First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

June 4, 2009 at 1:40 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 6 Comments

I guess this is a good news, bad news situation.

The good news is this is well-written high fantasy.  It’s a self-contained trilogy (only in fantasy would a story spread over three books earn the label self-contained) that moves its story across vasts distances and many viewpoint characters without ever losing control of its narrative.  The story is interesting, and even better, the story seems like it is really about something more than just a good story.  More on this in a moment.

Before I get to that, though, I should note that while reading The Blade Itself I figured this was high fantasy written with an eye for avoiding the “usual” glorification of combat and authoritarianism.  I put usual in scare quotes there because is it really that common any more?  I am not widely read enough to know whether we have hit the critical point after which the majority of fantasy stories are not in fact poor Tolkien imitations that mindlessly trumpet poorly understood medievalism, but if I had to guess I’d think we actually hit that point quite a while ago.

In any case, in the first book I noticed that although there are characters from every walk of life, it seemed that the band of crusty veteran warriors from the wartorn north were the ones the author was really interested in.  I thought maybe he really wanted to be writing a grunts-eye view book but felt obligated to throw in the usual tropes.   That guess turned out to be incorrect.  By the time I got into Before They Are Hanged, I realized this was not really a realistic fantasy with some high fantasy tropes, it was a point-for-point anti-high fantasy.  Every trope was introduced so it could be subverted later.  This is somewhat more rare but someone reading this site has likely read at least one other example of it, Thomas Covenant perhaps.  By setting up high fantasy cliches and then deconstructing them, at first there’s a nice unpredictability to the narrative.  However, by Last Argument of Kings, I realized that deconstruction was the entire point of the novel and that every single narrative strand would be tuned for this purpose, so the final book was extremely predictable.

This brings to me the bad news, at least for me.  I very much want to read books that have something to say, but in this case I hated the underlying message of the narrative.  Hated it.  Beyond the negation of fantasy stereotypes was something more subtle that I found genuinely distasteful.  In this trilogy’s world, those in power use their power for their own gain and nothing else.  If they espouse an ideology, they are manipulating people.  Anyone who buys into an ideology is a rube who is being manipulated by the powerful.  Yes, there are a couple people in power who are motivated by a desire to live up to some sort of ideals, but these are just dangerous rubes, for they are nevertheless being manipulated by the Nietzschean ubermensch who crafted the ideology.

I feel like this outlook isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerously wrong.  It’s true that a quick survey of history will locate plenty of politicians and other leaders who have cynically used ideology for their own gain.  Yet just as frequently, maybe even more frequently, I think you’ll find leaders who genuinely believed what they preached, and being sincere were far more persuasive and therefore dangerous.  Isn’t the lesson of the twentieth century that idealism is the poison that results in irrational actors leading states into self-destruction?

However, I won’t penalize the trilogy just because I disagree with it.  It was genuinely thought provoking, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of what I read.  Now that Joe Abercrombie has gotten this out of his system I’m hoping he will write something more to my tastes.


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