Sympathy for the Doubtful: Joe Abercrombie’s “The First Law”

I suspect that some authors create antiheros simply to avoid the clichés associated with heroism. But in the hands of a poor writer, the antihero can be as cliché as the hero. Dark fantasy can be as stagnant as the worst heroic fantasy.

In Joe Abercrombie’s books (about which a heck of a lot has already been said on the internet), POV characters include a berserker, a torturer and a dandy. At face value, it would seem he’s veered pretty strongly into cliché territory. But that’s definitely not the case.  

The line between good and evil is very blurry in Abercrombie’s work. In fact, you could say the entire series is set within the blur. This is clearest in the torturer, Sand dan Glokta. Glokta was once the toast of the kingdom, brave and dashing, a champion swordsman and consummate womanizer. He led a legendary charge against the enemy Gurkish. And then he got captured. And tortured. A lot. The Glokta who returned to his homeland when the war ended was nearly unrecognizable to those who had once worshipped him. No longer the valorous military celebrity, his lover-man days long gone, he takes up the trade he knows best: He hurts people. He forces confessions and destroys lives. And he likes it; there’s no denying that. Pain surrounds him at every moment: his own, and the pain he causes. 

He’s not a good guy. Nor is he merely an amoral sadist with a spotlight on him, as shoddily written antiheros often are. He’s messed up, to put it mildly, and it is in the mess that the remnants of generosity and valor float to the surface now and then.  

Throughout the three books, I asked myself how Abercrombie leads the reader to empathize with Glokta. Focusing on Glokta’s physical pain, though significant, doesn’t endear the reader. If anything, it makes Glokta’s choice of professions all the more repulsive.

Abercrombie also avoids a sudden change of heart…you know, saving a puppy from a burning bomb factory? None of that crap. Glokta’s “good side” such as it is, is revealed very gradually and there ain’t much of it . 

As I see it, how Abercrombie creates anything like empathy with these fucked up people (he’s fond of the word) is by making the characters question themselves. Certainty, especially anything like moral certainty, immovable self-justification, belongs only to the very worst bad guys. The fucked up trio of torturer, barbarian and fop are granted the occasional sliver of decency only through self-doubt. In Glokta’s case, the doubt is constant, most often manifesting as self-mockery. He’s never comfortable, never really OK with what he does, but neither does he seek any glorious path of redemption. The Northman Logen AKA the Bloody-Nine, is one of the most ruthless killers in the world, but he questions himself. The fop, Jezal dan Luthar, begins as an almost entirely unlikable egotist but the more actual power and responsibility he gains, the less powerful he feels, and the reader’s sympathy increases. 

Another method Abercrombie uses—one I’ve seen many times before but seldom so effectively—is to match the third person narrative to the POV character’s tone. There’s probably a term for this, but hell if I know what it is. What I mean is that when Abercrombie writes a scene with the barbarians, the sentences are short, blunt and hardly a single word goes beyond two syllables. When he writes of the torturer, the sentences lengthen, the sarcasm and erudition of the character seeps into every description. 

I’ve seen Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin effectively use the same technique, which is especially helpful for bringing the reader into a subplot that they might last have read about 100 pages before. It helps quickly drop the reader into the scene, more thoroughly identifying with the characters.  Abercrombie does this very, very well and his work has none of the feeling of verbal bloat Martin and Jordan have in their weaker moments. 

In general, I loved the series. I found it perfectly paced, brutal, funny, shocking and lyrical. I have one problem with it, though. The third book, The Last Argument of Kings seems like it should be a conclusion. The word last in the title implies that surely? The number of reviewers in the front matter gushing about how great the ending is would indicate, to my gullible mind anyway, that this is indeed the end of the story. 

Oh sure, most of the story ends. Not all. Certainly not all. There are chunks on unchewed plot-meat still sitting on the table, waiting for a carving. The final chapter is even called “The Beginning.” How the fuck is that a fucking ending, Joe? 

Not entirely ending a story despite all appearances to the contrary is, in the SF word, a pretty common and minor offence. So, no worries, Mr. Abercrombie. I don’t want to torture you over it very much. And on the glass-half-full side it means this incredibly talented writer has more to offer. I look forward to it.


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