✨ Spoiler Free ✨
Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Books: #1 The Blade Itself; #2 Before They are Hanged; #3 Last Argument of Kings
Publication year: 2006-2008
Content warnings: War, graphic violence and injuries, torture, mutilation, gore, death, trauma, misogyny, kidnapping, imprisonment, explicit sexual scenes, rape. Since this trilogy is grimdark it contains lots of dark themes so there may be some I’ve missed from this list.
The First Law universe is a dark, politically unstable world characterised by war and unrest. The trilogy follows 6 POV characters on their respective journey’s as they navigate the conflict and political games that will determine their fates.
What I liked
- THE CHARACTERS!!
- Character dynamics
- Strong character development
- Writing style and prose
- World building
- Dark themes
- Morally grey characters
What I disliked
- Slow pacing
- Lack of plot
- Open and rushed ending
Plot and Structure
This trilogy is known for not being big on plot, but that’s not to say that there is a complete absence of plot. Similar to most multiple-POV fantasy stories, the trilogy has six plot threads running through it focused on the six main characters. At various times throughout the three books, the characters’ stories intersect with thrilling results. The plot is focused on two central conflicts – the one between the Union and the North and the second between the Union and the Gurkish Empire. It’s primarily a war-focused plot, analysing the conflicts that take place from military, political and social perspectives.
Despite getting off to a relatively slow start in the first book, I really enjoyed the plot. There were lots of twists and turns, political intruige and fantastic action scenes. The plot was built upon more with each book, but I personally enjoyed the plot in Before They Are Hanged (Book #2) most. Although the fantastical elements were low, there was enough to keep me intruiged and I liked learning about the world’s magic and history. The ending was somewhat underwhelming and rushed. It was too open-ended for my liking and I felt that there were some characters that were done an injustice and questions that remained unanswered, but I appreciated that the ending generally fit with the tone of the world. It was bittersweet to say the least.
Structurally, each book is divided into two parts with alternating POV chapters between Logen Ninefingers, Sand dan Glokta, Jezal dan Luthar, Collem West, The Dogman and Ferro Maljinn. It’s narrated in chronological order for the most part with a handful of flashbacks relevant to establish the plot and characters’ back stories. The diverse personalities of the POV characters and their different stations and locations provided a broad perspective on the world and plot as it unfolded. I enjoyed every POV character, which is rare for me, and an attestment to how well Joe Abercrombie writes characters.
World Building and Magic
The world building in this trilogy was incredible. It’s one of the most detailed worlds that I’ve been able to create in my imagination; from the side alleys to the grand buildings and vast deserts, I see it all in vivid detail and felt as though I was living in the world with the characters. Abercrombie took the time to establish the world, drip feeding the information throughout the three books at a steady pace. Yet from the very first chapters I felt anchored in the world and had a strong sense of how it looked, smelled and felt. Through his writing, Abercrombie drew on all of the senses which connected me to the world even more. Although it’s a very dark and unpleasant world, it’s one of my favourite fantasy universes that I’ve read to date.
There was a lot of ambiguity around the magic system. More was revealed about the function of magic and the First Law the series is titled after – which outlaws contact with the Other Side – in the second and third books. Most of the information about the magic system was established through history and a lot of it was left unexplained. As a fan of soft magic systems, I personally liked this. The magic was prominent at times but for the most part it was a low hum in the background; I could sense it but it wasn’t tangible. Overall, the magic system was a lower priority in comparison to the characters and world building.
Joe Abercrombie writes with intention and is meticulous with how he chooses his words. His writing is carefully chosen to match the setting and characters. Each character had their own manner of speaking characterised by different sentence lengths, colloquialisms, dialects, phrases and patterns of thinking. I am yet to read another author that so distinctly differentiates between their characters. His flair for writing dialouge is equally fantastic. It’s sharp, witty and engaging. The style wasn’t flowery but eloquently conveyed the tone and emotion of the story and characters. There was extensive descriptions of the setting which enabled me to build clear images of the setting and world but it wasn’t too indulgent. Description didn’t overshadow the other elements of the writing and the balance between the various aspects was balanced well. Abercrombie also has a talent for writing war and action. All action and battle scenes were detailed, fast paced and thrilling. Likewise, his ability to write gut-punching and captivating scenes is fantastc. There are so many memorable scenes from this series that will stay with me for a long time. Overall, the attention to detail in Abercrombie’s craft was apparent. From dialogue to descripton to prose, it was concise, strongly written and it immersed me in the world and story completely.
Round and round in circles we go, clutching at successes we never grasp, endlessly tripping over the same old failures. Truly, life is the misery we endure between disappointments.#3 Last Argument of Kings
Characters and Relationships
The characters were the triumph of this trilogy. They were simply phenomenal. Each one was complex, morally grey and awful yet oddly sympathetic. I couldn’t help but develop a love-hate relationship with them. They were compelling and unpredictable, but also completely consistent and fully fleshed out. Even when characters took turns I didn’t expect (which happened a lot!), it was authentic and believable. Each character had a complete arc and journey across the three books which was well written, developed and executed. Their development wasn’t linear, and some characters regressed in many ways, but that was very fitting with the nuance of the characters and is also reflective of the reality of being human. Growth is hard and messy and doesn’t happen easily. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.
There wasn’t a single poorly written character. I loved every single one of them. The only character that felt a little weaker to me was Ferro, which was disappointing since she was the only main female character. In fact, my biggest critcism of Abercrombie’s characters is that there was a complete lack of female characters and the ones that were featured felt less developed than the male characters. However, having read two of the First Law standalones (Best Served Cold and The Heroes), I know that this is something he improves on later on in the series.
Admittedly, the characters won’t be to everyone’s tastes because they are so terrible. Unless you really enjoy characters that are genuinely terrible and morally corrupt, you won’t connect with these characters. They did awful things, sometimes for survival but sometimes simply because they could, because they wanted to or because it was the easier choice. They’re not the type of characters that are relatable or that readers can necessarily empathise with, but I became invested in them as people that were unfortunate to be born into such a volatile world that forced them to extremes for the purpose of self preservation.
I could take the time to individually analyse each character because there’s so much to say, but I will just mention my personal favourites – Logen, The Dogman, Jezal and West. These characters surprised me and developed immensely across the trilogy. Despite their flaws and darkness, there was a core sense of humanity that I connected with. That’s not to say the other characters weren’t as equally strong, because they were. The characters stand out in my mind as some of the best in fantasy. In the future, I plan to write character analyses on some of the First Law characters, so keep an eye open for that, if you’re interested.
Because the characters were so great, the character relationships wrote themselves and were so fun to read. Before They Are Hanged (Book #2) was my favourite book for this because of the new, unlikely friendshps that were made. I really enjoyed the dynamics between the Northmen – Dogman, Threetrees, Grim, Black Dow and Tul Duru. Despite their friendships being shallow on the surface, since their bond was formed on a need for survival, the dependence, loyalty and cooperation between them was touching. There wasn’t much emphasis on romantic relationships which I appreciated, since I can sometimes find that romance is shoe-horned into fantasy unnecessarily. I also liked that the romantic relationships that did form weren’t idealised and were actually quite un-romantic. It was in keeping with the tone of the book.
The First Law is a dark, gritty, character driven fantasy trilogy set in a rich universe inspired by medieval Europe. Despite a slow burn plot, it’s a thrilling, compelling and encapsulating story with plenty of twists and turns. I was diappointed by the lack of female characters, but the trilogy makes up for it with the complex, dynamic and intruiging cast of characters it does have. It also makes up for this short-coming in other areas such as its attention to detail, world building, character development and well crafted writing style. Abercrombie’s sharp minded wit and dark humour makes for some brilliant dialogue, character moments and character dynamics. All of this comes together to create an immersive, exciting and unforgettable read which kept me on my toes and made me feel the broad spectrum of emotions from elation to sadness to anticipation and shock. Overall, this trilogy is centered on the characters and is a must-read for character driven fantasy readers like myself.
I’d recommend The First Law trilogy if:
You’re looking for a character driven grimdark fantasy with low magic, complex morally grey characters and a dark world akin to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
Have you read The First Law or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!
Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.