostic world, where Hell and Earth are effectively the same place, God and Heaven are remote and indifferent, and the World is ruled by an elite few who possess the Secret Knowledge. I would have theological objections to this, but they are muted here because the story is very realistic about the biggest problems with such a worldview, and the Pandora’s Box ending.

  3. It sure sounds like an interesting story. I will have to read this one.

  4. I just started this and can’t put it down. Thanks for the referral!

  5. It’s been an amazing read. I am loving the story.

  6. What he’s doing will make more sense if you’ve read Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” tetralogy. The central character is raised in a guild of state torturers, but it’s the story of what he chooses as an adult. The Glokta narrative can’t really be appreciated without knowing “New Sun,” even though Abercrombie never mentions it in interviews. Wolfe is a Catholic & NS is one of the best books I’ve ever read–highly recommended!


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