Every time I re-read one of the First Law novels, I find myself thinking, “Why the fuck am I reading an western disguised as SF (the Fantasy variety) with lots of adventure/revenge/war that actually makes me feel downtrodden as I tear through the books?” Maybe because I get stuff that I can’t get anywhere else SF-wise (or Fantasy-wise). For instance, in one of the volumes in this trilogy, “The Heroes”, there’s a scene that gets me every goddamn time, where a character follows a person in a battle until that person dies, then that person follows whoever killed that person until that person also dies, then follows whoever killed that person, and so on and so forth; I don’t get this kind of recursive narrative in my usual Fantasy fodder. That’s you notice the guy’s writing chops. I would put his work (minus the juveniles which are crap) and K. J. Parker’s against anyone in any genre since Tim O'Brien for illustrating the truth of war. Moreover, Grimdark is not killing fantasy. But something is killing fantasy. Maybe only Fantasy writers can kill Fantasy as they’re doing right now. For instance, did Laurell K. Hamilton's romance-but-with-vampires/werewolves/zombies bullshit spawn do it? Or Jordan? Or Goodkind? Or Eddings? Al of them belong to the regular re-outbreaks of Tolkien rip-offs, the so-called the herpes of the genre. I hope this trend will pass, but I’m not sure a return of Elves and Druids or some such crap won’t happen. I think we get the fantasy we deserve. What Joe Abercrombie does is not easy; he not deviate too far from the traditional path but introduces something new. We've all seen these heroes before, we recognize the old fart disguised as a wizard who plays things close to his chest (a la Heinlein), the cynical warrior who is just tired of it all (a la Parker). The brilliance of Abercrombie is that he makes these characters come alive. I've met these types before in Fantasy but they've always lacked something. Abercrombie gives them a soul, makes me believe.
For me, Abercrombie is George R. R. Martin but grown the fuck up. There is wonder and (almost no) magic but none of the stupidity of some of Martin's characters. I've just finished re-reading the second First Law Trilogy (novels 4 to 6), and in these 3 novels he is impressively extra cynical in a way I think really appeals to me. If he had written some of Tolkien’s stuff, I think it would have turned out that Gandalf was really Sauron, Aragorn was just a dude who found a broken sword at a flea market, and Frodo and Sam were going at it behind the bushes, and at the same time both were cheating on each other with Gollum (and also secretly brothers). Even people who do good stuff in his novels only do so accidentally. There are some pretty clever subversions of fantasy tropes which I love. Why? I just don't like heroes anymore. They suck! I prefer reading them on old books, because they’re kind of a quaint notion from a vintage time. In the sense that Abercrombie’s SF (Fantasy) is an attempt at a modern form of ancient myth; when some people Grimdark is modern, nope. Grit (and Grimdark) has always been in SF in a way. I mean if the Sophocles’ plays (the Theban plays in particular) aren't considered Grimdark, I don't know what is.
One thing that ruins Martin’s GoT for me is my inability to sustain suspension of disbelief; his characters, do not become pants shittingly terrified over the possibility that all of the terrible stuff happening around them (or that they were perhaps inflicting on other characters) would eventually happen to themselves. I mean, every single character is so full of silliness, cockiness, or absurdity that they never start wondering if not living by the sword might be a path to avoid dying by the sword. Or that the characters who aren't full of silliness, cockiness, or absurdity are all so mentally balanced that not one of them lays awake nightly, too anxious to sleep, worried that someone from the Fuckfort will peel them like an orange, or burn them alive. I could believe a bit more strongly in the GoT if there at least one over-sensitive character who was absolutely mortified by the Grimdark surrounding them. With Abercrombie it’s a different story altogether.
Why have I re-read the first 6 novels set in First Law World? Because the seventh, “A Little Hatred” will come out in September…
SF = Speculative Fiction.