“I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once, I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.”

Ok, a one sentence review. If you like the fantasy novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, Fritz Leiber, or George R.R. Martin, you are required by law to love this book.

Oh I’m sorry, should I go on?

The quote above is taken from a rare speech from Logen Ninefingers, the ostensible ‘hero’, of this book – although it quickly becomes apparent that there are no virtuous heroes in Abercrombie’s grimy fantasy world. The story actually follows three threads attached to three protagonists.

Logen, the warrior from the North with a bloody reputation; Sand dan Glotka, who heads the Inquisition of the city of Adua and having survived years of horrible torture has returned a broken man, burning with the desire to make others suffer as he has suffered; and the pompous young lord Jezal dan Luther, whose station in life has awarded him great advantages that he takes for granted.

These three men are slowly drawn into a vast conspiracy that will see kingdoms clash, barbarism sweep the land and a malevolent force from the ancient past twist the rules of life and death.

When we first meet Logen he has just fallen to his presumed death from a cliff after a battle with savage Shanka marauders. Alone, tired and hungry, with his only friend a cooking pot, Logen comes upon a bedraggled young man who claims to be an apprentice magus. Apparently this nervous young fellow’s master, the legendary magus Bayaz, has requested the presence of the infamous Ninefingers. Having nothing to lose, his honour long gone, along with friends and family, Logen agrees to travel southwards.

Below the border with the Northern kingdoms, Glotka and his torturers have been set upon a conspiracy between the merchant classes against the crown. Glotka was once a noble himself, a handsome soldier whose skill with the fencing sabre won him fame and the love of women. After years as a hostage he has been reduced to a physical cripple, sucking soup through gummy jaws and in constant pain. He takes no passion in inflicting similar suffering on those he questions, as he is no longer capable of feeling much emotion at all.

However, he does feel contempt for Jezal, who reminds him so much of himself as a younger man. The lord is selfish, ignorant and through the advantages afforded him due to his breeding, a natural adept with the blade. His reputation rests on success in the annual ‘Contest’, a battle of skills between the greatest fencers within the kingdom. Confident to the point of extreme arrogance, Jezal finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with the sister of a superior officer, a woman named Ardee who disturbs his self-possession with her quick wit and knowing smile. She is a commoner though and he a lord, so a match between them would be impossible. Which only serves to spur on his desire for her.

The overall plot of the book is concerned with corruption, intrigues at court and a growing war between the allied kingdoms of the Union and the Northern lands belonging to the war-chief Bethod. More peripheral characters are drawn into the plot, with dialogue liberally peppered with contemporary insults. The book’s title itself comes from a quote from Homer and its moral compass swings wildly from one extreme to another. In that at least it has a lot in common with recent attempts to deconstruct the fantasy novel, but more importantly Abercrombie is very funny (which is surprising giving the amount of gore and slaughter on show here).

This is quite a thick tome, the first book in a series called The First Law (referring to a rule practiced by the magi to not communicate with spirits), yet I flew through it in a day. Great ribald fun.

Advertisements