Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Trilogy Review: The First Law by Joe Abercrombie

And after all the efforts, all the sacrifices, all the scheming, and plotting, and killing... All that pain, for what? --Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

Long-time readers know how this works: long rambling preamble interwoven with personal history, a summary of the book (or trilogy, in this case), my immediate opinion,and a brief (or "brief," in this case) discussion of wider issues. As always, spoilers abound, so reader beware.

I've read fantasy literature for a long time. As a child, I read and re-read my parents' boxed sets of The Chronicles of Narnia and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles so many times the books literally fell apart. I've read all fourteen of the L. Frank Baum-penned Wizard of Oz, and let me tell you, even finding all fourteen is no mean feat. For better or for worse, these books have had an effect on me, and an effect on the person I've become. To a certain extent, these fantasies defined the terms of my childhood.

But the first "adult" fantasy writer that I cut my teeth on came a little later. Specifically, in 1994, when I started reading David Edding's Castle of Wizardry, the fourth book in the Belgariad series. It's a hell of a book to start a series on. The first third is about an escape from a crumbling tower, the second is about a quick gathering of forces in safe territory and a general reunification of friends, and the last third is a charge into full scale war. I had no idea whose tower was crumbling, whose friends were regathering, or whose war was being fought. I had no context, no frame of reference, and no sense of the larger story. I loved it.

Or at least, I liked it well enough to go on to the next book in the series. And the next series entirely, the Malloreon. And back to the Belgariad for the rest of the stories. And then on to the author's other fictional universe, first with the Elenium trilogy, then with the Tamuli. And back again to the Belgariad for the 2 massive prequels, Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress. Throughout my teenage years, I would ceaselessly read through the entire 19 book corpus. As soon as I reached the end, I'd start over again.
...In my defense, we had a rather limited public library.

But somewhere around the end of the Tamuli, the second Sparhawk trilogy, I started to feel disillusioned. This sense continued and intensified with the stand-alone book, The Redemption of Althalus. By the time The Dreamers series came around, I read the first book, was decidedly underwhelmed, and decided that I was done. I wasn't done with the genre, by any means; in fact, I started reading Terry Pratchett shortly after that, and that particular obsession this blog has documented well enough. It was these particular books and the author that I had given up on. My problem with the books was simple: the protagonists were, by and by large, a bunch of smug bastards.

The big difference between Eddings' style of writing and Tolkien's (and I HATED Tolkien's writing as a kid; I still find it overly ponderous) is that Eddings was more willing to indulge in colloquial banter--at least, among the protagonists. But he was also prone to black and white morality stories, and making his good guys ridiculously overpowered. It worked well enough in a series such as the Belgariad, (and that's the series that will most likely stand the test of time as a quality Young Adult book) which was equally a coming-of-age story where the protagonist discovered his own power as a good vs. evil tale, but by the time the end of the Tamuli rolled around, the characters were vastly overpowered without the redeeming aspects of youth to temper them. The constant quipping felt like the mean-spirited taunts of a schoolyard bully. In part, it's a simple issue of balance, but there's also an element of a larger problem with the fantasy genre of the time: the endless focus on the battle between good and evil tended towards a fundamentalist view of the world, and, as it was presented here, I didn't find that view appealing anymore.

Fast forward a decade or so. If I had gotten tired of reading one-sided good vs. evil fights, then I'd like a book that's willing to cast its protagonists in more realistic lights? Something that's willing to explore the shades of grey? Well, if the shades are the ones coming from Abercombie's The First Law series, then the answer is no, no I would not.

The First Law trilogy consists of three books: The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings. To demonstrate how poorly I manage my time and how obsessive I can be, I read all three books, approximately 1600 pages, in under two weeks. As such, my evaluation of them is less on their individual merits, and more on how the series works as a whole. And as a whole, the books could be loosely described as Game of Thrones lite--there's the same use of "gritty" fantasy, multiple characters and plotlines, and an intricate overarching world, but the number of characters and plotlines are much fewer, which is frankly a point in the series' favor.

The plot: The nation of Angland is at the center of a two-front war. The Northmen are amassing at the northern border and the Gorkish gather in the south. At the same time, the Gorkish forces are driven by a man who seeks to use them as pawns to further a grudge match between two wizards spanning millenia (the grudge match spans millenia, not the wizards. Although I guess they do as well). Through these basic plots run our narrating characters. There's Logen The Bloody-Nine, a Northman with a grudge against their current leader, with an unfortunate tendency to succumb to a homicidal split personality. And Jezel dan Luthar, an aspiring young fencer and all-around asshole, though he, more than anyone, develops into a better person by the trilogy's end. There's Sand dan Glokta, a former commander turned torturer after his own body was tortured beyond all recovery by the Gurkish. (He's the clear breakout character--although it's just as clear that a good portion of his appeal comes from his similarity to Tyrion for the Game of Thrones series, who is similarly sardonic, dark, and possesses a physical disability.)

Beyond the main three, there are a few other significant viewpoint characters: Major West, Jezel's friend and a voice of reason in the army; Dogman, part of Logen's former battle comrades (and before that, his battle enemies); and Ferro, a former Gurkish slave who lives solely to see more Gurkish dead. Also worth mentioning is Bayaz, the wizard that the aforementioned Gurkish wizard has such a grudge against. You could fill a small stable with the other tertiary characters, but those are the main, more or less.

The first book, The Blade Itself, is mainly about setting up the characters and the world itself. Logen escapes near death, and casts his lot with Bayaz. Jezel prepares for Angland's annual duel tournament, as the crowd's favorite. Glokta, at the command of his master in the Inquisition, tortures, blackmails, and schemes his way through the destruction of the Angland merchants guild. West prepares for deployment, Dogman and his group try to stay a step in front of the Northland king, and Ferro is recruited by a third wizard to join Bayaz's quest.
The second book follows through with these plotlines. Dogman joins up with West's group, and they stage combined attacks on the Northland king after he invades the south. Glokta defends the southernmost Angland city against Gurkish attack. At the same time, Bayaz leads a small group--including Jezel, Logen, and Ferro--to the ends of the earth in search of a magical mcguffin to eventually fight the opponent wizard. And, in a sort of impressive subversion of the usual fantasy tropes, the quest fails.

The third book takes these plot points to their conclusion. Logen rejoins the northern forces, and helps defeat the Northern king with Dogman and West. Then everyone is back in Angland as the Gurkish invade the capital. The heroes win--but it's the most Pyrrhic victory imaginable. (And here's where the spoilers become heavy.) Logen's former troop of allies are whittled off one by one, some by Logen himself in his homicidal state, until he is left king of the north, but surrounded by former allies that want him dead. His choices are essentially to either give in to his homicidal alter-ego, or rule a constant stream of merciless oppression. Ferro, having found and used Bayaz's mcguffin, is more vengance-crazed than ever, but now literally crazy as well, tormented by demons from another dimension that want her to keep using the device to free them. West is rapidly dying, poisoned by radioactive magical fallout of the device. Glotka, already in a pretty gray moral position, realizes that his life will always be a series of endless tortures, in the service of one master or the other. Jezel is left king of Angland, but with a wife who absolutely despises him, and a puppet for Bayaz. And Bayaz... Well, he was always presented as an ambiguous character. But after all is said and done in over 1600 pages, it's ultimately revealed that it was Bayaz who started the war of the Magi, after he treacherously turned on his master, attempted to murder his lover, and turned on his order. He's a monster who manipulated all the events in the novel, and it's strongly implied that his wizard opposite number is exactly like him. The novel ends with him leaving Angland in Jezel and Glotka's hands, while he goes off to scheme against his enemies again.

I think, at this point, that you can guess my reaction to the trilogy. It's left a ridiculously bitter taste in my mouth. For the last 100 pages of Last Argument of Kings, I kept a running commentary of "really?", "that's a bit much" and "Good God. Lighten up." I've seen the series described as an antidote to the "old-school" style of fantasy, a more realistic portrayal of how events play out than in the Belgariad-type of story. That, I think, is what bothers me the most. I'll give that it's an inversion of the good vs. evil form, but not that it is at all realistic. If anything, it's the equivalent of a fantasy gothic; Mr. "The Ruin of Two Houses" Heathcliff would have felt at home among the cast of The First Law. If a writer like Eddings goes overboard in the relentless depiction of saccharine do-gooders, this story is an example of going overboard in the other direction. Every character becomes utterly convinced that the world is an endless stream of unfair, unjust events and that the only things to live for are ruthless self-preservation and vengeance. That's not realism. That's fatalism, and a particularly nasty brand of it at that.

Flo Keyes, in her book The Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today: Connections in Medieval Romance, Modern Fantasy, and Science Fiction argues that the speculative root of both science fiction and fantasy is hope, hope that a society can be transformed into something better. I disagree with her--in large part because her definition of science-fiction means that she also precludes the dystopia as a form of science-fiction, which seems like a misstep--but also because I don't think fantasy needs to be limited in that particular way. By the same token, though, I don't think it should be limited by despair, either.

It's worth noting that a large part of my reaction comes from the realization that this third book is meant to be the end of a trilogy. In my mind, then, I treat it as the end of a story. I know Abercrombie has set other books in this universe, and that these other books, for all I know, may respond to the negativity here. But by virtue of this being the end of a trilogy, it sits in my mind as the end of a story, and on that basis, it's a series that is severely flawed.

My negative reaction to this ending reminds me--in a much diluted form--of my reaction to Faye Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. If you recall--or if you click here--I found the book so repellent that I couldn't even write a review of it. (And as a sidenote, looking at the length of that review--man, my book reviews have really spiraled out of control, haven't they? Might have to do something about that in the future.) As a parody of romance novel tropes like the virtuous woman and the good wife, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil delivers a satire that directly critiques common societal conventions.

If you squint a little, you could just get away with saying that Abercrombie's series is equally a parody of the fantasy genre as it is a member of the fantasy genre. It subverts fantasy genre elements like the beautiful queen, the virtuous prince, and the wise old wizard, and thus delivers a sharp critique of our own complacency with the fantasy story. On that level, I'm much more comfortable with saying that The First Law trilogy is a satirical work rather than a "realistic" or even "gritty" one. Except it doesn't quite work on that level either; first, it plays things a little too straight. More significantly, it doesn't reach the same level of satire as the Weldon book because it's too damn long. At 278 pages, Weldon's book manages to make its point in a few different ways, then concludes. 1600 pages, in comparison, is a few too many. To borrow a metaphor from our torturer friend Glotka: satire works better as a quick stab than in a long flaying.

If Abercrombie simply wanted to do a darker fantasy, that's a different issue. But in that case, it shouldn't be heralded as a breath of fresh air--Stephen Donaldson was doing the same thing (only somewhat better) in his Thomas Covenant series thirty years ago. Donaldson, in my opinion, did a much better job balancing the characters who do despicable acts without giving entirely into fatalistic angst--and considering that the main protagonist spent long stretches believing that the fantasy world he was in was a symptom of his leprosy-induced insanity, that's saying something. I'll give Abercrombie points for doing a better job with handling the witty banter and avoiding the purple prose, but when it comes to depicting real, flawed characters, Donaldson has the edge.

The topic of what makes a fantasy, on whether a fantasy story can be too dark or needs to be more realistic, is of particular salience at the moment, because the HBO series Game of Thrones debuts next Sunday. It's been a big focus in the blogosphere of late, and how well it does will most likely influence the course of the genre for at least the near future. George R. R. Martin's series has garnered a reputation for dark, gritty fantasy stories. But it's significantly different from Abercrombie's stories, both in that it depicts more factions in the good/evil struggle (and thus potentially more differing perspectives), and also that its characters are a little less likely to succumb to a fatalistic pragmatism, and little more optimistic--a little more like people you could, if they were real--put your trust in (well, some of them at least). And I'm willing to be a little more generous to the series because, thanks in large part to a stream of delays, it's not over yet. I'm not expecting a happy ending, but I am expecting an ending that doesn't make me feel bitter for reaching it.

Or to put it another, geekier way: Winter is coming. But that doesn't mean there will never be another spring.

Later Days.

No comments: