Joe Abercrombie, a British fantasy author from Lancaster, England, has a background in freelance film editing before his first book, The Blade Itself, was published in 2006 by Gollancz. The first book in his Shattered Sea series, Half-A-King, won the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book in 2015. He currently lives with his wife and three children in Bath, Somerset. You can find him @LordGrimdark on Twitter, and on his website.
Abercrombie’s books begin with The First Law trilogy: The Blade Itself (2006), Before They Are Hanged (2007), and The Last Argument of Kings (2008). It tells the story of Logen Ninefingers, a Northern barbarian with an infamous reputation, Captain Jezal Dan Luther, a soldier from the Union who only thinks of himself, Inquisitor Glokta, a former soldier crippled as a prisoner of war now serving as a torturer for the Inquisition, and how their paths are interwoven by war and Bayaz, the First of the Magi.
He followed this series by three standalone novels set in the world of First Law with Best Served Cold (2009), The Heroes (2011), and Red Country (2012). These three books had connections to the original trilogy by showing glimpses of the aftermath the first trilogy wrought, the point-of-views of side characters in their own stories, and expanding upon the world with new places and characters. While also subtly interconnected between themselves, the books could be read by new readers wishing to only read a single novel. These books also teased readers of what the future may entail for the next books set in this world.
In 2014, the author set The First Law world aside to enter the Shattered Sea with his first Young Adult novel, Half-A-King. In it, Prince Yarvi is the youngest son of a conquering king. Due to the crippled hand he was born with, he grows up to be more of a scholar than a warrior. Without any future as a warrior in his father’s raids or as his heir, Yarvi plans to join the ministry where his knowledge, wit, and wisdom will be useful. Before this can occur, his father and brother died leaving him to bear the burden of the crown. Part coming-of-age and part revenge story, the Shattered Sea series displays Abercrombie talents for world building and rich characters beyond The First Law.
Finally, in 2016, Abercrombie returned to his original world with a collection of short stories called Sharp Ends: Stories from the World of First Law. This book collects thirteen short stories both new and previously published in other short story collections. Like the standalone novels, this gives us a better glimpse of the world but has the added bonus of taking place for readers of the previous books by telling stories before The Blade Itself takes place and after Red Country ends.
For The First Law books, to put it simply, if you’re a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire then you will likely enjoy this. There’s so much more to it though that sets it apart from Martin’s series. The similarities will draw you in but the differences will make the books flourish as excellent epic fantasy books on their own. If the grim, bleak, and hopeless reality of Martin’s series is like a knife in the back, than Abercrombie’s is an axe in the shoulder blade with a brief reprise to let it heal only to get that same axe in the head.
Thematically, this series delves into whether or not a person can truly change for the better and when society is at its grimmest if it’ll let you change. Story-wise, these books will ring true with current day events. That, unfortunately. means they can be quite bleak or as Patrick Rothfuss puts it on Goodreads sometimes you’ll put his books down and think “Well, I guess everything sucks and everyone in the world is awful and we’re all pretty much fucked in the end, aren’t we?”
He explores the incompetence of government and bureaucracy, the cruelty of torture, the grim realities of war, and the sacrifices powerful men will make to win their ideological battles and retain their power. Not self-sacrifices, but choices that result in the suffering of smaller men and how those same men stand up to continue on. Why would you want to read that then? Abercrombie gives the reader a constant palette cleanser to the grimdark of his series with the dry wit and sharp tongue of his characters. The snark, sass, and clever quips of many of the characters keep it light enough to keep a breath in Abercrombie’s ocean of bleakness.
Abercrombie explores the incompetence of government and bureaucracy, the cruelty of torture, the grim realities of war, and the sacrifices powerful men will make to win their ideological battles and retain their power. Not self-sacrifices, but choices that result in the suffering of smaller men and how those same men stand up to continue on. Why would you want to read that then? Abercrombie gives the reader a constant palette cleanser to the grimdark of his series with the dry wit and sharp tongue of his characters. The snark, sass, and clever quips of many of the characters keep it light enough to keep a breath in Abercrombie’s ocean of bleakness.
Besides that, where Abercrombie excels is in his characters. They each have their own voice and motivation is so distinctive but his best attribute is that balance between choices made logically and rationally. You might read his characters and say they’re not acting logical but they are, it’s simply that they have their own logic that may be different than yours. Logen Ninefingers is a great example. He is so conflicted emotionally throughout. He’s realistic but he’s hopeful. He’s wise but he’s brutal. He wants to change but cannot.
If The First Law is a blow from an axe than his Shattered Sea series is the slash of a sword. The harshness that you’ll come to expect from.an Abercrombie novel, if you’ve read his other books first, is more tempered, refined, and toned down. Themes such as the brutality of war ring true just the same but it’s structured into the coming of age of younger characters like Yarvi rather than Logen, Jezal, and Glokta.
Joe Abercrombie is currently working on a new trilogy set in the First Law world. The first book, taking place fifteen years after Red Country, will likely not be published until the end of 2018 or later. This is due to the author wishing to have the whole trilogy drafted before the first book is published. The positive aspect of this is you can expect a consistent time between books being published such was the case with the original trilogy.
So you’re at your local bookstore and you’re thinking of picking up a Joe Abercrombie book but don’t know where to start. Your best bet is starting with The Blade Itself or Half-A-King. The best part is once you’ve finished these books the rest of the trilogy is already published. However, the stand alone First Law book, Best Served Cold, could also work as well. What makes this the best of the standalone novels to pick up is it has little easter eggs connecting it to the original trilogy when compared to the large connections The Heroes and Red Country do and it is a great example of Abercrombie’s writing style you can find in either his other First Law books or the Shattered Sea series. Currently, there are no adaptations in the works for The First Law or the Shattered Sea series but with an influx of fantasy adaptations on the way and HBO’s Game of Thrones coming to an end in two seasons now would be an opportune time to license these series.
The First Law Volume 1 art by Andie Tong, Pete Pantazis