The First Law is a sleek, cleanly-written swords-and-sorcery grimdark fantasy series. I read the second and third books within two weeks of finishing the first, so it has that going for it at least.
The central subversion (spoilers) of the book is in the characters. There are no good ones. Or at least, there are characters who make good decisions. These same characters also make bad decisions. So ultimately, they make the decisions they make because of the situations they come from and the situations in which they find themselves. Over and over, one of Abercrombie's characters asks themselves: Am I a good person? Am I an evil person? Why do I do what I do? And Abercrombie's plotlines return, over and over again, with the same answer: "Stop asking yourself this. You do what you must, not what you will."
Those who have agency throughout the novels are ultimately the villains, who are only revealed as villains too late. For the first two books, Bayaz the First, great wizard, keeps telling us of how he needs to fight Khalul, another wizard who has turned to evil in times long past. But in the end we find that Bayaz has been lying about his origins; that he has broken the same rules that Khalul has broken; that he has manipulated the other main characters, not for their good but for his own power. And no one ever conquers him; in the end, his power over the world has strengthened, because his plans have succeeded. The only characters not beneath his thumb, Ferro Maljinn or perhaps Logen, have fled to the far ends of the world and to their likely deaths.
I enjoyed the books a lot. I think that Bayaz is a more accurate picture of a likely old wizard, in many ways, than anything from another source. It is like the second Mistborn book, in some ways: the voice which tells you a story in which you are the hero is likely the lying voice. The king-to-be Jezal finds out far too late that, although he is a hero in some tale woven by the wizard, the tale is entirely for the wizard's purposes.
By the end of the series, no character has gotten what they deserve, as the characters explicitly tell us. Indeed, if I have any complaints, it's how explicitly this is spelled out. Overall, though, I very much enjoyed the series; I enjoyed the characters of Dogman and Ferro and Logen and of course Glokta most of all, I think.
On good men: "Shivers pressed his lips together, squatting down beside the fire opposite, slow and reluctant, as if he was about to eat something he knew was rotten, but had no choice. “If I’d have been in your place,” he said, after a while, “I would’ve let those bastards kill me today.” “Few years ago I’m sure I would’ve.” “What changed?” Logen frowned as he thought about it. Then he shrugged his aching shoulders. “I’m trying to be better than I was.” “You think that’s enough?” “What else can I do?” Shivers frowned at the fire. “I wanted to say…” He worked the words around in his mouth and spat them out. “That I’m grateful, I guess. You saved my life today. I know it.” He wasn’t happy about saying it, and Logen knew why. It’s hard to be done a favour by a man you hate. It’s hard to hate him so much afterwards. Losing an enemy can be worse than losing a friend, if you’ve had him for long enough. So Logen shrugged again. “It’s nothing. What a man should do for his crew, that’s all. I owe you a lot more. I know that. I can never pay what I owe you.” “No. But it’s some kind o’ start at it, far as I’m concerned.” Shivers got up and took a step away. Then he stopped, and turned back, firelight shifting over one side of his hard, angry face. “It ain’t ever as simple, is it, as a man is just good or bad? Not even you. Not even Bethod. Not anybody.” “No.” Logen sat and watched the flames moving. “No, it ain’t ever that simple. We all got our reasons. Good men and bad men. It’s all a matter of where you stand.”
Realizations: All this creeping around in the murk had got him thirsty, so he picked his way through the greasy brush, over to where he could hear the river chattering. He knelt down at the water’s edge. Slimy down there, with rot and dead leaves, but Dogman didn’t reckon a little slime would make the difference, he was about as dirty as a man could be already. He scooped up water in his hands and drank. There was a breath of wind down there, out beyond the trees, pushing the mist in close one minute, dragging it out the next. That’s when the Dogman saw him. He was lying on his front, legs in the river, top half up on the bank. They stared at each other a while, both fully shocked and amazed. He’d got a long stick coming out of his back. A broken spear. That’s when the Dogman realised he was dead.
Life: Rubbish was scattered all around them. Broken weapons, splintered wood. A few trunks smashed open, rolls of cloth ripped out and slashed across the wet ground. Burst barrels, shattered boxes, rooted through and looted. “Merchants,” grunted Ninefingers, looking down. “Like we’re pretending to be. Life’s cheap out here alright.” Ferro curled her lip. “Where isn’t it?"