As a long-time member of the r/fantasy subreddit, I've seen the First Law trilogy recommended a thousand times for a hundred different reasons. It has long sat on my mental shelf labeled "should probably read that sometime to stay current with the genre" but didn't make it into my real-life TBR until this year. Even then, I had my hesitations. After all, hyped books are so often a disappointment and the big titles have let me down before.
Looking at you, Name of the Wind.
That being said, I was in the mood for some pro-level, grown-up fantasy after DNFing a poorly-written indie title that still makes me shake my head when I think about it, so I reached for this.
"Go big or go home," I thought. And from the very first page, I was sunk.
Let me start by saying that I didn't expect to like this book so much. I mean, I expected it would be pretty good, since it's so highly recommended, but I didn't think it would really meet my personal flavor given that there isn't much (hardly any) romance in it and almost all of the main characters are men. Plus, it's categorized as 'grimdark fantasy', which to me screams edgy, over-the-top, humans-are-terrible-the-world-is-terrible-why-do-we-even-try misery-fest. But...sigh... I really should read it...as a sort of author homework, if nothing else.
I was wrong, friends. So very, very wrong.
Abercrombie's tidy, forceful, expressive prose grabs you from the start and never stops delivering. He's eloquent when the situation calls for it, concise when it matters. There is a rhythm to his writing that makes the pages fly by effortlessly. I felt dusty parts of my vocabulary finally see the light of day after years of lying dormant, and yet the language never felt overwrought. He strikes a balance between necessity and flourish that few authors achieve, and as a writer, I found myself scratching at the pages in search of his secrets.
Next are his characters, surely the strongest aspect of this book. How he can make me like a toothless, crippled, fatalistic master torturer with zero scruples is beyond logical explanation, but he does. There is nothing particularly likeable about Glokta, and yet he was one of my favorite characters. Another would be Logen, the war-weary, legendary swordsman with a dark reputation and an even darker secret. His chapters were full of fascinating inner thoughts that fleshed an incredibly complex character out of a tired fantasy stereotype. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
Last to touch on is plot, and while in hindsight nothing much seemed to happen in this book, I was never bored. Abercrombie doesn't rush, but he doesn't overstay his welcome either. He gives us time to get to know the characters through their own mini-arcs. Over the course of the book, we watch them slowly spiral toward one another, finally culminating in an unlikely band poised to set off on a grand adventure. This sounds very Lord of the Rings, and maybe it is, but I didn't feel cheated by the use of the classic 'band of heroes' gig since absolutely none of the people in it could ever be considered heroes.
In all, this was a riotously good read, full of humbling portraits of humanity without growing morose or edgy. There are flickers of laugh-out-loud humor and plenty of unique characters to keep you coming back for more. I'm greatly looking forward to diving into the next book in the series.