It was raining in December, and the mood for the entirety of the city seemed dour. Wet, muddy, and I swear I could smell death faintly in the musky earth as I was walking in the slop. With this attitude I was looking for something a little more gritty for my wintry spring books. I stumbled across The Blade Itself, book one of The First Law Trilogy, and from the opening chapter - with The Bloody Nine sprinting through a thick northern forest from a terrifying animal called a Shanka, his only friends thought dead, eaten, and back to the mud and himself just barely escaping the jaws of death, literally shaking the horrific animal off his leg from a cliff just before he too plunged into the icy river below - I knew I’d be in for a ride.
I didn't expect the ups and downs, twists and turns of a wonderfully fleshed out and fantastic series of books. With complex characters, heroes and villains alike and rooting for both at the same time. Not trusting certain Wizards who have interesting and frightening magic, and a treasure of truly laugh-out-loud humor of the darkest kind. These books have something for everyone.
“He looked down at his hands, pink and clean on the stone. “There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there’s a lot of ’em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I’ve earned it. I’ve deserved it. I’ve sought it out. Such is my punishment.”
The Blade Itself reads like a prelude. The first book in this trilogy sets up the story for the rest of the series with the tease of action and twists always on your fingertips. Following several point-of-view characters, we start to fill in what’s going on in this harsh world. With a fast paced start and interesting character development, I found myself dragging in some of the world building. To note, The Blade Itself was Abercrombie’s first published novel, cutting slack where it’s due. It’s a masterful achievement of a first published work, and taking it in as a trilogy, it’s setup is perfect. Let’s meet our characters as described from the synopsis:
Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught in one feud too many, he’s on the verge of becoming a dead barbarian – leaving nothing behind him but bad songs, dead friends, and a lot of happy enemies.
Nobleman Captain Jezal dan Luthar, dashing officer, and paragon of selfishness, has nothing more dangerous in mind than fleecing his friends at cards and dreaming of glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules.
Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then Glokta hates everyone: cutting treason out of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendship. His latest trail of corpses may lead him right to the rotten heart of government, if he can stay alive long enough to follow it.
Enter the wizard, Bayaz. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he's about to make the lives of Logen, Jezal, and Glokta a whole lot more difficult.
Abercrombie didn’t make this easy on himself, safe to say that writing a multiple POV character driven story is no cake walk. The story itself relies on these characters to drive the plot forward, and Abercrombie does a wonderful job at finding and giving each of his characters unique voices, and nuanced prose. There’s no real good or bad in Abercrombie's world, which gives his interesting and layered characters a more realistic and gritty feel. You’re always on the edge of your seat, not quite knowing how a character will react.
The Blade Itself moves along with the plot barely there, and mostly placed on the shoulders of the characters driving the story, the simplest way of saying what’s happening in the world is that there’s a war brewing. The Union are sitting in roughly the middle ground of the world. North of them, the invading Barbarians led by the king Bethod are nearly on their doorstep. South of the Union, the Gurkish Empire are also preparing for battle. The Union is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their leadership is questionable, the army isn’t as strong as it once was, and the political parties are more interested in themselves than they are the defenses of the cities and people.
“Everything frightens me, and it's well that it does. Fear is a good friend to the hunted, it's kept me alive this long. The dead are fearless, and I don't care to join them.”
Before They’re Hanged is where I really fell in love with the story that Abercrombie is telling. The action picks up ten-fold, the journey that we follow three of our main characters on is fantastic and surprising and much larger than I ever anticipated it being. The twists came out of nowhere, and the dark humor was so perfectly on point. The entirety of the novel kept me enraptured, and I could not dig through the pages fast enough.
“A choice between killing and dying is no choice at all. You have to be realistic about these things.”
The Last Argument of Kings rounds out the trilogy, and is amassed with twists and turns and reveals. The action is brutal, and costly. The characters might not love who they are by the end of the story and you’re left wondering if they changed even a little bit. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter. The final pages really leave you with such a taste of ash and fury in your mouth, and you can’t help but turn a distrustful eye towards every goddamned wizard you’ve ever held in high esteem.
“It's hard to be done a favor by a man you hate. It's hard to hate him so much afterwards. Losing an enemy can be worse than losing a friend, if you've had him for long enough.”
I had such a fantastic and wonderful time reading these books that I was truly sad to see them end. The character Logen Ninefingers, The Bloody Nine, entered into the top five greatest characters in fantasy writing for me by the end of this series.
Abercrombie has cemented himself as one of the greats, with prose as sharp as the blades his characters carry. These books are right at home next to the heaviest hitters the genre has to offer, and while we didn’t get every burning question answered, or happy endings for characters we wanted to read more about, there are several other books set in the same universe that I cannot wait to devour.
I’ve rated the First Law Trilogy ⅘ stars on goodreads. I highly recommend them to anyone looking for a fun and exciting trilogy.