Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie

Reviewing this trilogy seems a little pointless, as it seems like I was the last person on the planet to get around to reading it. But! Maybe not! Maybe, like me, there are a few of you still out there who held off, maybe because you avoid hyped books, maybe because you avoid trilogies, or maybe, like me, because you avoid barbarians. Barbarians! Rarely do I find a character more boring or predictable than if he’s a bloodthirsty, scarred, possibly with a secret heart of gold, barbarian. It’s bad enough when they pop up as secondary characters, but to start a trilogy with a barbarian as the main character? No. Thank. You.

But a rare book shortage and a rainy Sunday afternoon led to me finally giving Mr. Abercrombie a try and, what a shock, turns out all the glowing reviews were on to something. Ironically my favourite thing about the trilogy quickly became Logan, the barbarian who had kept me away for so long. Nine parts awesome self depreciating humour and practicality, one part terrifying blood crazed beserker. He’s a complicated fellow, to be sure, and I doubt few authors would have had the skill needed to create him. The rest of the book’s cast are equally impressive, painted in enough shades of grey to please even the most jaded pallet.

The plot, if you pull it out of the book and examine is almost laughably standard. Eclectic group of adventures are led on an adventure across the globe in search of a Mystical Artefact™. But frankly the plot could be young boy discovers he is a wizard and attends school of magic and Abercrombie’s excellent prose would make it sound fresh and new. He also delights in taking the reader’s expectations and twisting them. Oh ho, you think the dashing young hero is about to best his foe? Whoops, no, shield butt to the face! Think those two crazy kids are gonna find a way to make their love work? Ha, she stabs him the face!
It was refreshing, but I have to say I think Abercrombie took the idea of subverting fantasy tropes a shade too far and started to subvert the whole idea of a narrative. Which probably sounds pretty cool to some people, and I know a lot of people enjoyed the trilogy, but for me the last third of the final book did a lot to ruin my (immense) enjoyment of the previous volumes. (I’ll keep it spoiler free, don’t worry)

Let’s set aside for now the fact that ‘Last Argument of Kings’ suffers from a case of the never ending ending. Think the final Lord of the Rings book, where everything gets wrapped up but then we’ve got to win back the shire and that’s done but whoops, now we’re off to catch a ship… If the reader is starting to think, ‘just finish already!’ that’s probably not a good sign. But I know I wouldn’t have minded the dragged outness of it if each page wasn’t sucking the good will right out of me. I don’t require or even want happy endings to all the books I read, but what I do want is some character development. If character A has not changed a bit by the end of the book then what was the point of anything?

And everything seemed to be going so well. Slowly and naturally over the course of the first two and half volumes each character was growing as a person. Selfish Jezel learned a little humility, ruthless Ferro was starting to show faint traces of mercy, it made for compelling reading. And I guess is was Abercrombie’s biggest subversion of all. Oh, look, the silly little reader thinks the characters are going to come out of this as better people! We’ll show her! He proceeds to spend the last chunk of the book completely reversing what character growth there has been, so that every character ends up being pretty much the same flawed and unlikable person they were at book one’s start. Where he spent an entire book subtly changing a characters outlook or establishing their world view, he undoes with a handful of forced paragraphs. Frustrating? Ah, yeah, just a little.

The best way I can put it is to say that Last Argument of Kings felt like the second to last volume in a series. That book where the characters reach their lowest, where things seem their bleakest, before the eventual well earned and triumphant success of the last book. And yes, I know that Joe ‘The Subverter’ Abercrombie clearly didn’t want to do what the reader expected but dude, give us something! (At the very least he could have explained what the hell was up with Logan’s “Bloody-nine” blackouts….)

I can’t not recommend this series, because the writing and characters really are fantastic. And while the ending was definitely not to my liking, I can’t deny that it made me think and really consider what I expect from a book, and why. On the other hand, I don't know that I'll be picking up any more Abercrombie books any time soon.

How did I get these books? I bought them

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