Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Joe Abercrombie's First Law Books: "Small" Stories in the Guise of "Epic" Fantasy

After diving in several months ago into Joe Abercrombie's "First Law" series, I have finally finished The Red Country the most recent of the books set in this world.  I decided to write this blog entry as spoiler free as I can so that I can convince as many people as I can to give his books a try, and to explain why I enjoyed them so thoroughly for people who have not read them before. I read many fantasies.  I read stories set in worlds modern and ages past, in societies much like our own and those completely foreign.  When I say that Abercrombie's books out "Game of Thrones" Game of Thrones I do not say so lightly.

Aww yeaaah dragons! 
In George RR Martin's books, the political manipulations and lives of ordinary men/ women are contrasted with/ influenced by the otherworldly ever present threats of the supernatural.  How effectively these two combine is debatable.  It is a common complaint among readers and watchers of the show that certain elements of the series seem superfluous given the greater context.  It is the Song of Ice and Fire, after all, not the song of the Boltons, the song of the Greyjoys, the song of the Lannisters.  Put another way: everyone who reads or watches Game of Thrones knows that eventually there will be some kind of battle between dragons and White Walkers, that this is the culmination of the prophecies in world characters have foreseen.  While the fates of many characters remain up in the air, and there are several other stories within the books/ show that remain to be told, in the end there remains that certainty that the fire and ice will combine somehow. It is the certainty of that knowledge that has caused many fans of the series to become impatient.  Who cares about what Daenerys does in Meereen, they complain, why can't she just ride her dragons into Westeros already? It is this frustration that made A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons so deeply unsatisfying for many readers.   While Neil Gaiman is correct that "George RR Martin is not your bitch" and no writer is obligated to finish writing on a timetable of their readers' devising, Martin has set himself up for some of this frustration by the very nature of the structure of his books.  He has placed himself in the position of setting up a final confrontation, a conclusion, an epic battle, a world-shattering event.  "Winter is Coming" is the common refrain.  You can only say it so many times before you ask yourself, "Well when is Winter going to bloody well get there already."  The problem with these books, and I say this as a fan of them,
Alright, alright get here already
is that often times it seems that character development is in the service of the greater plot.  We want to see Jon Snow become that man he is meant to be, we want to see Dany become the queen she should be, we want to see the Lannisters fall because they "deserve" it, we want to see the Bolton's punished, but ultimately we want to see some people riding dragons and burning some motherfucking ice zombies because that is what we have been promised.

The "First Law" books are fundamentally different in their attitudes towards fate, towards characters, towards the supernatural.  They feature a character, Bayaz, First of the Magi, whose political and magical manipulations quite literally drive the fate of nations.  Bayaz' conflict with Khalul is positioned much in the way the the "Ice" and "Fire" are in Martin's books, an overarching battle between forces beyond normal men's comprehension.  And yet in Abercrombie's books these otherworldly forces, this great and epic conflict, is not the focus. Bayaz' scheming and the Gurkish power are forces which influence the lives of characters in ways that are both direct and unspoken, and yet rather than having the characters service an overarching plot, Abercrombie creates conflicts and plots whose ultimate purpose is to service the characters.  Abercrombie does in his original trilogy, The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings, what Martin has tried to do in 5+ books.  He establishes a world, puts characters on a quest, makes a few cities come under siege, crowns a few kings, uncovers a few plots, kills a few villains, and ultimately culminates in a kind of conclusion.  But this plot isn't the end all be all. You come to care about Luthar, Logan, about Sand de Gloka, about Ferro, about Collum and Ardee West.  They are characters whose inner workings you really want to understand beyond how they service the story.  THEY are the story.   Abercrombie's books are stories that are not about kings, but about men and women, some men who happen to be kings, maybe, or maybe just kings for a little while, perhaps, but regular people first and foremost.  We don't just read chapters from various POVs in order to find out what is happening in different places, we read them to really understand life from a variety of points of view, which is something I can't really say about Martin's book to the same degree.

Instead of focusing on epic struggles, Abercrombie's books focus on more broader questions of morality and fate, whether men and women can every truly be good, whether goodness is a relative term.  It is for this reason that I actually found his later "First Law" books: Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and The Red Country to be better than the original trilogy. Best Served Cold combines the elements of the best heist stories and the best revenge stories, a mixture of John Wick and Kill Bill, featuring a women (Monza Murcatto) whose drive for vengeance is both satisfying and sad, and a man (Caul Shivers) whose attempts to create a better life, to become a better man, ultimately culminate in him becoming a worse one, while also asking the question whether revenge can ever truly be satisfying.  The Heroes plays out like the best war movies: a single three day battle told from a variety of perspectives, while simultaneously examining what heroism really means.  Finally, The Red Country, a beautifully crafted Western with elements of Shane or Yojimbo, featuring a man with no name (though his name is quite obvious) and a plot reminiscent of The Searchers, but with interesting twists, that forces the reader to examine whether leaving the past behind us is every really possible.  At the conclusion of Red Country, many loose ends from the previous books are concluded, but the war between the Union and Gurkhul remains, nothing is really "over."  According to Abercrombie, there is another trilogy set in the First Law world in the works.  He could very well go on to write more books set in this world or he could never write another one and it wouldn't matter. He doesn't have to. You read his books for his stories, for his characters, NOT because you particularly care who "wins" in this big and epic struggle.  He can go on and tell smaller stories that ultimately resonate more with me as a reader because his characters are more important than the "epic" part of the story he is telling.

Ugh don't even get me started
Last week I watched Age of Ultron, and it struck me that many of my complaints about that movie are similar to my complaints about A Song of Ice and Fire.  Thanos' looming threat, and the knowledge of upcoming films, made the danger of Ultron seem so insignificant.  Put another way: who cares about your robot army, "The Infinity War is Coming."  Contrast this with my love of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  There was a movie that was about characters and relationships first, about moral ambiguity, about the competing forces of what is "right" and what is "good" and what is "necessary."  In many, many ways, this goes right to the heart of what I enjoy about the "First Law" books.  Rather than raise the stakes after his original trilogy, Abercrombie does not give us a world shattering confrontation between Bayaz and Khalul, but instead a series of smaller stories with the ongoing conflict between the two playing out in the background/ via proxy.  You don't always have to make the plot become more and more grand, more and more "epic" for a story to be successful.  Abercrombie's books don't just feature the intersection of magic and modernity, of science and the supernatural, of good and evil and all things in between, that is what they are about. There is just more depth to them than I think Martin is capable of.  

Abercrombie's books are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  There are racial characterizations that, for a lack of a better word, are "problematic" as is common in many Western fantasy stories.  However Abercrombie does do a far better job than Martin at least in integrating characters from different backgrounds with different ethnicities.  Monza Murcatto and Shy South and Ferro are fascinating characters, but Abercrombie still could have done a better job with his women. All because you like something doesn't mean that you completely ignore their faults.  However, if you are somebody who enjoys Game of Thrones the show or The Song of Ice and Fire the series, I would say pretty unequivocally that you will enjoy the First Law books as well, and you may see, as I did, the areas in which they succeed more than Martin's works.