Seven Reasons Why Someone Who Doesn't Usually Read Epic Fantasy Might Want to Try Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy

I gobbled up a huge amount of science fiction and fantasy when I was a kid, but had largely stopped reading it by the time I went to college. Though I still read SF&F by "literary" writers, for years I didn't read anything that might be found in a bookstore's science-fiction-and-fantasy section. I even sold my collection of SF&F paperbacks, something I regret, much as Ray Bradbury regretted selling his collection of Buck Rogers comics.

About fifteen years ago, I began reading science fiction and fantasy again. I'm not sure why. Perhaps what happened to me was what C. S. Lewis told his goddaughter might happen to her—I became "old enough to start reading fairy tales again" (dedication in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). Or perhaps I was inspired by reading fantasy children's books aloud to my daughters (the greatest reading experience of my life). Or perhaps the change came when, prompted by good reviews, I read Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and was reminded of what I had been missing. Whatever happened, in the last fifteen years I've read a lot of science fiction and fantasy.

After reading a good book, I like to recommend it to friends, but I have few friends who will try a science-fiction or fantasy novel. Though I can sometimes talk people into reading books that are considered more "literary," especially those, like Neil Gaiman's, that use contemporary settings, getting them to read "second-world" fantasy, like A Song of Ice and Fire, is almost impossible.

The other day, I finished Joe Abercrombie's terrific First Law trilogy and was thinking about how to recommend it to someone who doesn't normally read epic fantasy. I came up with seven reasons why such a person might want try The First Law. Here are my reasons, along with some tangents on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and George R. R. Martin. (It's my blog—I'll be tangential if I want to.)

1. The First Law has a satisfying conclusion.

I know someone who loves the HBO Game of Thrones but won't read A Song of Ice and Fire because "it's not finished."

It's true that Ice and Fire is unfinished and may remain that way, like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or Spenser's Faerie Queene. We may never know how Martin would have ended the story. We can't assume that he would have ended it like the HBO series. He doesn't use outlines—he lets his story develop as he writes—so whatever the ending he has in mind now, he may change it if/when he finishes A Dream of Spring.

If I never read the end of Ice and Fire, it won't diminish the pleasure that the existing books have given me. Reading them was time well spent. I'll happily reread them. Though I might wish that a work of fiction was finished—wouldn't it be great to know, for certain, the solution to The Mystery of Edwin Drood?—if a book, or series of books, is good, then I can enjoy it without its ending.

But not everyone feels this way. Before starting a series, many people want to know if the series will have conclusion, and if that conclusion will be satisfying. (How many people would have watched Lost if they had known that the ending would be so disappointing?)

Let me assure anyone considering reading The First Law that its conclusion is satisfying. The last book was my favorite because of the way it tied storylines together and resolved the characters' arcs. A reader who starts this trilogy is headed for a worthwhile destination.

2. Exposition never interferes with the story.

Exposition can bring any story squealing to a halt. No matter how interested a reader becomes in whaling or Napoleon's invasion of Russia, she will probably be eager to get back to Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab, or to Pierre, Andrei, and Natasha. Exposition is a particular hazard in fantasy, where the setting is usually important to the writer and always unfamiliar to the reader. Fantasy readers constantly risk getting buried beneath a rockslide of exposition from characters or the narrator.

This happened to me when I read my first epic fantasy. I was thirteen and had read The Hobbit twice—the second time in a single, eye-burning day when I was home from school with the flu. I was as eager to read my Ballantine paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings as a kid today is eager to read her next Harry Potter. I raced through The Fellowship of the Ring until reaching the exposition-heavy "Council of Elrond" chapter. I struggled to keep reading, waiting for the story to start again, but fell asleep before finishing.

The next day, I met my best friend behind our junior-high-school band room, our customary spot for conversations about Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and now The Lord of the Rings. My friend was often ahead of me as a reader—he would soon turn me on to Flashman—and he was well into The Two Towers. When I told him that the "The Council of Elrond" seemed as if it would never end, he said, "Yes, but we learn so much."

His words have stayed with me all of these years because they seemed so strange. I had never thought of reading this kind of book as "learning," and that night was relieved when the Council finally stopped discussing the ring's history and decided what to do about it.

Learning about Tolkien's incredibly detailed fantasy world is one of the pleasures of reading him, but not everyone wants to learn about a fantasy world. Many people feel that if they're going to learn something while reading fiction, they want it to be about the real world. Why learn the history of Middle Earth or the sigils of the houses of Westeros? Readers may come to enjoy learning about a fantasy setting, but only if the story's so good that they can't stop reading, if they care about what happens to the characters.

Abercrombie puts his characters and story ahead of everything else, including his setting. It's telling that, unlike other fantasy writers, he provides no character lists or maps. How many epic fantasies lack maps? Abercrombie explains his choice like this:

[M]aps aren’t really suitable to the type of book I write, . . . one centered tightly around the characters. . . . I wanted my readers to feel like they were right there with the characters—right inside their heads, if possible—part of the action rather than floating dispassionately above it. I wanted to tell a story as close-up as I could, so you can smell the sweat, and feel the pain, and understand the emotions. I want a reader to be nailed to the text, chewing their fingernails to find out what happens next, not constantly flipping back to the fly-leaf to check just how far north exactly Carleon is from Uffrith . . . .

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster writes that "making the audience want to know what happens next" is the essence of story, and that story is the essence of the novel (29). But for a novel to be more than just a story, it must explore its characters' psychology. When a novelist does that, Forster says, she "appeal[s] to our intelligence and imagination, not merely to our curiosity" (43). Abercrombie's novels appeal in just this way, so people who enjoy novels—even if they don't normally read epic fantasy—should be able to enjoy The First Law. The trilogy's fantasy setting is great fun, but never interferes with the story and characters.

3. The First Law has a surprising, morally complex plot. 

Despite the success of the HBO Game of Thrones, people often think of epic fantasy as having a predictable, Lord-of-the-Rings-type plot. There will be a quest and a battle between good and evil. The First Law does have a quest, which provides the pleasures of that kind of story—interesting lands and adventures, the bonding of characters—but the quest has a surprising twist, and it's only one storyline in one book of the trilogy. And though there are plenty of battles, and plenty of pure evil, no one side is purely good.

This moral complexity is one reason why Abercrombie's work has been categorized as "grimdark." (Another reason is its violence.) The "grimdark" label flattens important differences between writers, but Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Richard K. Morgan, Peter V. Brett, and others do seem to be mining a similar vein—epic fantasy with moral ambiguity and violence that affects its characters in realistic ways. (Abercrombie jokingly embraces the label by calling himself @LordGrimdark on Twitter.) George R. R. Martin is the subgenre's founding father, though other fantasy writers have in some ways preceded him. (Charlie Jane Anders describes ten of them on io9.)

Detail from James Barry's 
King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia (c.1786)
Even Shakespeare was writing a kind of grimdark when, for example, he added moral realism, psychological depth, and a surprising twist to the fairy tale at the heart of King Lear. (Warning: Shakespearean tangent ahead.) In the fairy-tale version of Lear, a king asks his three daughters how much they love him and doesn't understand the good, youngest daughter's answer. After undergoing trials, the king finally understands his daughter's answer and reconciles with her. In the fairy tale, emotions and psychology—the daughter's heartbreak, the father's regret—are signaled but not explored, as they are in the play. And of course the fairy tale ends happily, while King Lear has the most tragic ending of any Shakespeare play.

That ending likely surprised its audience. When, looking at Lear with his dead daughter in his arms, Edgar asks, "Is this the promised end?" he's alluding to the end of the world, but also, I believe, expressing surprise that the story has violated the original story's fairy-tale logic. A good daughter who has undergone trials should live happily ever. Later in the seventeenth century, Lear was rewritten to give it just this ending, which was performed into the nineteenth century.

The unexpected execution of Ned Stark.
The surprise that Cordelia's death may have given Lear's original audience is the kind of surprise that many viewers got near the end of the first season of the HBO Game of Thrones, when Ned Stark was executed. TV logic dictated that a character this central should survive, at least until the end of the series. The same holds true in a Tolkien-style epic fantasy. But Martin doesn't play by those rules, just as, in King Lear, Shakespeare didn't play by fairy-tale rules.

Martin's surprising, morally complex plots have inspired many writers to try their hand at "grimdark" epic fantasy. (I confess that I am among them, beavering away at a project that sometimes feels as if it will be finished about the same time as A Dream of Spring.) Abercrombie acknowledges his debt to Martin by saying that A Game of Thrones "blew [his] doors off" because

[It] seemed to bring to epic fantasy a huge amount of what I felt it had been desperately missing. . . . There was no lame-ass, two-dimensional battle of good and evil. . . . . A Game of Thrones was profoundly shocking when I first read it, and fundamentally changed my notions about what could be done with epic fantasy.

Like A Game of Thrones, The First Law has a surprising, morally complex plot, not a lame-ass two-dimensional battle of good and evil.

4. The First Law has memorable characters with rich internal lives.

The torturer Sand dan Glokta in Chuck Dixon's
graphic novel adaptation of The Blade Itself.
Like Martin, Abercrombie writes in limited third person, getting inside the heads of characters who are objectively unlikeable or even repellent. He has three main point-of-view characters. Jezal dan Luthar is a spoiled, self-absorbed, dimwitted aristocrat. Logen Ninefingers is a Viking who's spent his life killing and sometimes goes berserk, becoming not just a killer but a killer who enjoys killing. And, most extreme on the unlikability scale, Sand dan Glokta is a torturer.

We care about these characters because Abercrombie shows us why they are what they are. In The Rhetoric of Fiction, my former teacher, Wayne C. Booth explains how this works for Dostoevsky, whose "criminals remain deeply sympathetic because he knows, and makes us know, why they are criminals and why they are still sympathetic" (135). Like Dostoevsky, Abercrombie shows us why his characters are what they are, and we find ourselves sympathizing with them.

It's an effect of fiction, well described by Booth, that spending time in characters' heads will generate empathy. We'll root for characters even if what they're doing is bad. Booth's example is Jane Austen's Emma:

The solution to the problem of maintaining sympathy despite almost crippling faults was . . . to use the heroine herself as a kind of narrator, though in the third person, reporting on her own experience. . . . By showing most of the story through Emma's eyes, the author insures that we shall travel with Emma rather than stand against her. . . . [T]he sustained inside view leads the reader to hope for good fortune for the character, . . . independently of the qualities revealed. (245-46)

That a reader would want good fortune for a torturer, as I did, proves that Abercrombie is an extraordinarily talented writer, able to draw us into the heads of his characters. This is true even with characters in whose heads we spend less time. For example, near the end of the first book, in the chapter "Nobody's Dog," a secondary point-of-view character, Jezal's sparring partner, Collem West, does something particularly heinous. Abercrombie shows us West's day leading up to his heinous act, so that when the act comes, it makes every kind of sense.

The First Law's one female point-of-view character is a part-demon warrior-woman named Ferro Maljinn. ("Ferro" evokes the "iron" in her weapons and soul; her last name is "bad genie.") Ferro's whole life is devoted to revenge, yet we understand why she is the way she is, and sympathize with her. Abercrombie doesn't venture into the head of his other major female character, Ardee West, Collem's sister, but she's well drawn, showing us what it's like to be a woman in this extremely male-dominated world (wine helps). Ardee is a bit like what would happen to Elizabeth Bennett if Austen's heroine had to make her way in a grim, violent fantasy world instead of genteel Georgian England.

Not every character can or should be rounded—we need minor characters as well. Abercrombie's are Dickensian in their exaggeration. I've heard people complain that Dickens's minor characters as "cartoonish," but I enjoy Dickens's crazy minor characters much as I enjoy Abercrombie's. Some of The First Law's most entertaining moments are provided by minor characters like Longfoot, a boasting "navigator" who won't stop talking, and Frost, a giant albino with a speech impediment, a kind of lisp so severe that turn many consonants, not just s's and z's, into th's.

5. Abercrombie's dialogue is well seasoned with irony.

Good dialogue needs characters with distinct ways of thinking and speaking. For me, it also needs irony. Dialogue without irony is like food without seasoning.

The First Law is well seasoned with both verbal and dramatic irony. Witty characters like Glokta and Ardee provide verbal irony—understatement, overstatement, saying something obviously different from what they mean. (Abercrombie uses the same kind of ironic wit in his blog posts and interviews.) And because we spend so much time in the characters' heads, we're well set up for dramatic irony, for understanding things that characters don't. We know when characters are lying, and we get the double meaning of the things they say. Dramatic irony makes fiction amusing. It also makes it suspenseful since we anticipate how characters will react when they learn what we already know.

6. The First Law Is Filled with Dark Humor

Humor isn't something one expects in epic fantasy, but The First Law is often very, very funny. Take this jet-black jewel from the last book, in which Glokta prepares to torture the loquacious Longfoot, with the help of the laconic, speech-impaired Frost:

Frost snapped a manacle shut around Longfoot's ankle.

"I apologize for the lack of imagination," Glokta sighed. "In our defense it's difficult to be always thinking of something new. I mean, smashing a man's feet with a lump hammer, it's so . . ."

"Pethethrian?" ventured Frost. (142)

"Look at this mess!"
This kind of conjunction of violence and humor often appears in Shakespeare, in Richard III, for example, when a murderer who has temporary pang of conscience bickers comically with his co-worker. It also appears in the films of Quentin Tarantineo, as in the exchanges between Jules (Samuel Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) in Pulp Fiction: e.g., their quarter-pounder discussion, their argument after Jules decides to stop murdering people, or their spat after Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin.

Humor of this sort isn't for everyone, but if someone likes it, she might like The First Law because . . .

7. Joe Abercrombie is the Quentin Tarantino of epic fantasy. 

It's not just his dark humor or graphic depictions of violence—it's cinematic quality of Abercrombie's writing that reminds me of Quentin Tarantino's filmmaking. Abercrombie is a film editor, and it shows. The First Law rockets from scene to scene without any wasted time. And his scenes are rendered in cinematic detail.

So if someone wants to see what an epic fantasy directed by Quentin Tarantino would be like, she should give The First Law a try.

(Update: I recently learned that Unshelved compared Abercrombie to Tarantino a decade ago and that Abercrombie responded to the comparison in a blog post. But it's a good comparison, so I'm leaving it here.)


Noelle said…
Great article on an often underappreciated genre in the literary world. Martin is a great writer and even though he manages to rattle
my chain sometimes by being so slow, he is always worth the waiting. Another great sci-fi fantasy (not sure if he fits the profile fully) writer I
have been enjoying is Haruki Murakami. Original in its kind, he takes us to realms identical yet so different to ours .... keep up the great writing. It is a pleasure reading your blog.