My readthrough of the First Law comes to a triumphant close, and the trilogy as a whole stands undiminished as a cracking read, a redefinition of fantasy, the culmination of seventy years of development of the form and yada yada yada. I can remember thinking this was way my best book when it was published. It was certainly the easiest to write (only took about 14 months, my quickest to write despite being my longest), and probably had the best reviews to that point. But with distance I’d have to say it’s slightly patchy, slightly uneven. Some really excellent stuff, but also some slightly lazy, uninspiring stuff suffering from a touch of fatigue, and a few plot threads left undeveloped in the rush to pay off the main threads big, a few characters left neglected in the carnage. That unevenness is a bit of a drawback, no doubt, and leaves me feeling that Before They are Hanged is the most assured of the trilogy, actually. Apologies for this long and rambling post, but there’s quite a lot to cover…
Spoilers! Spoilers! Massive spoilers!
The writing seemed a little less polished than it had in Before They are Hanged, not always, there were some really tight scenes, but often enough. A little bit of slightly lazy repetitiveness creeping in, some loose lines here or there that really add nothing. Bayaz is frosty, then he’s icy a few sentences later. People nod and frown and use rather bland gestures rather than doing things that feel new and arresting and illustrative of their character. I actually spotted a couple of real howlers, as well – “he closed his eyes and stared numbly down at the polished tabletop,” was one I particularly enjoyed. Or rather didn’t. It’s incredible, you go through this stuff over and over with a fine tooth comb and they still slip through. Minor though these things are, I think their cumulative effect on the overall sense of immersion and trust, if you like, in the writing, can be quite damaging. Jezal and Glokta’s chapters in the first part were generally the worst offenders – the more ‘cultured’ voices, if you will, while the stuff in the north generally felt tighter.
Glokta’s thoughts became a little less nimble again, as well. A little less sharp and to the point. You can see it just looking at the pages, sometimes. Rather than a comment here, an aside there, there are big chunks, whole paragraphs of italics. Perhaps that’s because he has more lifting to do from an expository standpoint – he tends to shoulder the biggest burden in explaining the Union’s politics to the reader – but it could have been more elegant. There’s also some occasional rather – clumsy isn’t the word – artless, perhaps, summing up of things at key moments in a voice that strays a little close to authorial insertion. Jezal and Logen reflect to themselves in a very tell not show sort of way. Tell not show is generally bollocks, of course, there are rubbish ways of showing and brilliant ways of telling, and these are sometimes very pithy and quotable, but, again, perhaps distract from point of view discipline, sometimes labour the point a little. Overall there’s a slight sense of bloat at times, of slightly smug discursion – not so much at the scene and sequence level, but in the detail, which surprises me as Last Argument of Kings is my longest book, a good deal longer than the other two in the trilogy, and I felt as if I made heroic efforts to bring it in as tight as possible. I think Before They are Hanged is a good deal tighter.
Obviously what you do get is conclusion, surprises, and big ass action sequences, so I think there are good reasons why people might like this book most of the three. There are some very good twists and shocks – some you see coming from far off like a chugging freight train, others come from nowhere with suitable punch. Especially since The Blade Itself can be seen as slightly diffuse and plotless, you can see that the work done there does pay off here, on the whole. In general I feel the various endings are suitably tough, uncompromising, and genre-subverting, and I very much like the way things carry on beyond the natural endpoint to show the costs, consequences, and outcomes both political and personal. People have occasionally complained that the book goes on after its natural end but I think those people are a little bit silly, actually, as it’s in this extended end that I think much of the best stuff and the tightest writing is concentrated. I really like the way that most of the characters in some way come full circle, their last chapters echoing their first. It’s an ending powerful, spicy, and long, like the finish on a good whisky. Nice metaphor, I should consider being a writer. The ending, or perhaps the various endings, are pretty dark, no doubt, and that ain’t going float everyone’s boat but I don’t regret it in the least, I think it’s entirely fitting and sits well on the opposite side of the scales to some of the blandly predictable positive outcomes or bittersweet heroic sacrifices epic fantasy as a whole has spooned up over the years.
There’s perhaps a little too much action, though. A slight feeling that, having turned it to ten in Before They are Hanged I needed to turn it to eleven twelve times in this book. That exploding, splinter-flying, gut churning stuff is kind of my trademark and a lot of it works well, but I think there’s a combined slight fatigue in the writing – oh my god, how am I going to make this fifteenth scene of mayhem distinct – and just a cumulative loss of impact with some of the big, extended scenes. The siege in the mountains comes in three big ass chunks, the final battle in Adua is massive and, I dunno, I can remember feeling slightly out of ideas at times when writing it and I think as a reader the eyes occasionally glaze over a little. Like chilli sauce, it’s the sort of thing that’s perhaps better used sparingly. It’s actually some of the smaller, more distinct action scenes which work better. Logen’s duel with the Feared while the Dogman creeps into Carleon, the battle inside the House of the Maker, both the appearances of the Bloody-Nine. Some of my best, so far as that goes, though I can’t help thinking they’d work even better if the overall pacing and tightness was quite as assured as it was in the previous book. It’s actually the personal things that I think deliver most – the conversation between Logen and Bethod which puts the past, and therefore the reader’s whole understanding of Logen, in an entirely different light works very nicely. Likewise Jezal’s fumbling progress to a better man, the slow revelation of Bayaz’ true character, the relationship between Glokta and Ardee, his development into the ruthless Arch Lector.
Plotting-wise, I think some things slide into place with the smoothness of a well-oiled machine while others … don’t do much at all. There isn’t the same smooth interaction between the different plot threads in generating overall tension as there was in Before They are Hanged. Things are more fragmented. I think in classic fantasy author style I had a slight eyes bigger than belly syndrome, introducing more plot threads, characters and background than I ended up having quite the space and time to fully pay off. I was absolutely determined to keep this to three books, and I’m very glad that I followed through on that, but I think the result is that some stuff was slightly wasted in the scramble to deliver. So Jezal’s plot as the inversion of the boy with the special destiny, guided to a prophesied kingship by a mysterious mentor – score. Logen’s as an inversion of the righteous man of violence – double score. Glokta’s plotline breaks up, though, his involvement becomes more than a little bitty. Some nice stuff in there, and his cheating in the vote for the new king in the first half of the book is all well and good, but in the second he’s investigating this and that, questioning spies, caught between Sult and Marovia and Valint and Balk at various tasks then seeking out treachery in his own ranks. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense but it lacks central thrust, you might say. It lacks focus. Then there’s Ferro, who definitely gets the shortest authorial thrift. There are some really nice scenes from her point of view, actually, I like the way she reads, but she just doesn’t have much to do until right at the end. She’s not in the book that much and doesn’t get all that much of a payoff. In general I think I’d initially conceived of the demon-related stuff: Tolomei, her backstory with Bayaz, Sult’s schemes at the University and Ferro’s involvement in them, as being more integral and developed. I’d devoted a fair amount of time in the previous books to Quai’s replacement, Tolomei’s night-time appearances to Logen and Glokta, and so on, the groundwork was laid, but in the end didn’t do a lot with them. The resolution of Sult’s scheme is quite perfunctory, almost played for bathos, and I could certainly have done a great deal more with that.
Women continue to be a problem. Not enough, not interesting enough, occasionally very cliche. Some further thoughts on this in the comments to the post on Before They are Hanged, which I think continue to apply here. I actually think Ardee and Ferro are both good characters, and would work fine among a more diverse and vivid selection of women, but Ferro as the only female PoV is not very well served in this book, not present enough and, having shown some movement towards depth in the previous book reverts to being more one-noted again. Vitari, again, much less present here. Tolomei, very underdeveloped. Eider, brief and rather fruitless appearance. Terez and Shalere – ultra one-dimensional icy bitchy beautiful caricatures and also, looked at in hindsight, conforming to nasty lesbians put in their places stereotypes that I can hardly believe I didn’t notice at the time. Overall there’s just a manly man’s world of men feel to the whole thing, and I think more than ever in this book. A lack of incidental female presence. Just a few questions that occur: Are there no women apart from Caurib in the entire north? Why are the female eaters all sultry and sexy? Are women not involved in the peasant’s revolt? Even assuming a chauvinist society, are there no powerful wives behind the incompetent noblemen of the Union? No influential daughters? No calculating mothers? No virtuous paragons of womanliness to be held up to the people? Why are characters always thinking about what their father said but rarely their mother? Could the queen not have been a significant presence? More women among the magi? Why do so many of the female characters work largely through seduction? Why do so many have some kind of sexual exploitation as a big motivating factor in their past? Why is there virtually no interaction between women? I think there are some reasonable answers to some of these questions, but overall it’s not a particularly gratifying picture. Stuff to be aware of in future…
Thoughts on the series as a whole then – my feeling is the second book is the best, the smoothest, the tightest and most accomplished in terms of the pacing and writing, perhaps the best balance between craft and freshness, if you will. You can tell The Blade Itself is a first book – there’s a roughness in the detail (although also a corresponding exuberance) and a slightly meandering sense to the plotting of someone finding their way from a planning standpoint. Last Argument of Kings shows some faint signs of fatigue at times and although I think it largely works as a bold ending to the series not everything is developed as much or resolved as tightly as I’d ideally have liked. But then the first book is always going to deliver the excitement of something new, and the last the satisfaction of shocks and resolutions that the second can’t, so I can well understand why people might prefer either of those to Before They are Hanged. An entirely unscientific assessment of reader scores seems to broadly support the hypothesis that Before They are Hanged is the best liked of the three: On goodreads TBI averages 4.06/5, BTaH 4.21, and LAoK 4.20. On Librarything they’re 4.13, 4.2, and 4.23. Amazon UK averages 4.2, 4.5, and 4.4. Amazon US is slightly harsher with 4.1, 4.4, and 3.9. Though there’s perhaps an indication that LAoK is dragged down by a few very negative scores from people who hated the ending, and, you know, they’re dead to me. DEAD.
Still, overall, I was very pleased with the reread of the series. Proud of the achievement, if you must know, in fact I can hardly believe it was me that wrote all those pages, all those paragraphs, all those words, many of them in the dead of night, without a contract, purely for my own amusement. Some of them even quite nicely turned, if you’ll pardon me for saying so. Blade Itself was less sloppy than I’d expected (which is nice, since I guess many readers will always start with that one), Last Argument perhaps a little more. But for this (admittedly somewhat sympathetic) critic I think it very much delivers what it set out to – a tough, gritty, visceral take on epic fantasy with some vivid characters, some memorable moments, some strong dialogue, and an uncompromising set of resolutions that provide some interesting twists on the staples of the genre. If you agree with me, I suggest you buy a new set of the books to celebrate. If you disagree, I suggest you buy every copy of the books you can find and ceremonially burn them. That‘ll show me.