The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings (Joe Abercrombie): I guess the first thing I should say is that I find it totally irritating when authors don't feel an obligation to provide a satisfying ending for the first two books in a trilogy; if you give me six hundred pages to read, I expect a little resolution, dammit. Though looked at another way, it's not so much a six hundred page book as six hundred-page narratives -- things come together in the third book but the first two books are about six different protagonists doing their own thing for a lot of the story. Of course, I guess this just means that I expect six resolutions per book, dammit.
Six protagonists seems like a lot but Abercrombie's main thing with this series is to put some gritty realism back onto fantasy archetypes, and having all those characters and pages does at least give enough room for to fit the world-weary Conan guy, the naive noble with a destiny, the fierce warrior girl looking for revenge, the guy thrust into military command, and the Gandalf guy directing them. And that might seem like a lot, but when the setup involves a kingdom threatened not only by internal politics and corruption but also no less than two invasions, one from pseudo-Celts and one from pseudo-Muslims, well, there is plenty of room to put everyone.
And along with the large piles of plot and characters are large piles of Good Bits. Like, let's see, we have spirit-talking and a half-dozen other cool kinds of magic, we have duels and big brutal fights, we have old wizardly vendettas coming back to cause trouble, we have giant things built in ancient days, we have absurd luxury and squalor rubbing cheeks, and so on. Basically all the stuff I am looking for in a big fantasy novel.
But if I thought this series was 100% awesome I probably wouldn't be writing about it, so onto the gripes.
There are two things, both relatively minor for me but possibly deal-breakers for other people, and they're both cases where Abercrombie could have flipped over the applecart when he was giving a hard look at so many other cliches but (presumably) chose not to. The first is the number of female characters. There are basically two of importance in the book; another two or three show up for shorter periods of time, but basically what we have here is a standard male fantasy setting (I was reading In the Night Garden at the same time, which made the issue painfully obvious). Anyway, the other thing is the pseudo-Muslim country. Basically, the pseudo-Celts are a bunch of guys we can understand and even if they're not good we get lots of humanizing interaction with individual members; the pseudo-Muslims are creepy devil-worshipping cultists and with very few exceptions are a big faceless blob of The Other (come to think of it, the magic the pseudo-Celt guys use tends to enhance their individual personalities, whereas the pseudo-Muslim guys use magic that makes them obedient to their leader and same-y in appearance).
Ok, but like I said, those are minor. The major thing is more like this: Abercrombie set up these books to take all the old stereotypes and knock them over -- the world-weary guy wants to retire from killing but finds he can't get out that easily, the guy with a destiny attains his destiny and turns out not to be totally suited, the Gandalf guy has a more complicated history and motive than it first appears -- but I don't think he had any real idea what to do after he toppled everything. Like, were it the case that people have character flaws that ultimately destroy them, that would be a tragedy. Or were it the case that people struggle against long odds to achieve something greater than themselves, that would be an epic. But what we have here is a long struggle to no final accomplishment, and desserts are meted out arbitrarily.
I mean, I realize this is exactly Abercrombie's point: shit happens, life isn't fair, there isn't always a reason for things that happen, blah blah. But I don't find it aesthetically satisfying to have that be the entire plot of a book: the author might have no obligation to his characters but he sure as hell has an obligation to me.