The Third Law - The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings

Book Review: What’s Wrong with Joe Abercrombie’s The Third Law Trilogy & How to Fix It

I just finished reading the mammoth First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie consisting of The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings. [You can read this review on Goodreads too]

Let’s map out how I felt through each novel.

The Blade Itself – This book shows some promise. If it keeps getting better from here, then this may be a fantastic series. Can’t wait to read more.

Before They are Hanged – What an awful title, but that doesn’t mean anything. The narrative is slipping a bit, the journey is overly long, and I’m starting to get tired of all the characters catchphrases, but this series has time to recover. I’m sure book three will make up for any missteps.

Last Argument of Kings – This is it? Really!? This is what we were building toward? WTF. It’s tedious. It’s boring. It’s depressing as all hell but not even in a good way, more in a “how did I waste so much time reading this garbage” kind of way. How did such a great start get brought so low? Do I even want to keep these books on my shelf anymore?

Let’s go over what made this series end up sucking so hard.

The First Law - The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings

It’s too damn long — There’s nothing wrong with a long book or series as long as knows where it’s heading, is interesting along the way, holds a sense of purpose, is well paced, or is at least somewhat enjoyable.

But The First Law is none of these things. It’s an overly long meandering story featuring mostly bland two-dimensional characters whose actions have no tangible consequences.

Character actions don’t really mater — One character gets hurt one time, and it gave the books an illusion that mistakes matter. But as cities fall resulting no negative consequence at all, plot armor is revealed in all other interactions.

Yes, there are times that character A is transported to place B, and they being there saves the day. This happens a lot. So much so, that whenever situations look bleak, there’s no tension because we know someone is just around the corner, especially if they haven’t been featured in a few chapters.

One of the worst crimes in story telling is showing the reader the author behind the curtain pulling the strings, but once you see it, you cannot unsee it. We saw the strings in book two, and they just get more pronounced as the story goes on.

It’s too damn boring The Blade Itself was entertaining enough. See my mostly positive review here. Before They are Hanged had its moments, though the long journey was loooooooong (spoiler: and fruitless). Last Argument of Kings was 300 pages of battle sequences, some of which had fun moments, but mostly it just dragged on and on and on till I didn’t care anymore.

For me, books are not the best medium for hundreds of pages of: “And he swung his sword, and she parried and threw a blow in return, and he ducked and hit her in the head, and she rebounded and kicked him in the shin”. Obviously I’m exaggerating, but only a little.

Action in books is best when executed with building tension and a quick release. The first book does this well. But this technique is lost near the end of the second book, and completely ejected from the writing process by the third.

I had a bit of a crises while writing this book review. Follow this thread to watch me make up my mind to write reviews on books I don’t enjoy, or read about the decision here.

Characters are two dimensional — The only exception to this is Glokta. He’s fantastic in the beginning, and the only reason I didn’t prematurely throw the book against a wall. But I grew bored with even him by book three. All of the inner monologue that provided depth in book one became a tired, repetitious exercise.

Logan had as much depth as a murky pond. His gimmick of uncontrollable blood lust became predictable, and whenever it was about to have real consequence, he was deus ex machina’ed out of it.

All the other characters were wastes of paper and ink. They were flat with one-track minds and the simplest of motivations. The fighters fight because the fight. The revengers revenge because they revenge. Most of these characters have absolutely no depth, and the ones who do, such as Biaz, are so convoluted they grow boring.

And a note on Biaz. While he’s written as this wise man, [spoiler] by the time it’s revealed how much of the world he controls, I was left wondering why he didn’t handle things better in the first place. Oh, that’s right, Joe justifies it with a short aside about Biaz being distracted because he was reading books for a while and forgot about the world, or something. Kind of a lame thing to pin a trilogy’s entire plot on.

And the catchphrases — “You can never have too many knives” was probably said a bajillion times. “Say one thing about the third law, say it’s prose are repetitive.” “I want vengeance fool!” These catchphrases add nothing, and become grating 400,000 words in. Cool it with the catchphrases. This isn’t a sitcom.

Maybe it’s my fault? I’ve heard about Joe Abercrombie for a long time now, and I looked forward to reading his work. Maybe my opinion is sullied by anticipation? I don’t think so, but maybe.

I don’t know, maybe you’ll like it. The series currently averages around a 4.3 rating on Goodreads. I don’t get it. Some people seem to love simple characters swinging swords and talking about vengeance for 900 pages. If that sounds like your cup o tea, then dive in. You’ll probably love it.

How I’d fix it — While I didn’t enjoy The First Law, I do think there’s a good story hidden within if you’d be willing to go haywire with a hacksaw. Here’s what you do.

Forget every character except Glokta and Biaz. Rip them all out, you won’t miss them. Now we follow Glokta along basically the same plotline, with only glimpses of Biaz and occasional confrontations as the tension mounts. And as Glokta digs deeper into the corruption of the empire, he discovers by himself (ie. the information isn’t handed to him!) that Biaz is the puppet master of a vast conspiracy. Now it’s up to Glokta to bring him down or fail trying.

I think that could a compelling, tightly plotted 100,000 words fantasy noir.

I wish so badly that was the story I read. Or anything else with that didn’t string me along for so long. But instead I got the equivalent of a blob of rambling fiction with nothing compelling to say, nowhere compelling to go, which now takes up space where better books should be my shelf. What I’m I going to do with those books? They were expensive.

Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

A slow burn. That’s what you’re getting yourself into if you read The Blade Itself. Cleverly executed characters going about their daily lives while the threat of war looms in the background.

[Note: this review was originally posted on Goodreads. Follow me for more updates and reviews]

While the title and the cover design make this look like an action heavy novel strewn with violence, it really wasn’t. There are some action scenes, and when they come they are fairly brutal, but the action is not the focus, thank God. I usually find myself board when half the novel is descriptions of characters swinging swords and parrying and whatnot.

The Blade Itself felt more like a character focused hardboiled detective novel with a coming of age tournament arc and a travel log. The several different styles of story mashed together actually worked well.

We follow several disparate characters who’s threads eventually intertwine. Logan the barbarian, Bayaz the magi, Luthar the soldier, and several others. Most are fleshed out and fully realized. You’ll find yourself rooting for quite a few of them, even when they’re at odds with one another.

No character is all sterling, and none are evil. They feel conflicted and their motivations feel compelling (though we don’t always know what a characters motivations might be). But none are as compelling as one of the best characters I’ve read in a fantasy novel, Sand dan Glokta.

“Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?” -Glokta from The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Glokta is a war hero now crippled by torture who’s survived to become a torturer himself. Due to a series of discoveries, Glokta is promoted and empowered. He’s charged with investigating merchants who’ve neglected to pay the kings taxes, and what follows is an engrossing detective story.

While we get to peer into several (but not all) characters minds, with Glokta we get full access. It reminds me of reading some of the best hardboiled novels, especially while Glokta says one thing and thinks quite another. In my mind, Glokta is the hero of this story, even if by appearances he is the least heroic of all the character types.

Apparently there’s a comic book adaptation too. Neat.

Despite his grisly job, I found myself so invested in Glokta, I was able to overlook some of the novels faults. But there are faults. Chapters following Logan’s former band of warriors weren’t that interesting. These characters, along with Ferro, felt like cookie cutter one-dimensional fantasy fair. I think they were included to add extra action scenes, but because I never found myself invested in Dogman or Threetrees and especially not Ferro, when the action came I never really cared what the result was.

Picking on Ferro more, her chapters never felt consequential. She’s a former slave who’s seeking vengeance for what’s been done to her people. She will remind you of that over and over again, often spouting the one liner, “Vengeance!” in case you’re not clear on that point. The only purpose of her chapters is to get her from point A to point B. She inevitably arrives, and it’s a big fat “so what?” If I were the editor here, I’d have fought strongly to have her cut entirely. But who knows, maybe she’ll be important in the next book.

All that said, I never wanted to put the book down. Yes, it sometimes felt aimless, but I was so engrossed in the moment to moment storytelling that I didn’t really care. I was compelled through the narrative, eagerly awaiting the next turn (or Glokta chapter). Yes, sometimes I had to read a Ferro chapter, and I found myself rolling my eyes, but they would end and the story became fantastic again.

So, despite it’s weaknesses, I still give this novel a very high recommendation. It’s one of those stories that feels like more than the some of its parts, and some of the characters were among the most compelling I’ve ever read in fantasy, even if others were not. If you read it, you’ll enjoy it. I’m very much looking forward to the next entry in the series.