And so we come to it, the final book of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. So I’m trying to start this review off with a quick summary of where all the major characters are at the beginning of book three and what they’re setting out to do, but it’s representative of my feelings about this series as a whole that I can barely remember to be honest. Logen, Bayaz, Jezal and the gang return from their very long, pointless walk west (that entire plot thread was weak shit by the way) and largely go their separate ways. Logen heads north to fight in the still-raging war between the Union and Bethod, while Jezal, much changed by his experiences in the wilds, contemplates a quiet life of solitude with Ardee West, but the ever-scheming Bayaz has other plans. Sand dan Glokta returns from his defence of Dagoska, only to find himself caught between the machinations of Arch Lector Sult and the shady representatives of the banking house Valint & Balk, both of whom hold great power over him and refuse to back down in their conflicting demands.
From my little jabs in the introduction you might think I disliked this book, but that wouldn’t be true. I thought it was much better than Before They Are Hanged, which was a very disappointing follow up to The Blade Itself, and there were a bunch of aspects about it I really liked. That does, however, come with the caveat that there are just things about this book that hamper it from ever becoming a great (or even very memorable) read for me. I absolutely don’t want to come of as a big Negative Nancy about it all though, so let’s start with the stuff I really liked.
I’m a big fan of grimdark. Now, I can already hear everyone reading this screaming “You’re a big fan of grimdark but lukewarm on Joe Abercrombie?!!?” and I mean, all I can say to that is…yeah. Soz. That being said (and I’m sure this is where me and the Abercrombie superstans all sing from the same hymn sheet), our Joe is very good at the grimdark in this book. And I mean that on a deeper level than just “oh the protagonists are morally grey and sometimes do bad things” that bad grimdark tends to be. No, here we really have a world that stands in sharp contrast to traditional fantasy of celebrated heroes riding off to defeat the Dark Lord, forging their names into the annals of history and forever celebrated by the common folk. In Abercrombie’s world heroism is rarely rewarded, codes of honour are more likely to get you killed than celebrated and as Queen Terez says, “No one gets what they deserve”.
Probably there was heroism going on down there in the smoke. Soldiers hauling injured comrades to safety through the sooty darkness. Nurses stitching wounds by screaming candlelight. Townsfolk plunging into burning buildings to drag out coughing children. Heroism of an everyday and unglamorous kind. A kind that made no difference to the overall outcome.
In another scene where Logen literally stabs someone in the back, murders them by running a sword through them from behind, he contemplates how his father used to tell him “Never take a man in the face if you can kill him from behind”. Honour has no place in this world, at least not if you want to stay alive. One of my favourite paragraphs in this book shows how good grimdark can be, and how it can really say something quite poignant about the nature of war. After one particular character death Dogman considers what it was they died for, and concludes that it was “a pointless sort of death, a long way from home. Not for anything he believed in, or understood, or stood to gain from. Nothing more’n a waste”. This is fucking great and can actually make you think about what it is people die for when they’re sent off to war. Think about World War I; every time I see a memorial for the soldiers who were sent to fight and die for the British Empire in 1914 it has some absolute tripe about how they were fighting for freedom and democracy when nothing could be further from the truth. The countless numbers of colonised troops drafted to fight for Britain were still subject to brutal imperial occupation and women didn’t even have the vote. In fact when workers struck for labour rights in 1919 they were savagely put down by the military. Truth is war is waged on behalf of the powerful and they use expendable people to do it. Nothing more’n a waste.
But I digress. Grimdark doesn’t just have to revolve around violence though, and I think this is where Abercrombie excels. Jezal, for example, finds himself elevated to a somewhat unexpected role in this book. A role that typically would lend him power, privilege and satisfaction, but instead only subjects him to the whims of others who actually control him. And ironically, despite him having undergone some character growth in book two (he is no longer the self-centred, womanising fop he started out as), when he actually tries to use his newfound power to do good, he is often punished for it, not rewarded. And what makes this even more complex and subversive is that in one particular scene, where he receives a particularly severe punishment, he actually finds relief in his impotence; he weeps “with pain and fear, with shame and anger, with disappointment and helplessness…Bayaz had been right. He was a coward. So most of all he wept with relief”. He revels in the fact that he’s excused of responsibility. Jezal is not a hero.
Ok so this all sounds great right? So why didn’t I love this book? Mostly it just boils down to sub-par execution. Abercrombie had a lot of very good ideas and clever subversions of fantasy tropes, but ultimately he just didn’t write it very well. Most of these failings can be traced back to book two, which was undoubtedly the weakest link in this trilogy. We’re kept in the dark for far too long about what Bayaz is planning and the result is that a lot of the story feels like it’s being dragged out with very little direction. I think this whole story would work better if we knew at least something of what Bayaz was up to. Clearly, writers need to withhold some information to keep the reader hooked, but I think Abercrombie got that balance too out of whack here and it was very noticeable to me.
Another of this book’s major flaws, again, stems from the failings of the second book. Too many of the climactic moments involving Bayaz and his schemes relied on me actually remembering any of the boring shit he droned on about on that long, pointless walk in Before They Are Hanged. Honestly, I just zoned out for most of his lore-dumping lectures and I couldn’t actually tell you who Kanedias, Juvens and Euz even are. So given the importance of Bayaz’s history with these people to the outcome of the plot, a lot of the supposedly mind-blowing moments just didn’t hit home for me. Add on top of this some other minor quibbles like how some sentences just don’t make logistical sense (at one point someone clasps their fists together???) and just finding Logen’s catchphrases intensely irritating (I swear to god if I ever hear the phrase ‘say one thing for Logen Ninefingers’ ever again I’m going to flip my shit) this book ended up just being okay when taken all together. And unless I missed something, it’s just never explained why Logen can summon and speak to spirits? That bugged the shit out of me.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on for a long time now I think, so I’m gonna rein this in now. And look, I know this is a fringe opinion so don’t come at me haha. In fact please tell me why I’m wrong – I welcome your (friendly) criticism. I’ll still read more Abercrombie after this cos there’s enough about these books I like (plus I’ve heard that he improves as a writer in subsequent books) but honestly, I just don’t understand why these books are considered quite so highly.
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