This fantasy trilogy is marked by violence, bloody torture, betrayal, evil, conspiracy, greed – well, you name the type of dark gritty depravity, and this series is replete with it. Nevertheless, I loved it.
For one thing, the author has chosen the most interesting characters for his “heroes” – very, very damaged people who combine jaw-dropping cruelty with compassion, hope, loyalty and love. You come to adore some of them, admire others, and retain a fascination for the intricacies of the rest. In addition, the author’s mastery of the exigencies of war and the realities of politics is most impressive.
Most of the people in this book are around age thirty, and most of them don’t attain many more years than that. Some of the most memorable characters include:
Sand dan Glotka, former champion swordsman and dashing officer but now a crippled and disfigured victim of torture and a worker for the Inquisition himself; you wouldn’t think an author could manage to make this 35-year-old torturer into a sympathetic hero, but this one does.
Jezal dan Luthar, a shallow arrogant nobleman and coward, infatuated by his own face and self-inflated by his own ambition but with so much growing up to do, over the course of three books, he manages to do so.
Magus Bayaz, the First of the Magi – i.e., first apprentice to Juvens, son of Euz – the part man, part demon who sealed the gates to the world below, delivering humanity from the tyranny of devils. Euz promulgated The First Law, which is that it is forbidden to touch the Other Side directly, or to speak with devils. [However, Euz was of course himself part devil, as were his sons, Juvens, Kanedias, Bedesh, and Glustrod.] The first three were given magic gifts, but not his fourth son Glustrod, who summoned demons from the Other Side to exact revenge. The woes of the world stem from this demonic interfamilial conflict.
Khalul, the Second of the Magi and in deadly competition with Bayaz for control of the world. Khalul broke the Second Law against eating the flesh of men in order to enhance his power base.
Mamun, First apprentice of Khalul
Logen Ninefingers, a famously courageous killer and cunning tactician with a penchant for inspirational aphorisms, a philosophical bent, a knack for making enemies, and, when not almost demonically possessed in battle, a very good and lovable man;
Dogman, Second to Logen and his best friend and follower;
Bethod, King of the Northmen
Ferro Maljinn, a former slave to the Gurkhul and now looking for vengeance, both aided and impaired by being descended from demons.
Ardee West, the intelligent and unconventional sister of Major Collem West, a friend of Jezal’s
Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune
There is a great deal of pessimism expressed by the characters in these books, and a lot of good reason to support such an outlook. The saga depicts life, as one of the epigrams holds, as “a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.” Or as Logen describes his own existence, which is in some ways a microscopic version of everyone’s: “It seemed a bitter, pointless sort of a life now. No one was any better off because of it. Full of violence and pain, with not much but disappointment and hardship in between.”
Government is portrayed (in a shift from fantasy to reality) as an ever-shifting balance of winners and losers in the greedy quest for power and wealth.
The characters often (by necessity) think about death, or “going back to the mud.” For example, Dogman, thinking about how death is a great leveler, treating each man the same, notes despondently:
“It’s an easy thing to make a man a carcass. He knew a thousand ways to do it. But once you’ve done it, there’s no going back. One minute he’s a man, all full up with hopes, and thoughts, and dreams. A man with friends, and family, and a place where he’s from. Next minute he’s mud.”
It’s not all bleak though; there is also a lot of gentle humor in the book, mostly coming from Logen, who is often apt to distill wisdom in the form of advice from his father (“You have to be realistic;” “Never take a man face-to-face if you can kill him from behind;” “You can never have too many knives;” “Fearlessness is a fool’s boast” ) or in self-deprecating observations about himself (always starting with “You can say one thing about Logen Ninefingers….”)
There are also some profoundly tragic and touching love stories interweaved in the books.
Book Three is full of surprising developments for the characters, in ways that tie the many subplots of the three books together.
Evaluation: This epic narrative is filled with uncommonly nuanced heroes and jaw-dropping (and often jaw-breaking) adventures, along with meditations on politics, love, life, friendship, courage, betrayal, revenge, mortality, human motivations, human failings, and the inexplicable and undefeatable human capacity for hope. Ordinarily I tend to eschew books with so much violence, but here it serves a purpose, one of which is to place into relief acts of nobility and compassion, made all the more exceptional for the risks inherent in just being good.
Trade Paperbacks published by Random House, 2007, 2008, 2008
Note: These are not standalones, and because of the complexity of the story, should be read all at once.