I’m rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series for something to do while I wait for the twins to be released from school each afternoon to parent pickup. Like more than a few parents at the school, I wasn’t 100% on board with the whole idea of two first-grade girls riding a school bus to and from school during the pandemic, especially when the bus was considered yet another social “pod” as far as the school was concerned and, if one kid on the bus was exposed to covid, the whole busload breathed the same air for an extended period of time without adult supervision to masks stayed on, so the whole busload would be kept home for 14 days. And, it hadn’t officially been decided that this was almost exclusively an airborne disease, so I shuddered at all of those unsanitized surface areas the girls would come into contact with.
So, I drive in each day to pick them up. And because the school wasn’t designed for mass-parent pickup, I tend to go early to get close to the head of the line — I’d rather wait on the front end without having to navigate than to wait at the tail end and emulate rush hour mayhem on narrow neighborhood streets, waiting for a near-equal amount of time to pick them up. And I use the opportunity to read over the 45-minute plus period.
I’m no speedy reader. I can read fast, but I prefer a more casual pace. So, most books take me several weeks to complete if I only read while waiting for the kiddos. If anything, I’ve learned there is no need to rush to the end while reading, just so I can find another book to satisfy my urge to read. Fortunately for me, there doesn’t seem to be much out there lately that keeps my attention in terms of fiction, so I rarely need to make it through a stack of books.
It occurred to me while I was reading the second book in the first trilogy, Before They Are Hanged, that — in spite of all the hoopla about Abercrombie writing in the fantasy subgenre known as “grimdark” — his books are not all that grim or dark. Are they visceral and violent? Sure. If you don’t want to read about what kinds of things happen during wars, people being awful to each other and torture, I don’t recommend reading them. But it’s nothing like the splatterpunk subgenre of fiction, or even the works of GRRM; it’s gritty and violent, but not a gore-fest. And, notably, it feels authentic in the sense that, as I read it, I imagine that the violence portrayed is probably pretty close to what someone would have witnessed in our not-so-distant past. And I like a sense of realism in my fantasy.
Nor are they all that dark, that sense that there everything is a crapsack world. There are moments of light (which usually are a signal that something bad is going to happen), but it is not overwhelmingly dark in the way some grimdark genre books get, where everything is just plain shitty and getting worse. The thing I like about The First Law books is that there is some great humor within the pages. Sure, it might be black humor, but it is humor nonetheless. Abercrombie tends to leverage absurdity for his humor, which is somewhat akin to my own sense of what is funny — so mileage may vary in what seems funny to another person. But, the humor lightens up the “grimdark” elements in a way that other writers in the genre seem to miss hitting. There is a bit of a release between the grittier elements of the tale, nothing gets so bleak that the characters can’t say or do something amusing to themselves or the reader. Even as they fight for their lives, or as their final words.
I started the third book in the series and need to refresh my memory, but I’m noticing that a large part of the story is about wild goose chases. Characters go into things with unrealistic expectations and those expectations are dashed more often than not. What they were planning on never goes as planned. What they think they want is not what they need. And, just to cover the pessimistic characters, none of their declarations of doom and destruction come to fruition (for example, the torturer Glotka is convinced he will end up as a body found floating in the city canals on a regular basis and is always surprised when he still lives, which he occasionally finds disappointing).
Think about it — how many epic fantasy tales involve the characters going to extreme lengths to chase down this or that McGuffin? Most of them. What are their chances of success at obtaining the McGuffin? Nearly 100%. Abercrombie tends to pull a Lucy on the character’s Charlie Brown. The McGuffin is not the McGuffin you are looking for, or the McGuffin is not what or where you expect it to be. Success rate is significantly down from 100%, a subversion which, in my opinion, makes for much more compelling storytelling.
I guess that it’s the subversion that I like about Abercrombie’s writing style. Barbarians are the wise ones, civilized people are dumber than shit. The handsome prince doesn’t get the girl. Greater numbers in wars don’t always mean winning. People in charge are often outside their element when the tough decisions need to be made. Magic can kill the caster. The best people are often those who don’t make it at the end of the day. Innocence is no excuse for superhuman survival. Sometimes love is really lust with a mask.
But I’m really hung up on the whole McGuffin thing and am surprised I missed it the first time I read the series. Imagine if Frodo discovered the volcano was dormant. Or that the Sword of Shannara was a wooden prop. Or that Mattrim is just given a normal spear and no ability to talk in a dead language and no previous-life memories about how to win a war?
Yeah… that’s what makes it interesting.