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“Red Country” by Joe Abercrombie


This is the third of three standalone follow-ups to the First Law trilogy, each of which has combined fantasy with a separate genre. After a revenge story and a war story in his previous two books this is a fantasy Western, a previously unexplored combination of genres (at least in books I’m aware of) but one that does work reasonably well. By their nature Westerns are fairly low-tech and take place on the edge of society so it isn’t too hard to transplant the genre into an obscure corner of Abercrombie’s fantasy world. At times it does feel like the book is trying to include as many Western tropes as possible – from a gold rush to “Indians” raiding wagon trains of settlers and, most significantly, the familiar Western storyline of an aging warrior forced back into the life of violence he has tried to escape. I’m sure there are probably plenty of references to classic Westerns throughout the book, but I’m not all that familiar with the genre so I probably missed most of them, although the TV series “Deadwood” does seem to have been a big inspiration.

The main plot focuses on the efforts of Shy South, a young woman trying to live a peaceful life after a short and bloody career as a bandit, and her stepfather Lamb, an aging warrior with an ever darker past, to rescue Shy’s younger siblings who were kidnapped by a band of armed men who are taking a group of captured children into the wild mountains of the Far Country. To travel to the Far Country Shy and Lamb end up enlisting as guards for a wagon train of settlers crossing the plains in the hope of a better life in the town of crease which is at the centre of a gold rush. Along the way they’ll have to deal with raids from Ghosts (the book’s equivalent of the Indians in a traditional Western), rival factions battling for control of Crease, an ancient cult centred on the legacy of a long-dead demigod and a mercenary company sent by the Union’s Inquisition to hunt down the ringleader of a failed rebellion.

To begin with the novel did get off to a relatively slow start, the book does have a large cast of characters and it does take time to introduce them all so the early parts of the journey of the wagons across the plain does drag a bit at times. A lot of time is also spent on the crisis of conscience of the mercenary company’s lawyer Temple at the brutal actions of his comrades as they aimlessly attack several harmless towns in a quest to try to track down rebels. Initially this subplot isn’t very compelling although Temple does become a more interesting and likeable character as the novel goes, particularly once he leaves the company and ends up joining the same group of settlers that Shy and Lamb are guarding. Fortunately, all that time spent on characterisation in the early of the novel does pay off in the later parts of the book and the second half is much stronger than the first as the plot becomes more complex with Shy, Lamb and Temple having to both try to survive an increasingly bitter battle for control of Crease and also figure out how to confront the mysterious Dragon People, a tribe from a remote mountain stronghold who employed the men who kidnapped the children.

Characterisation has always been one of Abercrombie’s strengths and I think it has improved since his earliest novels. In the First Law trilogy one flaw of the characterisation was that while the main characters were interesting and well-developed characters the supporting characters sometimes felt a bit caricatured and simplistic. His last book, “The Heroes”, had improved characterisation of secondary characters and same is true here with a number of memorable characters in both large and small roles. There are a number of returning characters from previous books, perhaps a slightly implausible number considering how far away the events here are from the previous stories. In a couple of cases the characters have changed their identities, but even if it hadn’t been widely reported in advanced publicity for the book it wouldn’t be too hard to work out Lamb’s real identity and one of the highlights of the book is to revisit one of the major characters from Abercrombie’s previous books as an older and wiser character but one who has not managed to escape his previous flaws. There are also welcome returns from other characters such as duplicitous mercenary commander Nicoma Costa as well as some references to wider events involving characters who don’t appear in the book but might play a more major role in the upcoming trilogy. Although some of the returning characters might be the biggest attraction there are also some good new characters with both Shy and Temple getting good character development through the book and Shy’s defiant younger sister Ro is one of the best characters as she tries to deal with being kidnapped.

There is plenty of action throughout the book including a lot of violence ranging from one-on-one duels to pitched battles but there is also plenty of Abercrombie’s trademark humour to add a bit of lightness to what is a fairly dark story. While some of his earlier books did have a formula of often going for a cynical outcome where even an apparent victory was more of a defeat there is a better variety of plot developments here. There are still a number of events which show that even good intentions don’t guarantee a good outcome but not all the attempts at heroism are futile and the book ends with a satisfying if slightly bittersweet ending.

The slow start does let the book down slightly but the later stages of the book aren’t too far behind Abercrombie’s best work, although “Last Argument of Kings” and “The Heroes” are still his best books.

Rating : 8 / 10


“Last Argument of Kings” by Joe Abercrombie

Last Argument of Kings

In much the same way that the second book in the trilogy kept all the good points of the first book and added to them to give a more complicated and more satisfying book, so the last book in the First Law trilogy further builds upon the strong foundations provided by the first two instalments to produce one of the most compelling Epic Fantasy novels of recent years.

The plot begins with many characters returning home, and few of them finding the experience entirely pleasant. Logen is back in the North again and finally reunited with his old band of warriors who are allied with the Union armies as they prepare to strike back against Bethod’s invasion. However he soon finds old tensions beginning to resurface when he returns to the lands where he is infamous as one of the North’s legendary warriors and legendary villains. Back in Adua, the heart of the Union, Jezal finds himself reluctantly manipulated into being a figurehead for Bayaz’s attempt to rally the Union forces against the imminent Gurkish invasion. He also finds that his reunion with Ardee, the woman he believes himself to be in love with, doesn’t go as smoothly as planned. Ferro is another tool of Bayaz’s, as he continues to mould her into a deadly weapon that Bayaz believes could allow him to defeat Khalul’s sorcerers. The scope of Bayaz’s schemes becomes increasingly clear as he is revealed to be behind many of the events in previous books in the series and it also becomes clear the extent of his ruthless determination to defeat Khalul’s army, whatever the cost. Meanwhile, Inquisitor Glotka finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place after the head of the Inquisition tasks him to investigate the shadowy group who helped him survive in Dagoska.

There is a lot of plot to get through in what is, by Epic Fantasy standards, only an average-sized book. As well as the main plotlines of the Union’s battle against the Northmen and Bayaz’s scheming against Khalul there are numerous subplots, including the political manoeuvring following the death of the Union’s elderly King, a peasant rebellion that is not what it first appears to be and a figure from Bayaz’s past out for revenge with some extremely dangerous allies. All the plots manage to be compelling and while some of the plot developments could be predicted from previous books there are also a number of surprising twists. There is plenty of action as well, the two big set-pieces are a battle in the North as Logen and his Union allies desperately try to hold a narrow valley against Bethod’s army (a battle reminiscent, probably intentionally, of Helm’s Deep in “Lord of the Rings”) and the brutal battle of Adua as the Gurkish forces attack the city but run into surprising resistance as Bayaz’s plans come to fruition. As well as the big battles there are a number of other great scenes, including Logen’s duel with Bayaz’s supernaturally strong champion and a confrontation inside the Maker’s tower between Bayaz and an old enemy of his.

The plot comes to a satisfying conclusion that wraps up the major plotlines while still leaving some things unresolved. The ending is surprisingly cynical and although it is superficially a victory most of the characters end up unhappy even if they have achieved what they thought they wanted. Although readers looking for a traditional happy ending may be disappointed, it does seem an appropriate way to finish a series which always had a fairly cynical approach to conventions of the Epic Fantasy genre.

As in the previous novels the characterisation is one of the strongest features of the book. Some characters get more character development than others, but there are some very interesting and occasionally surprising developments. The most notable development is a deeper exploration of Logen’s character as it becomes increasingly clear that for all his superficial likeability and surprising thoughtfulness he is not the hero he may first have appeared to be and the negative opinion of most of the Northmen is shown to be increasingly justified, particularly after a monstrous rampage during one of the battles. Another thing that continues from the previous books is that there is plenty of memorable, quotable dialogue – particularly from Glotka and Logen.

In summary, this is one of the more entertaining fantasy novels of recent and a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. It may not have done anything particularly revolutionary but a compelling and intelligent plot combined with some great characters make this a very good example of the Epic Fantasy genre.

Rating : 9/10


“Before They Are Hanged” by Joe Abercrombie


The second book in the First Law series, “Before They Are Hanged”, has all of the good points of “The Blade Itself” but manages to combine this with a much more compelling plot.

Bayaz and Logen set off on a quest into the war-torn ruins of the Old Empire in search of a weapon to use against the Gurkish, dragging an unwilling Jezal and Ferro with them, along with the boastful Longfoot and Bayaz’s sullen apprentice Quai. On their way they will face a variety of different threats and, inevitably, there is plenty of opportunity for character development (aside from the continually shallow Longfoot), especially from Jezal as he finds himself torn from his simple life as a young officer and forced to cross a deadly continent on what he thinks is a fool’s quest. Meanwhile Major West must somehow deal with trying to save or survive the Union’s campaign against Bethod as he finds himself assigned to the staff of the foppish Prince Ladisla, who is given charge of the Union’s reserves in the vain hope that the responsibility might make a better man of him. Inquisitor Glotka is despatched to the threatened enclave of Dagoska to investigate the murder of the previous head of the Inquisition, armed with orders to force the reluctant ruling council into fighting against the seemingly overwhelming might of the approaching Gurkish army. As the book goes on more is revealed about the backstory of the series, particularly Bayaz’s and Khalul’s histories and about the destructive wars and rivalries of their own masters.

There are a few interesting twists in the plot, including the amusingly anti-climatic end of Bayaz’s quest, and there are intriguing hints that Bayaz’s intentions may be different to what they initially appear. Some significant changes in one of his companions also seem to be setting up what could well be another plot twist in the final book, although it is difficult to tell exactly what that might be. Glotka continues to be the best character in the book, and his desperate struggle to try to make Dagoska hold out against the seemingly overwhelming force ranged against it is one of the best bits of the book.

The characterisation and dialogue continue to be entertaining and well-written. The plot is faster-moving than in the first book and there are more big action scenes, principally the two battles between the Union and Bethod’s army and the siege of Dagoska. Some things are resolved, but the ending of the book isn’t as decisive as might be expected, considering there is only one book left in the series but a lot of plot threads left to be resolved.

In summary, this is a very entertaining book and as the series goes on the plot is becoming increasingly complex and interesting.

Review : 8/10


“The Blade Itself” by Joe Abercrombie


The Epic Fantasy genre has traditionally had a big problem with a lot of novels in it being accused of being clichéd and of having too many similarities to Lord of the Rings or other earlier Fantasy works. There are several different ways that an author of a new Epic Fantasy series can approach this problem – they can either write something original and innovative that avoids the clichés, ignore the risk of seeming clichéd and write what they want regardless of originality or use some clichés, but attempt to subvert them or satirise them. Joe Abercrombie’s “The First Law” trilogy takes the latter approach, while the plot summary sounds extremely derivative is it a more intelligent and more unpredictable work than it first appears to be.

Most of the story is set in the generically-named nation of the Union, a stagnating but powerful empire that finds it has complacently stumbled into a situation where it is menaced on two fronts. In the North the Union province of Angland is under threat from the barbarous Northmen, a race of hard but undisciplined fighters who have been united for the first time in their history by the ruthless King Bethod, a man with some sinister allies. In the South the Union is threatened by the might of the vast Gurkish Empire, an Empire supposedly ruled by an equally ruthless Emperor, but in reality dominated by Khalul, a cannibal sorcerer who claims to be a Prophet. The Union has a decrepit King with two worthless heirs, an army severely weakened by the incompetence of many of its nobleman officers and a nation whose working classes are increasingly rebellious and whose ruling classes are busy fighting each other for power and influence.

The narrative focuses on a number of different characters. Legendary Northman warrior Logen Ninefingers, a berserker in battle but surprisingly thoughtful out of it, finds himself exiled from the North by Bethod and working for Bayaz, First of the Magi, a devious sorcerer with a centuries-old rivalry against Khalul. Logen’s old band of warriors, believing their leader dead after he disappears over a cliff during a skirmish, find themselves trying to oppose Bethod in any way possible, even if it means allying themselves with the Union forces they regard as weaklings. Young nobleman Jezal Luthar is one of the Union’s most feted young swordsmen, favourite to win the national duelling contest despite his vanity, self-centredness and lack of any real-world experience beyond duelling and playing cards. Major West is Jezal’s friend and fellow officer, a war veteran who has risen high despite his common roots but finds himself limited by his quick temper and the prejudices of officials with more noble backgrounds, as well as having to look after his witty but vulnerable younger sister Ardee. Ferro is a bitter former Gurkish slave, now desperate to use her fighting talents against her erstwhile captors.

So far, the plot summary and character list probably makes this sound like a typical fantasy novel, and to some extent it is. However, nothing is quite as simple as it seems – Bayaz for example is far more than the Gandalf figure he might first appear and his ruthlessness becomes increasingly clear as the series goes on. Logen’s world-weary approach to life is equally far from what his bloodthirsty background and reputation would suggest. Some of the character arcs are occasionally predictable, Jezal for example becomes less self-involved as the series goes on, but others are more surprising, West’s character arc for example has a couple of unexpected twists in it.

The final major character in it is probably the least clichéd of them, and definitely the most interesting. Inquisitor Glotka is a former war hero who was once a young, noble, pleasure-loving, hard-fighting swordsman not unlike Jezal. That was before he was captured by the Gurkish in a previous war, while the regiment he commanded was slaughtered around him. Glotka was tortured for five years by the Gurkish before being released a shell of his former self, disfigured and crippled and avoided by his former friends. He eventually found employment working for the Union’s own Inquisition, the secret police who do more than a little bit of torture themselves. Glokta is in many ways an unsympathetic character, almost all empathy for others having been tortured out of him, but his struggles against his crippling injuries, his wry humour, his dogged pursuit of the truth even when his superiors are uninterested and the occasional glimpses of some remaining humanity make him the most interesting character in the books.

Abercrombie’s writing style is witty and fast-moving with memorable dialogue and efficient descriptions of the action scenes. The characters may begin as simple archetypes but they are quickly given greater depth and all the major characters have their own individual voice and way of looking at the world. Most of the minor characters are done similarly well, although there are a few that lack any apparent depth such as the continually boasting Longfoot who is Bayaz’s guide. This isn’t a book which goes into any great detail about description of the landscape the characters are passing through and what exposition there is about the mythology of the world is delivered concisely and an interesting way. Although this book is fairly low on magic the occasional bits which have more supernatural elements – such as Bayaz’s expedition into his old master Kanedias’ tower – are an effective contrast to the relatively mundane scenes in the rest of the book.

The plot is generally unpredictable and although a bit slow to start off with, it does start to become compelling during The Blade Itself. However, if there is one thing to criticise about The Blade Itself, it is that it does sometimes feel like more of a prologue to the main action. Although Jezal’s preparation for the Contest and Glotka’s investigation of the corrupt Mercer’s Guild are interesting plotlines and introduce the characters well they do feel a bit peripheral to the main storyline and by the end of the book very little progress has been made about fighting either Bethod or Khalul.

In summary, this is a very entertaining book with memorable characterisation and the beginnings of an interesting plot. However, the lack of plot progression does mean that judged on its own The Blade Itself feels more like setup for the later books than a great book on its own merits.

Rating : 7.5 / 10