As a subgenre, epic fantasy is not exactly renowned for its innovative qualities, but lately a few authors have taken tried-and-true staples of that form and twisted them, proving the form is more malleable than many would ever have believed possible. While I hesitate to call this development a movement, there are certain series that share certain traits. Steven Erikson's mammoth Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which began in 1999 with Gardens of the Moon, takes standard-issue D&D-style characters, such as mages, soldiers, and demons, and amplifies their powers while scattering them across a layered, ancient landscape that contains its own pitfalls for those who believe raw power is the most important indicator of success. More recently, Scott Lynch has taken the tired, cliched thief character and turned it into the basis for a series of caper novels whose early installments hint at darker, more serious adventures to come.
In both these series and others, much of the plot tension and the nuances of the character dynamics depend upon a reader's awareness of prior epic fantasies in which similar characters have acted in familiar patterns. If the mage is meant to be a fount of arcane knowledge, what does it mean for the story to come if he is blind to what is happening? It is such variations of these stock types, as well as tweaks to standard-issue cod-medieval worlds, that have captured the attention and affection of a great number of epic fantasy readers, most of whom praise these tales for their perceived innovations and for their ability to inject new life into a tired genre.
The latest series to receive such praise is English author Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy. Beginning with The Blade Itself (2006) and continuing through Before They Are Hanged (2007), the series offers a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected for epic fantasy fans. On the surface, the basic premise offers nothing new, as the following brief plot summary will demonstrate. There is a technologically primitive realm threatened with invasion by a massive force led by nefarious black mage types; in response the mysterious and legendary First Mage gathers a ragtag group—consisting of a foppish, arrogant gentleman, a half-feral lone-wolf-type female warrior, and an infamous Northern barbarian fighter—in a quest for a legendary artifact from an ancient conflict that might have the power to defeat the teeming hordes invading the realm. Meanwhile, in the besieged capital city, a torturer is trying to weed out fifth columnists that are moving among the rank and file.
However, like Erikson and Lynch before him, Abercrombie prods and pulls his characters in interesting directions. Instead of being Gandalf clone #656, the First Mage Bayaz is shown to be cynical and manipulative, cajoling and bullying others into doing what he desires. The wild woman warrior, Ferro, while having the stereotypical mixed blood of an ancient race that might prove to be essential for the quest to succeed, proves to be conflicted and occasionally tender, all the while engaging in self-loathing for having such "weak" feelings. The noble Jezal dan Luthar has undergone major changes during the first two novels, being literally beaten down and figuratively remolded into a more considerate and thoughtful person by the end of the second novel. Logen Ninefingers, the infamous Bloody Nine, is as much a sensitive and friendly person on the surface as he is a fearsome warrior who is overcome by a sort of bloodlust that has cost him both kin and home. And finally, the Torturer Superior, Glokta, is as pitiable as he is ruthless. Broken and tortured himself, Glokta's oft humorous inner monologues dominated sections of the first two novels.
In the first two novels, Abercrombie devoted a lot of attention to his characters. They helped drive the plot, and were frequently placed in situations where one might expect them to act according to type, only for the reader to see them respond differently. But in the concluding volume, Last Argument of Kings, this character/type tension begins to weaken, as narrative asides and too-close followings of typical epic fantasy climactic scenes break up the story's flow.
Last Argument of Kings picks up where Before They Are Hanged leaves off. The capital city, Adua, is now completely besieged by the invading Gurkish forces. The king is dead, and Glokta struggles to keep the ruling party together in the wake of his passing. Bayaz's mission to find the legendary Seed to use against the cannibalistic Eaters has failed and, for the time being, his party has broken apart. Jezal contemplates leaving military life and retiring to the welcoming bed of his best friend's sister, Ardee West. Logen and Ferro split up, with Ferro still burning to get her revenge on the Eaters. From this starting point, Abercrombie then devotes hundreds of pages to the battle around Adua and its aftermath.
Concluding volumes of epic fantasy trilogies are expected to contain an action-filled payoff and, for the most part, Last Argument of Kings fulfills this expectation. However, despite spending most of the previous two books establishing a cynical and irony-filled view of the actions of his characters, in this novel Abercrombie relies much more on using familiar magical interventions to push the plot forward. One consequence is that the character development/type inversion of the previous two volumes is much more hurried. Instead of providing a new take on the Battles of Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields, Abercrombie's siege and battle sequences come to feel derivative; there is the usual setup of massive forces arrayed against the beleaguered defenders, plus various cut scenes involving each of the main characters in turn. In a review of Before They Are Hanged elsewhere, I complained that too often Abercrombie relied on "telling" character development rather than "showing it" directly and unfortunately in Last Argument of Kings this overreliance upon narrative conceits such as lengthy internal monologue is even more noticeable. In an early scene, for example, where Jezal meets Ardee for the first time in months, the power of the dialogue between the two reunited lovers is weakened by a rather redundant internal monologue:
"So you'll be leaving me all alone again, will you? Heading off to Angland, to slaughter Northmen with my brother?"
Jezal leaned down with some difficulty and heaved one boot on. "Perhaps, perhaps not." The idea of soldiering life no longer inspired him. He had seen enough of violence, close up, to know it was extremely frightening and hurt like hell. Glory and fame seemed like meagre rewards for all the risks involved.
"I'm giving serious thought to the idea of resigning my commission." (p. 66)
Abercrombie too often has his characters thinking only what they say openly to another; a more direct dialogue would have strengthened the power of such scenes. In addition, the overuse of internal monologue weakens the novel in another sense. One of Last Argument's goals seems to be to establish a dissonance between what a character says and what they do. Due to the number of times dialogue and monologue agree, however, when characters (such as Jezal and Logen) go against expectations there is no shock. Instead the shift feels muddled, because there was too little establishing work to convince the reader that the change is logical or natural. It feels unpolished. In some places it's as though the characters are forced to fit inside a narrow bound, having to act in a fashion that feels foreign to them.
Elsewhere, instead of developing a coherent internal conflict that would justify the actions of his characters late in the novel, Abercrombie has them largely revert to their types as established at the beginning of the series. Logen's plight at the end of the book is the best demonstration of such jerkiness. After almost three whole books emphasizing his tender, humane side, it is only in the last few chapters that his other, more brutal side appears. He appears to snap with minimal provocation and to act in a fashion wholly opposite to what he had shown up to that point. The point may have been to reveal Logen's self-delusion, but the execution is rather abrupt and confusing.
Yet despite these serious flaws, there is much to praise in Last Argument of Kings. In a time when it seems as though epic fantasy story arcs are measured in decades and require a cast of thousands, Abercrombie has managed to keep the character count down to around a half-dozen points of view, resulting in a plot that never threatens to overwhelm the reader with its sheer bulk. And although some of the character arcs have their problems, in most cases the final destinations are satisfying enough.
However, I must add a caveat for those who are considering reading this series now that it is complete. While Abercrombie, like Erikson and Lynch before him, plays with epic fantasy tropes and character types, the story itself never transcends its setting. My reaction to this novel could be summarized as "what could have been." If the characters had been developed just a bit more, if Abercrombie had "shown" their conflicts rather than just "telling" us about them, if there had been a better balance between the external conflict and the characters' internal clashes ... if all of that had happened, then Last Argument of Kings could have been a work that transcended its setting. Instead, The First Law series as a whole will appeal mostly to epic fantasy junkies, with little to recommend it to those who believe that epic fantasies as a whole are little more than tired repetitions of the same worn-out schema.
Fascinated by languages, literature, and cultures from an early age, Larry Nolen divides his time between being an English and History teacher, engaging in amateur translations of Latin American authors, and operating the OF Blog of the Fallen.
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