I’m going to be doing something a little different for this review. For one, I’m reviewing three books in one, as I couldn’t stop reading between them long enough to gather my thoughts coherently enough for a post, and secondly, I’ll be using a lot of material from N J Magas’s in-depth reviews to talk about the various points of the books. As always, there will be no true spoilers, though if you’re wary of knowing anything at all, I would simply say: Buy these books, but know they are dark. You could skip the rest of the post.
I’ll start off by saying that I went into this series expecting a lot. While N J was reading these books, she was nearly exploding at the mouth to not give away anything, and all of her reviews gave the books really high marks. This doesn’t happen often with her, so I had a lot of understandable expectations going in.
The Blade Itself
This book opened with a wonderful quote:
“The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.” –Homer
N J said the following in her review:
The Blade Itself is a sometimes bloody, sometimes dark, sometimes funny story that dances along the edge of established fantasy tropes without ever setting foot in them long enough to become boring. It has a full cast of characters, running through their own converging plot arcs, which, impressively, each have a unique voice in narration. The characters are multi-layered and not confined to the skin of the fantasy mold they come from. There is real growth in most of them throughout the book, making them feel real and connectable. And while the frequent name-dropping of countries and territories hints at a vast world, Abercrombie doesn’t bog the reader down with needless details of geography and history. Really, the only place he spends considerable time world building is Adua—fitting as this is where most of the story centers.
I recommend you read her whole review (minus spoilers), because it’s very well-written, and I would have to say that on the whole, I agree with her. This book is awesome in so many ways, but rather than bog down what is absolutely going to be a long post, I’ll give all of these points in bullet-form.
- The characters. There is only one character I truly disliked in terms of function in the entirety of this series, and that was Bayaz, but I’ll talk about that later. The other characters: Glokta, Logen, Dogman, Black Dow, Threetrees, Jezal, Ferro, West, Snow, Severand, and Ardee were all fascinating and added various levels of intensity to the story. Even the unlikeable characters (because they are supposed to be unlikeable) I truly enjoyed reading. I connected to all of them on some level, and their pains as this series progressed became my own.
- The narrative. I loved that even though the story was told in close third-person, you could feel which character arc you were in by the words on the page. Abercrombie did an amazing job giving Logen, Jezal, Ferro, West, and Dogman their own point-of-views, and keeping those consistent and distinct from one another throughout the entire story. It almost read like first person. Truly wonderful.
- The little details. Small things, like Logen’s favored phrase “You have to be realistic”, or Dogman’s perpetual need to use the bathroom once a battle starts all added a supreme richness to this text.
- Glokta. My god, I have never loved a character so much as this man. If you read the series for nothing else but his story, his insights, his struggle to live despite being irreparably crippled (no white mages in this series), it would not be a waste. I also loved that though other people defined Glokta by how he appeared to them, for the reader, he is one of the more philosophical, intelligent, and conniving (he’s not lacking in a black heart) in the entire series.
- NO IN-STORY RAPE. I couldn’t believe it, but Abercrombie did it, and I love him for it. We have a three-volume, grisly, violent, dark fantasy work where the women aren’t raped. One character has it in her past, one almost became victimized (but she was a side character), but none of the women were raped, and it was never suggested that rape is the only terrible thing that can happen to a woman (and indeed it isn’t!) Even Glokta, the most twisted in the bunch in regards to torture and how to hurt someone, at one point (in the third book) says that having a woman raped would be below even him. It was SO refreshing to read a book with a large female cast of characters as diverse as the men, and not have their whole plot be centered on who they wanted to sleep with, or who they fell in love with, or who they were victimized by.
The things I didn’t like:
- Absence of plot. This is forgivable, given how amazing the characters were, but I felt like a little more should have actually happened, or come of, the subplot conflict that was presented as the main event of the book.
- Bayaz. My dislike of Bayaz started the moment he and Logen arrived in Ardua, and only grew as this series progressed. I won’t give spoilers, but he was a character that really should have had something happen to him at the end of his arc, for good or evil, but nothing really did. A week after finishing the series, I am still shaking my head and wondering if he was a waste-of-space-deus-ex-machina, or an allegory for life. Tough call.
Before They Are Hanged
Personally, my favorite book in the series, N J also said so, writing in her review:
Dear Fantasy Fairy God[father],
I want a story in which the bad characters are sometimes good and the good characters are some times bad. I want it to be action packed and violent, with some tear jerking tender moments too. I want it to be familiar and unique. I want it to build up my expectations and knock them all down again in a way that doesn’t leave me frustrated and confused. I want it to be magical and realistic. I want it to be humorous and dark, intelligent and approachable. I want it to keep me up at night.
One Desperately Picky Reader
It certainly kept me up at night. With the exception of a continuing theme in the book that happened so many times it left me disappointed (though this is what makes Abercrombie’s books feel so real, in the end: that all things can fall apart at the last second, despite the most heartfelt and world-moving efforts), I loved this book. I agree with everything N J mentioned in her (spoiler-heavy) review. This book is priceless on so many levels. It gets dark, but the characters kept my mind out of the muck, and the interpersonal relationships between everyone just made this book.
Of course, don’t expect much more than a crawl on the overriding plot. This is a character-driven fantasy, almost to an extreme. And maybe a little too much time spent on the battle scenes, but I’ve never been much interested in battle scenes–other reviewers give them very high recommendations, and I can certainly see why.
The only other problem I had with the story was the transparency of Bayaz and other things I can’t mention without drawing attention to them. Needless to say I was suspecting something that happened in the third book as a “big reveal”, but it was so heavy-handed in places I knew what was going on almost immediately.
Last Argument of Kings
Oh, man. This is a book that required me to sit down and really consider it for days. That hasn’t happened to me in a long time. At first, when I finished Last Argument of Kings, I felt letdown, disappointed, and angry at Abercrombie for the ending he had given the reader.
Anyone who knows me knows I also place so much weight on the end of a series to deliver something satisfying and realistic. I don’t need a happy ending, but I do need one that is fulfilling… one that makes me feel that all the time I invested in the story and characters was worth it (and for First Law, that’s a lot of time. This final book weighs in at over 700 pages).
N J really loved the ending of this series. She wrote:
No one gets what they deserve; you have to be realistic.
I’m going to admit, first off, that there were many, many reasons why I might have disliked this book, but Abercrombie works magic with words in a combination of amazing voice, strong character, and a conclusion that both binds up the events of the previous two books, and leaves the ending open enough for the reader to be plagued with maddeningly entertaining questions. In short, I loved Last Argument of Kings, the final book in The First Law trilogy, and like most entertaining and engaging fantasy series, my biggest complaint is leaving the characters behind.
I, on the other hand, am on the fence. There are certain characters that I truly weep over how their arcs ended. No names, but oh my god, so sad. There were other arcs that I knew I should have been happy that they got something good in their life, but I wasn’t. There were still others that got away with everything, and the story makes no excuses for it either, and that just rankled me.
There was really only one arc ending that I truly found fitting–indeed, just perfect for the character, and it made me so happy, because I was really worried about whether that character’s agency had been stolen from them for a plot point, and that turned out not to be true.
But, despite the fact that I didn’t like a lot of the ending, didn’t like a lot of it from the standpoint of a reader who needs some kind of closure, or at least more closure than Abercrombie gave, this story has stuck with me. These characters have stuck with me, and I imagine them as clearly as the characters I have created on my own. Now that takes some truly magnificent writing, and Abercrombie completely pulled it off.
So, yeah, buy these books.