A good story about bad men: The First Law Trilogy

“Good men will only go so far along dark paths. We must walk the rest of the way”
— Bayaz, First of the Magi

In one line, Joe Abercrombie summarizes what I see as the basic premise of the books that make up the First Law trilogy — The Blade Itself, Until They are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings — this is true noir fantasy. Not dark fantasy (whatever that means), but noir; Hyborea and Earthsea and Eriador, by way of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. Imagine Conan doing the double crosses in Red Harvest or Gandalf betraying Thorin to get his hands on the Maltese Falcon and you have some hint of what I’m talking about.

Or maybe not. Maybe that’s not enough.

Imagine a famous trilogy where Aragorn seduced Arwen simply to get into Elrond’s private library. Where Saruman is the last wizard standing simply because Gandalf is too nice a guy to finish him off. Where Boromir does the Fellowship a favor when he snaps and tosses Aragorn off the ledge during the blizzard on Caradhras, and Saruman puts a sniveling, cowardly, easily controlled Faramir on the throne and marries him off to the youngest southron princess available. Or maybe where Eowyn, pregnant with Aragorn’s bastard, marries Grima Wormtongue to cover up the scandal.

Now imagine that they’re all trying to keep all those bad things a secret, because in the end, they’re all (well, mostly all) doing the things they’re doing for good reasons. Some of them even think they’re good people… just in bad situations. (The honest one’s know they’re not, and in the end, they’re probably the best off.)

Does that not sound like your cup of tea? Maybe not. There’s some great swordplay, some pretty fantastic magic stuff, and just the right mix of classic tropes and classic tropes turned utterly upside down. There’s also betrayal and intrigue up to your ears and some of the tightest plotting I’ve ever seen in the fantasy genre. (The only other thing I can think of is probably The Lies of Locke Lamora.)

But it may not be for you.

It’s not a story about heroes. It is a story about people doing heroic things, sometimes, but the best of them know they’re just one exposed secret from being hung on a gallows (“unidentified body, found floating by the docks”), and they know they’d deserve it.

It’s not a story where heroic sacrifices guarantee victory for one’s allies — heroic sacrifices are just a good way to end up dead, and they aren’t any kind of guarantee for anyone else at all.

It’s not about good people in a bad situation. Not really (or not for long).

But is it a good story?

Oh my, yes. I laughed. I howled in indignation. I read and read and read until my eyes wouldn’t even blink properly, stumbled off to bed, and started reading again over my cereal bowl the next morning.

But it may not be for everyone. Fair warning. Probably the only fair warning you’ll ever see if you read these books.

It’s not the kind of place where people who give fair warning survive very long.