Update May 20, 2016: Added a review of Sharp Ends.

On Twitter, Joe Abercrombie has taken the moniker of @LordGrimdark as a tongue-in-cheek joke acknowledging his status as a symbol of the trend in fantasy literature toward flawed characters and gritty realism. With such anti-heroic characters and bloody plots, one might think that his books would be bleak and nihilistic.

However, Abercrombie deftly wields a powerful secret weapon: gallows humor. It is cynical, sharp-witted, and expertly timed. I often laughed out loud when reading these books, and then wondered if I was a horrible person for doing so.

The characters, even the psychopathic ones, all have a humanity that you can empathize with. Their strengths are inextricably tied to their faults, preventing them from getting out of their own way.

Each of the stories tends to tackle a different popular genre. The first trilogy takes on epic fantasy tropes and upends them. Best Served Cold is a revenge/heist tale with a grimdark twist. The Heroes is an antiwar war story in the vein of a gritty Vietnam War movie. Red Country is a violent western, complete with prairies and mining towns.

What Makes it Epic Grit:

  • Adventure and Wonder: Mysterious magic, journeys through strange and wondrous lands, and ancient mysteries.
  • Believable Characters: In this story, as in life, the characters’ strengths are also their faults. When their strengths manifest at their greatest, so do their faults. It’s wonderful to see these characters realize that.
  • Real Consequences: Check.
  • Epic in Scope: Power struggles and the fate of nations, etc.
  • Subverts “Good versus Evil” Tropes: Is there “goodness” here?
  • Different Perspectives: The characters are very diverse, each bringing their own baggage.

Verdict:

Joe Abercrombie has broken the mold of traditional fantasy and put the pieces back together in a gritty, fun, and thought-provoking way. This series is at or near the top of the must-read list.

The Trilogy

Review: The First Law by Joe AbercrombieThe Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Series: The First Law #1
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2006
Type: Novel

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Review: The First Law by Joe AbercrombieBefore They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
Series: The First Law #2
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2007
Type: Novel

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Review: The First Law by Joe AbercrombieLast Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
Series: The First Law #3
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2008
Type: Novel

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The Standalones

Review: The First Law by Joe AbercrombieBest Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie
Series: The First Law #4
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2009
Type: Novel

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This book is set in Styria, a land reminiscent of late medieval or early Renaissance Italy with its warring city states. The story focuses around Monza Murcatto, a mercenary formerly in the employ of Duke Orso. After Orso betrays her and leaves her for dead, she assembles a team and heads out for revenge. Along the way, we meet up with some characters from the previous books–some with expanded roles and some with cameos. As much as I loved the previous trilogy, I thought this book was even stronger.

Review: The First Law by Joe AbercrombieThe Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
Series: The First Law #5
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2011
Type: Novel

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This book is a war story that takes place during a three-day battle between The Union and the North. Many characters from the previous books feature heavily in this book. I particularly loved the use of the third person limited POV in the scenes with Bremer dan Gorst, who outwardly tried to endure his situation, while inwardly hating and resenting everyone.

Review: The First Law by Joe AbercrombieRed Country by Joe Abercrombie
Series: The First Law #6
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2012
Type: Novel

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This western-style tale follows Shy South and her craven stepfather as they travel to a mining town to retrieve their kidnapped family members and seek justice. Along the way, we find that both Shy and her stepfather each have dark and bloody secrets from their pasts. Much like with Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, I loved the whole Wild West take on fantasy.

Review: The First Law by Joe AbercrombieSharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie
Series: The First Law #7
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
Release: 2016
Type: Short Story Collection

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This collection contains short stories with characters and places that span all of the previous First Law books. It also contains several stories from two new characters, Javre and Shevedieh, who have some inspiration from Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. These are my favorite stories and really steal the show. The Javre and Shev stories create a sort of reference point and narrative skeleton that the rest attach to.

As a collection, this is similar to the experimental rock and roll concept albums of the 1970’s. Most of the tracks on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon don’t play well as singles on the radio. You must have the context of the whole album to appreciate much of it. The same is true of a number of these stories. They don’t stand alone so much as provide greater flavor for the books that have already been written. Therefore, I recommend reading the whole collection straight through as though it was the seventh novel in the First Law series.