I just finished listening to the audiobook of The Blade Itself, volume one in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy. This was my first exposure to his work. The associations I had picked up over the years was dark and gritty, so I was expecting something like Hobbesian low fantasy (Joe Abercrombie’s Twitter handle is @LordGrimdark, after all). It took me some time to warm up to the story. In fact, a few hours in I was on the verge of cutting my losses and moving on. It struck me as something like a fantasy version of The Sopranos, at least in style, Logen Ninefingers some discount bin Conan, Inquisitor Glokta a caricature of petty tyranny. Why should I care about these characters, this relatively generic fantasy world with its savage northmen and bestial humanoids? About 25% in, however, my reaction had shifted diametrically.
It helped that the performance (narrated by Steven Pacey) was excellent, but in any case I am glad I persisted.
In some ways, The First Law seems something like what A Song of Ice and Fire could have been had it reached its potential, in the rough subgenre of low fantasy that assumes the worst about human nature. This is probably an unfair comparison, because I did enjoy the first two books of A Song of Ice and Fire, before I lost patience with the pace of releases, and I have yet to see how The First Law concludes. But I think Abercrombie has a reputation for satisfying endings (and it is already done). We will see.
Most important was the handling of the characters, both how Abercrombie gradually brings them together in the narrative, and how they begin to rise above their initial caricatures. Abercrombie seems like he actually cares about his main characters, even those that are unpleasant, and is disappointed and sympathetic (if not surprised) when they stumble and suffer, though he does have a tendency to revel ghoulishly in their flaws from time to time. I also found the story funny. One example of many: the chapter where Glokta first meets Logen and the wizard Bayaz—the juxtaposition between the seemingly basic honesty of everything Bayaz and company say with the totally reasonable but wrong distrust of the obviously intelligent, but rather repulsive, Glokta—is some solid writing. Pleasantly anticipating volume two.
Over the past few years, I have been catching up with a few of the popular genre fantasy authors that I had, for whatever reason, not gotten around to reading. Among that crew is also Brandon Sanderson, of whose work I’ve now heard the first three volumes of The Stormlight Archive and the first Mistborn book. More on that at some point in the future.