The First Law trilogy, Joe Abercrombie

I blitzed through this entire trilogy in about five days. That’s preposterously fast. I was reading the ebook editions so it was only after the fact that I learned these are not slim volumes. Collectively we’re talking over 600,000 words of fiction. Oops? I feel bad for my partner, who did remark that she’d barely spoken to me over the weekend.

That first volume, though. Reading it for the first time I could understand how this 2006 novel came at fantasy readers out of leftfield and helped fix the concept of ‘grimdark fantasy’ in literary genre culture (or at least its corollary marketing categories). The novel still feels fresh in its playfulness and the warmth it has for certain characters, for all that they’re shitty people by and large.

The second volume I liked largely for the memorable Glokta story arc, with the siege of Dagoska providing a decent change of scene, and the entertaining shambles that is the war in Angland and its key cast. The third slice of this book – an ultimately pointless quest – serves to set up later ideas and contextualise a few setpieces, but little more. Middle novels in trilogies are awkward; fine. I was still onboard.

Then there’s the third volume.

~cracks knuckles~

My issues with The Last Argument of Kings are less with the book’s own merits – though I think it’s weaker than its predecessors – and more to do with how, having voraciously chewed my way through so much story, I was left with little sense of closure. Now, a lack of narrative closure is no bad thing. Closure can be a cheap out. Many stories, many themes demand an absence of closure, or a tension between possibilities. And I do believe Last Argument‘s lack of closure to be the result of deliberate choices based on specific themes, but I also believe the execution of those choices is frustratingly fumbled.

(Obligatory spoiler warning for some books that are between ten and fifteen years old.)

The real story, it turns out – and the seeds for this were planted in the second book, largely in that pointless macguffin quest – is not what we thought we were reading at all. Our heroes, love them or hate them, are little more than puppets. Someone else is pulling all the strings.

A central problem with this conceit is that the trilogy ends with the false threat routed and the real threat merely revealed. The entire trilogy is preamble to a greater story. This is not a cheap, tacked-on cliffhanger finale that tempts you onward only at the very end: this is woven throughout the preceding six hundred thousand words of fiction. All that investment and the payoff is: you’re not done yet!

Pondering this failure of narrative closure, I wondered if Abercrombie intended to make a point somewhat along these lines: that history is a wheel upon which human backs are forever broken, that events don’t get wrapped up neatly because real life doesn’t have such a thing as tidy conclusions. This feels in keeping with these novels as written. But in this trilogy history is not the wheel on which backs are broken. No, the wheel is the bastard Bayuz, a near-immortal mage and kingmaking power behind the throne who has been shaping the course of nations for centuries. That is a man. It is not the uncaring passage of time. It is not the machinations of nations or the shifting of metanarratives that care not for the individual. It is not the oppressive weight of history. It is not the desolate, ironic hubris of long-dead Ozymandias. It is one living man, one whose influence and control derives from fantastical longevity and power with no comparison in untidy reality.

The point I am clumsily trying to make is that if you are going to subvert the tropes of epic fantasy – like the fate of nations in the hands of a small band of heroes valiantly battling great evils – then you ought to commit to your subversion. This trilogy is mired in shades of grey, unflinching in its portrayal of human weakness and cruelty, and openly highlights how once-great powers collapse as they give over to decadence and stagnation. And yet at the end of it all, we find that the engine driving the world’s suffering is in fact one near-immortal autocrat. Evil laugh, twirl of moustache, and be sure to pick up the next books to learn what happens!

All storytelling is artifice. It’s a series of narrative decisions made by the storyteller, with plot and character constructed around whatever they want to explore. While there is no way I can know what Abercrombie was going for, all I can see looking back at the First Law trilogy is how this unresolved conceptual conflict at its heart of The First Law trilogy fails it. This holds whether you consider these books an attempt to represent in fiction the messy, non-compartmentalised nature of human history, or in simple terms of narrative closure. Put another way, if I read a fiction trilogy I like to imagine that it will conclude its central story in some meaningful way, rather than puncture its own themes by revealing it was all a dream.

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