The First Law Trilogy – Book Series Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Joe Abercrombie
Genre: Fantasy
Books: #1 The Blade Itself; #2 Before They are Hanged; #3 Last Argument of Kings
Publication year: 2006-2008
Audience: 18+
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.

Synopsis

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.

Writing Style

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.

Concluding thoughts

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.

The Poppy War Trilogy – Book Series Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: R. F. Kuang
Genre: Fantasy
Books: #1 The Poppy War;#2 The Dragon Republic; #3 The Burning God
Publication year: 2018-2020
Audience: 18+
Content warnings: War, genocide, self-harm, drug use, substance addiction, misogyny, abuse, animal cruelty, rape, death, graphic violence, torture, child death, starvation, mutilation, gaslighting, suicide, cannibalism, mental illness, human experimentation, racism and gore. This trilogy contains every single content warning imaginable, so I apologise if I’ve forgotten any. Just be aware this is a very dark series with a lot of disturbing and upsetting content which is often explicit and graphic.

Synopsis

The Poppy War trilogy weaves fantastical elements with twentieth century Chinese history. It follows Rin, a young dark-skinned orphan, soldier and shaman from the south, who has a pivotal role to play in the future of her home as the Nikan Empire enters into the Third Poppy War.

What I liked

  • Historical influences
  • Realistic depiction of war and its consequences
  • Character dynamics
  • Ambitious plot
  • Combat/fighting scenes
  • Interesting magic system
  • The darkness of the story

What I disliked

  • Unrealised character potential
  • Pacing
  • The under-utilisation of strong characters
  • Redundant plot points
  • Limited character POV
  • Too plot focused
  • Not enough exploration of the magic system

Plot and Structure

This trilogy is very plot focused. Since R. F. Kuang wrote the books based on Chinese history, the timeline is plotted out based around key events in the timeline of that history, drawing specifically on the Second-Sino Japanese War and Chinese Civil War. As a history academic, historical accuracy is important to Kuang and many of the key plot points are pulled straight from history texts but with a fantastical twist. Unfotunately, there are some plot points that are dropped or wrapped up conviniently easy. I also didn’t necessarily like the choices that were made with the plot and felt that with some minor shifts in the focus, it could’ve gone from a great trilogy to a mindblowing trilogy.

Although I wasn’t in love with the plot, I admire how ambitious it is, particularly for a debut series. Kuang expertly takes real history to create a fictional world that has enough parallels with Chinese history to provide valuable insight and commentary on the history of our world, but that also has enough differences that it feels fresh and unique. The ultimate goal of this trilogy is to examine the consequences of colonisation and war in our world through a fantastical, fictional lens and in that she undoubtedly accomplishes what she set out to do.

Structurally, each book is divided into three parts. It’s almost exclusively from the protagonist’s perspective, Rin and generally follows a chronological order with a handful of flashbacks usually in the opening of the book or the start of a chapter. Generally, the structure is clean and easy to follow but I would’ve preferred more flashbacks to get more insight into the back stories of the characters. I also found the choice to have only one POV very limiting. I’m personally a huge fan of multi-POV books, particularly in fantasy, and the way the plot is set up, particularly in the second and third books, meant that we desperately needed other character POV’s.

World Building and Magic

Considering this is Kuang’s debut, the world building was decent. Due to the nature of the book, lots of time was spent developing the history of the world but there was also time given to establish the cultures, politics, social structures and geography. However, since it is based on China, a lot of the world building is heavily reliant on the real-life history, geography, culture and people of China. This means that it cannot be credited with authentic world building, since it is using an existing place and only makes a few minor changes. Personally, I did find the world immersive and imagined the setting vividly in my mind. Unfortunately, other reviewers have commented on the fact that the immersion and appreciation of the world building can be negatively impacted the more familiar the reader is with China which is a huge draw back.

I found the shaman magic system so intriguing. I personally haven’t read many books that have this type of magic system so it was fun for me to learn about it. It’s definitely a soft magic system, which was good for me because I personally prefer soft magic systems. Having said that, I felt like the magic system was played with too fast and loose and there were a lot of inconsistencies about how it works, its limitations, how it’s accessed and used. The concept was fun, but the execution wasn’t quite up to scratch. However, I did like the way that drug use was incorporated into the use of shamanism because it provided the opportunity to explore the impact of drug addiction and substance misuse, which is generally handled well.

Writing Style

Kuang’s writing style is succinct and harsh, fitting the tone of the overall story. The writing is particularly effective for war and combat, and the intricate details around war tactics, strategy and battles are unparalleled. There’s vivid descriptions which enabled me to build tangible images of the setting and scenes. It’s rare for authors to craft a world and scenes that feel so real to me that I can still picture them clearly in my mind months and years later, but I know that this world and certain scenes from all three books will stay with me for a long time. Yet offsetting that, there’s a lot of introspection and emotionality. Striking a balance between description and emotion is difficult to achieve, but Kuang pulls it off. However, the sheer power of the emotions and themes she explores is so powerful that at times it did feel like over-kill. Since Rin is a highly emotional, reckless and intense character, the emotional stakes feel like they’re always at their height and as a reader, that can be emotionally exhausting. Overall, there’s an over-arching intensely passionate tone, which conveys Kuang’s personal attachment to the history and culture of her home-country and heritage which is woven into the books.

I am the force of creation, I am the end and the beginning. The world is a painting and I hold the brush. I am a god.

#3 The Burning God

Characters and Relationships

The characters are probably the hardest aspect of this trilogy to review because I have so many mixed feelings. At times, I felt deeply connected to the characters and thought they had great development, and others they felt very vague and underdeveloped. Since Rin is the POV character, her characterisation is given the most time and attention. Rin is a polarising character. She’s an anti-hero that has a corruption arc across the three books and as much as I can see how much time was invested in developing Rin’s every thought, emotion, behaviour and action, I found it very difficult to connect to her or sympathise with her in any way. On paper, she’s a very complex character with a lot of layers but I never felt anything towards her. Her characterisation is complicated and contradictory and I could never truly get a sense of who she was as a person. Her motivations seemed to jump around and change constantly with little explanation and that paired with her utter instability was difficult for me to wrap my head around.

The other characters ranged from “forgettable” to “average” to “had potential” to “great”. There are a lot of characters that have quite a lot of page time but who are one dimensional and/or used as a plot device. My favourites were Altan, Nezha, Kitay and Venka, all of which fluctuate between being in the “had potential” to “great” categories. Mostly they’re in the “had potential” because although I really liked these characters I don’t feel like any of them were fully realised or used to the extent they could’ve within the story. Altan, Nezha and Kitay all could’ve been POV characters and it’s a crime that Nezha wasn’t. Books 2 and 3 could’ve been elevated to an entirely new level if it’d been a dual perspective between Rin and Nezha. There’s so many unanswered questions around these characters, so little backstory and barely any time devoted to developing them beyond a couple of areas.

Admittedly, there’s still some unfulfilled potential in the relationships but not quite as much. The relationships are what connected me to the books and were the reason that I cried at the end of Book 1 and Book 3 (Book 2 almost got me, but not quite). Rin’s relationship with her best friend Kitay was a breath of fresh-air. I have a soft spot for well-written friendships and male-female friendships are so rarely depicted well so I adored Rin and Kitay. Rin’s intense and turbulent relationship with Altan was what first made me fall in love with the trilogy. Likewise, her fraught enemies-to-friends relationship with Nezha was addictive. Rin and Nezha have such an interesting and complex dynamic which does manifest itself particularly in Books 2 and 3, but overall, it’s done a huge disservice and I felt robbed of what we could’ve had. Regardless of that, the relationships are a true highlight of this book. It’s not just Rin’s relationships that I enjoyed, but the bonds of friendship and family between other minor characters too.

Concluding thoughts

The Poppy War is a powerful, intense and emotionally explosive fantasy trilogy which breaks away from traditional Westernised fantasy to provide a world and story inspired by Chinese history and culture. Rin is perhaps one of the most complex and polarising protagonists I’ve read recently in fiction and whether readers hate her or love her, her development is staggering. The world building, plot, characters and relationships all had enjoyable parts to them but overall, I was left feeling that the trilogy failed to reach its full potential. All of the ingredients for a fantastic fantasy story were there but weren’t chopped, combined or cooked in the right order or the right way. Nonetheless, I’m glad I read the trilogy; it took me on a wild ride of highs and lows, the first book blew my head off in the best possible way and the story packed a strong emotional punch. Kuang has demonstrated that she has a flair for writing historical fantasy and I think that with more experience and progression in her writing career, she will overcome these minor flaws and publish books that will absolutely knock my socks off and be 5 star reads across the board.

I’d recommend The Poppy War trilogy if:

You’re looking for an intense, dark, emotional fantasy story inspired by Chinese history with a complex, anti-hero POV.

Have you read The Poppy War or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.