The long buildup created in the first two books of this series finds its amazing epilogue in this third volume, and in keeping with the style and overall mood of the story does not offer readers an upbeat ending – but that hardly matters as the characters’ journey is so compelling that it works just as well.
War and strife come from many fronts toward the Union and its capital Adua, where most of the action takes place: the Northmen, led by ruthless King Bethod, are moving steadily southward and the Union’s army finds it difficult to contain the barbarians’ forward momentum, despite the help from Bethod’s old enemies Dogman and Logen Ninefinger; the Gurkish are marching from the south to lay siege to Adua, where the sudden death of the king adds a further layer of trouble to a political situation in which complex machinations and back stabbing plots go on regardless of the impending danger.
Logen Ninefingers, together with the Dogman and his other comrades, has chosen to help Colonel West and the Union army in the fight against Bethod, his ultimate goal being to exact bloody revenge against the king of the Northmen, once his friend and now his bitter enemy. Jezal dan Luthar has returned to Adua a changed man, one whose greater desire is for a quiet life together with the woman he loves, but he’s unaware that a very different destiny waits for him in the city he calls home. Superior Glokta finds himself enmeshed in a many-layered web of intrigue in which the political maneuverings for the election of the new king are only the tip of the iceberg as he realizes that his very survival might be at stake. And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, seems to be everywhere, his long reach leaving nothing and no one safe from his mysterious goals…
There is so much that happens in this final novel of the First Law trilogy that certainly takes great skill to keep all the narrative threads and character journeys balanced, and Abercrombie manages that with apparent lack of effort as the situation drives inexorably toward the final showdown: the way the author moves between the various points of view and situations makes for a compulsive read that at times turns into oxygen-depriving anxiety, particularly during battle scenes, or a certain very realistic, very bloody duel where the tension almost transforms into physical discomfort. While the outcome of the various plotlines remains uncertain until the very end and is reached through a series of twists and unexpected surprises, no one truly gets what they wanted or hoped for, as the old maxim about being careful regarding one’s desires shows its accuracy in several circumstances. Truly, no one comes out of this story unscathed, because events either overwhelm them, or change them profoundly, for good or bad: there is less humor in this final installment of the trilogy, even the gallows humor Abercrombie used all throughout the story, which here touches its bleakest moments. And yet it remains just as powerful and fascinating because of the underlying reality of its premise.
As far as characters go, I realized what a sorrowful one Logen Ninefingers is: a man whose destiny seems to lie in endless fights, both because of the nature of the world he lives in and because of his own nature and that of his… alter ego the Bloody Nine, but still a man with enough powers of introspection to understand that this is not a way of life, even as he acknowledges that there could not be a different one for him, no matter how much he might wish for something different.
He could’ve gone far away, and started new, and been whoever he wanted. But he’d tried that once already, and it had done him no good. The past was always right behind him, breathing on his neck.
There is a fascinating dichotomy in Logen: on the surface he’s the epitome of the savage warrior, a man who looks like a brute and who’s able to launch into mindless killing sprees; on the inside he’s gifted with great powers of understanding, of himself and those around him, that drive the ruthless self-analysis with which he recognizes the limited choices his former life left him: either go on with the endless, brutal struggle for survival, or to give in and accept the death he has been cheating for so long with the “still alive” mantra he recites after each bloody encounter.
Jezal dan Luthar is the character who sees the greatest transformation in the course of the story: he begins as a boorish dandy, interested only in drinking, womanizing and looking fashionable and wishing for glory and recognition. Where he partially adjusts his outlook through danger and hardship, he still retains some of his old flightiness until a massive, unexpected change in life shows him that the prestige and appreciation he craved for are only the outward trappings of duty and responsibility and that he needs to grow into the role that fell on him, or be crushed by it. Much as I despised the Jezal of old, his capriciousness and shallowness, I was compelled to pity the man he becomes toward the end, because of the price he has to pay for it, something that reminded me of a very impassioned quote from my beloved Babylon 5, where Londo Mollari says: “When we first met I had no power and all the choices I could ever want. And now I have all the power I could ever want and no choices at all. No choice at all.” Tragic indeed…
As usual I left my very favorite individual for last – Sand dan Glokta. This potentially despicable character is instead the most relatable of them all, a man who was broken in body but not in mind and who has learned the fine art of survival in the most terrible of circumstances. Faithful to the dual nature of Abercrombie’s characters, he lives and breathes cynicism while secretly yearning for some of the joy that circumstances denied him, all the while trying to stay afloat in the poisonous atmosphere of Adua’s political circles.
The one good thing about every step being an ordeal. You soon learn how to tread carefully.
Friends are people one pretends to like in order to make life bearable. Men like us have no need of such indulgences. It is our enemies by which we are measured.
And that duality shows ever more clearly in the most dangerous circumstances, when his survival hangs by a thread and he appears ready to finally let go of the burden of his painfully crippled body, yet he welcomes any unexpected reprieve with phlegmatic relief: in a way I’ve come to believe that his continued survival, while certainly due to his ability to navigate the toxic circles he moves in, comes mostly from his apparent lack of fear for death, outwardly considered as a relief. In a similar way, Glokta’s cynical approach is belied by his kind-hearted interest for the misfortunes of Ardee, his friend Colonel West’s sister, and the way the two of them become close by sharing a penchant for masking their deepest emotions with sarcastically delightful repartees: it’s through those interactions, and the way they affect their shared story, that the author offers the only glimmer of light and hope in the overall grimness of the story – a glimmer that feels both right and well deserved.
I’m glad I have still more books to explore in this world created by Joe Abercrombie, not to mention the upcoming ones in the new Age of Madness series, whose first volume A Little Hatred finally compelled me to read The First Law. This is a harsh, cruel world, granted, but it’s such a compelling one that making the effort to look past the blood and violence to the wonderfully crafted characters that people it becomes no effort at all.