September 27, 2012 by McDowski
‘A man can change,’ whispered Logen, not sure whether he was talking to the Dogman, or to himself, or to those corpse-pale faces waiting in the darkness. Men clattered down the track all round him, and yet he stood alone. ‘A man can change.’
Superior Glokta, resentfully dutiful as always to the Arch Lector Sult, finds himself being crushed by a rock, ably assisted by an accompanying hard place. His duties demand increasingly contradictory acts of him, as Sult wants him to investigate Bayaz (or else…) while Mauthis – the unflappable representative of the Banking House of Valint and Balk, who holds the threat of the bank’s loan over Glokta – insists that he forget about the Magus and investigate Sult (or else…). Perhaps the only solution is to walk down ever darker paths, and one day find himself in the light. Just as long as there aren’t any stairs.
Meanwhile, Bayaz and his gang of misfits have returned from their arduous – and altogether unsuccessful – adventure in the Old Empire. Disheartened and disillusioned, Logen has no choice now but to return to his old enemies in the North, and finish what he left behind. A happy reunion this will not be, but when a task needs doing, you’re better off doing it than living with the fear of it.
Jezal feels a changed man, not least of all because of the hideous scar now tainting his beautiful countenance, and dreams of settling down with Ardee and leading a quiet life. So what if she is not rich or cultured? So what if his family and friends would not approve? So what if society will be shocked? He is in charge of his own future now. Or is he?
Ferro languishes in the city, the only one looking forward to the invading Gurkish. But killing a handful of soldiers will not suffice, and Ferro wants her revenge. And the bald pink better deliver.
Colonel West is certainly not looking forward to the invasion. Leading several of his men to their deaths against the Northmen was bad enough; asking the exhausted soldiers to now stand their ground and fight the overwhelming army is not something he is looking forward to. And keeping them motivated to fight for their king just got harder, seeing as how the King is dead. And Lord Marshall Burr isn’t looking too good, either.
Abercrombie displays a talent for consolidating divergent story-lines. His various POV characters and seemingly unrelated side-plots all come together in an epic finale that Quentin Tarantino would be proud of. There are surprising acts of betrayal and loyalty, violence and compassion, thoughtful reflection and beserker rage. Through it all, manipulation and calculation, as certain individuals skillfully play the characters we love as if they were pawns on a chess board.
The questions most of the characters ask themselves are largely answered, even if the answers were not what they were looking for. The ultimate question for all of them, that permeates the entire series, is perhaps best stated in the quote at the top of this post. Not just a question, but a desperate hope, as Logen convinces himself for the thousandth time that it is not too late. He can change, he tells himself. But can he? Can any of them? Abercrombie’s answer, for various people, is both a yes and no. Or rather, it builds on the old adage about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I still feel the same way about the primary characters as I did at the start – quasi-sympathy for Logen, jealous of Jezal, a fantasy of Glokta being the dark and ruthless anti-hero a part of us roots for even as we cringe at his methods. That is not to say that the series had no character development; on the contrary, The First Law contains some of the most memorable characters I have ever come across. Some people might find this supposed lack of growth a bad thing, crying about how nothing has changed. I have read such comments around the ‘Net, bemoaning the ‘wasted’ opportunity at the writer’s hands.
I disagree. Rather, it is all the more impressive that Abercrombie manages to instill such feelings into us that despite all the characters go through, good and bad, our feelings for them remain almost constant, without becoming tiresome. The characters do change, they do experience new things, they do, almost, become new people. But at the end of the day, for better or worse, we are who we are. Indeed, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
And since Joe Abercrombie is such a bloody talented writer, that can only be a compliment. Growth or change in characters can be a good thing, but in my view, it is frequently overrated. You have to be realistic.
(4½ out of 5)