Over the past few months I have become addicted to audiobooks, and, as a big fantasy fan, the epic fantasy genre on Audible has become one of my favourite places on the internet. I am gradually working my way through the best sellers list, one book at a time, and, earlier this year, having finished J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I was really excited to come upon Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy.
Following the lives of forming fencing champion, now crippled torturer, Inquisitor Glokter, pompous and vain Captain Jezal dan Luthar, and bloody Northman, Logen Ninefingers, the First Law trilogy is a multi-arc adventure spanning a world full of war and magic.
It sounded right up my alley, and having got a 4.6 rating out of over 1400 reviews, it seemed like a safe bet that I would enjoy it.
As this blog title might suggest however, I did not, and have been left utterly bewildered as to why it has so many five-star reviews.
Let me hasten to add, my enjoyment was in no way hindered by the wonderful narrator, Steven Pacey, who is so versatile, it’s incredibly easy to forget that just one man is voicing every single character here. It was a wonderful performance from him, so the problem definitely does not lie there.
Instead, my biggest problems lay primarily with the poor structure and terrible handling of female characters.
The former is almost non-existent. Even by the time I had got halfway through the final book, The Last Argument of Kings, I still did not know where this book was headed, and not in a good way.
A well-written fantasy, especially one on this scale, should have a sense of direction; a gradual build up to the big climax, so that there is a satisfying crescendo, and you finish reading with a firm sense of finality. In the case of this series however, there was none of that. I had no idea what it was all leading up to at any point throughout the three books, and what I would guess to be the actual denouement itself came well before the end of the trilogy, was fairly short-lived, and ended rather abruptly, resulting in a really unsatisfying conclusion to the story.
But if the structure was bad, then the representation of female characters was atrocious. Even with a forgiving hat on, I could not find any decency in the way the (very few) women in this story were treated.
With only four female characters of any worth, there is only one who is allowed her own voice: Ferro, and she is not nearly fleshed out enough.
Throughout the story there are continual references to her past history as a slave, which have ultimately left her very closed-off and wary. An understandable reaction, but there is little to no character development throughout the trilogy that sees her recover from this, and the only time we do get a hint of her starting to open up slightly, is when she offers to have sex with one of her fellow travelling companions. These moments are told almost entirely through the eyes of the male characters, and are presented as if she’s somehow “healing” from her past because she’s not being a bitchy prude any more!
The other three women are treated no better. The strongest of the three is ultimately declared weak when it is revealed she has children, one is viewed, once again, as no more than an object of sexual desire, and the other is frequently treated terribly, neglected and forgotten, but seemingly forgives everyone in spite of all this.
In comparison, the male characters are fully-fleshed out, dynamic and interesting, with many different facets to their personalities, something I would praise if it were not for the clear inequality in gender representation.
All of this leads me back to my original question: how on earth did this get so many five-star reviews?! Abercrombie did himself admit he was heavily inspired by Tolkien’s works (in a blog post that I couldn’t even finish it was so infuriating!), and, despite being a big fan, it’s fair to say Tolkien wasn’t exactly female-friendly either, but even if these five-star reviewers were just accepting that the epic fantasy genre is infamous for bad female representation, can they not see the difference between including few female characters, and including few female characters that are shockingly reliant on stale sexist stereotypes?!
I pushed through this trilogy in the hopes that it would improve, that my doubts would be resolved in a satisfactory way, but ultimately I feel like I wasted a good thirty hours of my life listening to a misogynistic disappointment.