Reflections: The First Law Trilogy

The First Law Trilogy

The First Law

Just finished this well-regarded Fantasy Deconstruction trilogy and thought I’d add some thoughts (from a writerly rather than critical perspective).

In this, Abercrombie takes a pickaxe to the traditional tropes heroic fantasy quite successfully. It says almost everything that needs to be said when the most sympathetic characters are an amoral torturer and an intermittently homicidal maniac.

Apart from the earthy, profane characters and Abercrombie’s obvious enjoyment at rejecting all that is fine and noble about the fantasy genre (in an interview, he mentioned one of his inspirations as the movie Unforgiven), the thing that impressed me most about this series is the ability to run a  very complex, multilayered plot over the very long haul (about 3500 pages, save it for your holidays), and make plot points early in the first book important only in the last quarter of the third.

Characters actions have multiple meanings and consequences, and Abercrombie manages to make characters ignorant without making them stupid (which in my opinion is an important skill for a writer) and to keep the reader wondering without making them confused. And when he confounds the reader by flatly contradicting something previously said about a character, it’s done knowingly, and feels like a revelation rather than a cheat.

The series also plays with unreliable characters, who speak with authority about a subject, only for it to be revealed that they were:

a) economical with the truth
b) misrepresented the truth
c) invented the truth long ago and have committed brutal acts to maintain it; or
d)  don’t think the truth is any of your damned business

The format is basically multi-character Third Person Limited, with each of the selected characters caught up in larger schemes (which allows the author to keep knowledge off the table as required).

Abercrombie shows a deliberate lack of sentimentality, with any suggestions of happy endings (or, for that matter, middles) being ruthlessly squashed before they even have a chance to form. The tradeoff for this is that you lack a lot of empathy for the characters, with few maintaining serious reader investment for the duration of the trilogy.

The plot is kept obscured – not vague, obscured –  and at the end of the story you’re still very much in the dark about what transpired. This deliberately confounded my expectations as a reader of the story, and confounded the entitlement I feel as “a-person-reading-this-book”.  This is distinct from Abercrombie not caring about his readers. He cares deeply about deceiving and challenging them and making a point about the expectations of heroic fantasy.

“One of my friends is Hanif Kureishi, who’s quite a highbrow writer, and he once said to me, ‘I never think about the readers.’ And I said to him, ‘That’s why you’re a great writer and I’m a rich writer.'” – Ken Follett

Snark aside, this is a reasonably important point about writing. Your writing is about having an effect, and you need to consider the pros and cons of the suite of effects you use.

In the case of The First Law, the effect was that although the experience was challenging and reasonably gripping, I leave the characters and setting behind without a huge amount of emotion and don’t find myself immediately Googling Abercrombie’s other work with a view to avidly reading it or turning back to page 1 of book 1 for a second time around. Having said that, a very well written deviation from the high road of traditional narrative

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