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There's a lot of blood.
The First Law is a series of Low Fantasy novels and short-stories written by British writer Joe Abercrombie. They are characterized by extreme grittiness, grim wit, being on the far cynical hand of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, and the intention to subvert and deconstruct a certain number of Fantasy tropes.

The first three novels form a trilogy; the remaining stories are stand-alone (and some have their own pages). The novels are:

Sharp Ends, a short fiction collection, appeared in April 2016. The stories in it take place throughout the timelines of all six novels.

The setting is a fictional world that mimics several facets of the ancient to classical world. The action takes place mostly in, and regards people from, a central realm known as the Union, a region beset upon on all sides by savages and orc stand-ins from the North (not just a direction, but the name of the continent, according to Union cartographers and Northmen), the mighty Gurkhish Empire to the south, mercenary bands from the continent of Styria to the southeast, and the machinations of the crumbling magocratic Old Empire in the far west. The Union appears to be in a state of near-perpetual war, constantly maneuvered into seemingly useless conflicts by an uncompromisingly proud foreign policy.

This is a world filled with bad people who do the right thing, good people who do the wrong thing, stupid people who do the stupid thing and, well, pretty much any combination of the above. It's a world that's not merely filled with bad people; it actively turns the good and the decent into them . Survival is no mean feat, and at the end of the day, dumb luck might be more of an asset than any amount of planning, skill, or noble intention.

In August 2016, the author confirmed that the next installment will be a cycle of three trilogies, which will be set twenty-five to thirty year after the events of the original trilogy in a world moving towards early industrialisation. The focus will be on a new cast of characters, though previously established ones will make appearances.


This work provides examples of :

  • Aborted Declaration of Love:
    • Logen is too annoyed by Ferro's brusque behavior to express his feelings for her, and she can't bring herself to do the same, so they leave each other in a huff.
    • Ardee West never expresses her feelings for Jezal, which ultimately makes it easier for them to split.
  • The Ace: Sand dan Glokta in his youth excelled at everything, which made him into a quite spectacular jerkass. In "Beautiful Bastard," Salem Rews notes that you can't help but love him and hate him at the same time.
  • Action Girl:
    • Ferro has demon blood, making her somewhat superhuman.
    • Vitari holds her own against Logen for a while.
    • Monza in Best Served Cold is a badass general as well as an excellent swordfighter.
    • Wonderful in The Heroes.
    • Shy in Red Country.
    • Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp, a recurring character from Sharp Ends.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: When Dow first meets Shivers, he complains that Shivers is too tall to talk to comfortably and pushes him to the ground in a dominance gesture. Shivers protests that it's not his fault he's tall any more than it's Dow's fault he's an arsehole. Onlookers brace themselves for a fight but Dow laughs.
  • Actually, That's My Assistant: When Logen goes to meet Bayaz for the first time, he thinks that a scholarly-looking elderly librarian (one of Bayaz's servants) is Bayaz, and takes Bayaz (dressed as/working as a butcher) for one of Bayaz's servants.
  • Adipose Rex: King Guslav V is so fat he has to be carried everywhere, and seems nothing more than a figurehead.
  • The Alcoholic:
    • Ardee West is an alcoholic who is prone to drowning her sorrows. In spite of being in love with her, Jezal is put off by the fact that she's a mean drunk.
    • Cosca is almost always in some state of inebriation and seems to spend a good portion of his earnings on drink. In the stand alone books, he goes on and off the wagon.
  • Alien Geometries: The inside of the House of the Maker. Logen and company are horrified when they find themselves standing on a high precipice without climbing a single stair.
  • Ambiguously Brown:
    • The magus Bayaz's servant Yoru Sulfur is described by another character as having a somewhat ethnically ambiguous appearance, being darker skinned than is the norm for someone in the Union (a European Fantasy Counterpart Culture) but lighter than people from the neighboring Gurkhal (The Empire, home to people of Arabic and African appearance). This ties into Sulfur's blandly pleasant manner and blandly pleasant features that make him The Nondescript, able to fit in everywhere. It's implied that the ambiguity relates to the fact that like his master, Sulfur is Really 700 Years Old, and thus came from a culture which no longer exists.
    • Temple, one of the main protagonists of Red Country is darker skinned than most of the cast and other characters wonder (sometimes offensively) at his ethnicity. At one point, Temple asserts that he's the Son of a Whore and that his mother was Dagoskan (which evokes both India under the British Raj and Constantinople) and his father was a Styrian (a stand in for Italy during The City State Era) mercenary.
  • Anti-Hero: All of the main characters have a generous helping of unheroic characteristics.
  • Anyone Can Die: The Heroes, mostly, but also present a bit in the trilogy.
  • Arc Words:
    • "Once you've got a task to do, it's better to do it than live with the fear of it."
    • "You have to be realistic about things."
    • "Say one thing for Logen Nine-Fingers, say he's..."
    • "Why do I do this?"
    • "A man lost in the desert must take such water as he is offered, no matter who it comes from."
    • In Best Served Cold
      • "Mercy and cowardice are the same."
      • "What would I do without you?" and all variations.
    • The Heroes: "Those are the times."
  • Arch-Enemy: Bayaz and Khalul.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: But don't worry, so is everyone else.
  • Armor Is Useless: Whirrun fights without armor, believing that he is not fated to die until a specific day. He says, "Armour... is part of a state of mind... in which you admit the possibility... of being hit." He's a famous named man in spite of his lack of protection but ultimately gets killed when a stray spear impales him from behind, something that might have been prevented if he's been wearing armor.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Why do you do this?" -Carlot dan Eider, to Sand dan Glokta
  • Artifact of Doom: The Seed, also a MacGuffin.
  • Ascended Extra: Some minor characters from the original trilogy become major POV characters in the standalone novels:
    • Caul Shivers in Best Served Cold. A few other secondary characters from the trilogy play important roles as well, like Nicomo Cosca, Vitari, Sulfur, and Duke Orso. Sharp Ends largely revolves around such characters' points of view.
    • Prince Calder and Bremer dan Gorst in The Heroes.
    • Many of the short stories in Sharp Ends feature minor character from previous novels as POV characters.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: "Squelch," "grimace" and "dour" are all words you'll find at least once a chapter.
  • Ax-Crazy:
    • Logen, when he blacks out.
    • Caul Shivers walks down the same path.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Logen Ninefingers, also known as the Bloody-Nine.
  • Bald of Awesome: Lamb shaves his head for his brawl with Glama Golden and keeps it for the rest of Red Country
  • Bald of Evil: Logen should have known better than to trust a man with no hair.
  • Balkanize Me: The Old Empire collapsed into a plethora of tinpot dictatorships, petty fiefdoms, and city-states. They've been fighting among themselves ever since.
  • Barbarian Hero: Logen Ninefingers is a subversion. He seems like a typical roaming barbarian warrior who tries to do the right thing, but eventually it becomes clear that he's a psychopath with a split personality that makes him go completely berserk, killing anyone he sees. It takes him quite a few books before he's ready to acknowledge that the best thing he can do for everybody is keep to himself.
  • Barbarian Longhair: The Named Men, Northern barbarians in The First Law series typically wear their hair long and don't cut it.
  • Barbarian Tribe: The Northmen are typical northern barbarians from the cold north who have a more martial and less sophisticated society. Stranger-Come-Knocking and his boys from beyond the Crinna, way up in the far north, are even more savage.
  • Battle Couple: Logen and Ferro in Before They are Hanged. Whirrun and Javre briefly form one in Sharp Ends, after their fight is interrupted by sex, which is in turn interrupted by more fighting.
  • Being Tortured Makes You Evil:
    • Deconstructed with Glokta; he was the military's golden boy until he was captured and viciously tortured. His choice to turn to torturing as his own profession isn't motivated by evil, but by pragmatism; he's badly crippled and unable to make use of any of his Master Swordsman skills, but his experiences give him an excellent first-hand knowledge of how to break people. Torturing for the Inquisition is the only way he has to make a living. As the series goes on, Glokta develops a pretty strong conscience in spite of his brutal methods, which is in stark contrast to the shallow asshole he was in his youth.
    • In Best Served Cold, Shivers is a straight example, although more realistic than most. He tries to be a good man, but circumstances drive him to increasingly amoral action. In the end, though, his mutilation at the hands of his torturers leads him to snap much harder than he would have otherwise. He loses pretty much all his compassion for the rest of humanity, thanks in part to a side order of Then Let Me Be Evil, and becomes one of the most terrifying characters in the series.
  • The Berserker:
    • Logen's alternate personality of the Bloody-Nine makes him go completely blood-simple, killing everyone in his path, friend or foe.
    • In ''The Heroes," Bremer dan Gorst.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Khalul and Bethod are set up early on, but as the story progresses we learn that Tolomei is alive and now works for The Legions of Hell, and more shockingly that revelation means that Bayaz is actually a Big Bad as well, and maybe even the Big Bad since not only does he get exactly what he was after, Khalul and Tolomei were both only evil because they Jumped Off The Slippery Slope trying to bring him down (and Bethod may or may not have been his Unwitting Pawn, at least once upon a time), and his centuries of treachery and ruthless manipulation are responsible, directly or indirectly, for nearly every war the Union as ever took part in, all because he's a self-centred bastard with delusions of grandeur who pretty much thinks humanity can't survive without him.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The books have not yet featured a completely happy ending.
    • Best Served Cold ends with Monza having received her vengeance and become the Duchess of Talins. However, her vengeance was hollow and a lot of people have needlessly died or become evil along the way.
    • ''Red Country;; ends with Pit and Ro safe with Shy and Temple. On the other hand, Ro has been aliented from her mother and may never forgive her. Lamb/Logen also leaves after realizing he can't escape his past.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The Maker's Tower. For starters, they reach the top without actually climbing stairs. Glokta is the first to realize this, and is not grateful that the stairs weren't there, because it was a Mind Screw.
  • Black and Gray Morality: There are hardly any truly good people in any of the books. And many of the heroes become much worse or turn out to have been horrible people all along. Of particular note is Bayaz, who claims to be the brutally pragmatic solution to his nemesis, the evil Khalul, but it becomes increasingly questionable whether he's not just as bad.
  • Blood Knight:
    • Logen in his Bloody-Nine persona is an Ax-Crazy
    • Bremen dan Gorst has nothing in his life except combat in The Heroes.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Javre in Sharp Ends loves fighting, drinking and fornicating.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The Last Argument of Kings has one for Logen Ninefingers. It's unclear whether he survives until Red Country, which settles the matter.
  • Book-Ends:
    • The Blade Itself begins with Logen falling in a river from a great height and the chapter is called The End. The last chapter of Last Argument of Kings is called The Beginning and ends exactly in the same way.
    • In Glokta's first and last chapter, he references how he'd most like to torture the man who invented stairs.
    • Best Served Cold begins and ends with a sentence describing "a sunrise the color of bad blood".
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: Characters often repeat Logen's various catchphrases.
    • After Logen has come to her aid, Ferro intercepts him and expresses her satisfaction that he is still alive.
    • Shev recalls that someone in Squaredeal told her that you can never have too many knives.
  • Bow and Sword, in Accord: Ferro.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Monza and Benna in Best Served Cold. When introduced, they seem more like lovers, with Benna making tributes to Monza's beauty. Then it gets revealed that they're siblings. The fact that they were actually incestuous is confirmed toward the end of the story.
  • Brawn Hilda: Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp. She is from a reclusive monastery in a faraway land, and her great size (well over six feet) makes many people initially mistake her for a man.
  • The Brute:
    • With his brawny physique and Lightning Bruiser fighting style, Bremer dan Gorst is built up to be this, but turns out to be a very humble and respectful man in his interactions with Jezal. He fits the trope better in The Heroes, after he's become bitter and bloodthirsty.
    • Practical Frost is the muscle for Glokta.
  • Bullet Time: Shenkt in Best Served Cold can do this.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Gorst has been in love with Finree for years, yet could never muster the courage to confess. And when he does, he mentions it so off-handedly that it's not clear if she even noticed, caught in her What the Hell, Hero? rhetoric.
  • Can't Use Stairs: The anti-heroic Torture Technician Inquisitor Glotka was himself previously the victim of debilitating torture, with the result that while he can use stairs, it causes him agonizing pain, since his torturers smashed bones in his legs and feet and cut off his toes. He jokes to himself that if he could torture any man, it would be the inventor of stairs (and that if he could shake the hands of any man, it would be the inventor of chairs).
  • Captain Obvious:
    • Dogman notes that one would think that Harding Grim would only break his customary silence to say something profound, but he usually says something that didn't need saying in the first place.
    • In one of the short stories, Friendly is working for a loan shark and takes everything a man has of value to pay a small portion of his debt. As he's walking away, Friendly stops to thoughtfully tell the man, "You should perhaps not have borrowed the money."
  • Catch-Phrase:
    Logen: "You have to be realistic about these things", "Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he's X", "You can never have too many knives" "I'm still alive", "Shit.".
    Glokta: Body found floating by the docks..., "Why do I do this?", "Click, tap, pain", any mention of his teeth.
    Ferro: "Fucking pinks!", "Ssss!"
    The Dogman: By the dead, he needed to piss, like always.
    Harding Grim: "Uh"
    Curnden Craw: It was the right thing to do.
    Black Dow: Comments about (not) being called White Dow
    Ladisla (and his father, at least when he is cogent enough to speak): "Capital!"
  • Character Development: Often lampshades. Some characters develop throughout the books and comment on their changes. Others will strive hard to change their ways only to lament that they're the same person they always were.
    • Lots for Jezal dan Luthar, constantly steering him from one direction to another.
    • Monza during her revenge.
    • Calder after he loses his father and position.
    • Shivers starts out trying to do the right thing and gradually gives up over the course of Best Served Cold. Losing his eye is the breaking point. By The Heroes, he merits consideration as a candidate for the cruelest character in the series. That's no small achievement. But even after that, he's still not pure evil, evidenced by the finale of the Red Country.
    • Temple in Red Country manages to overcome his cowardice and avoid the fate Cosca has in mind for him, finally settling down with Shy in a small town and running a shop, having left the mercenaries behind.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Red Country mentions a few times that Iasiv has yet to make his finest performance, which he finally makes by the end. Also, the Mayor's contract with the Empire that Temple writes.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The East Wind (Ishri) is first mentioned in The Blade Itself as one of Khalul's more dangerous disciples, but she doesn't make an appearance until Best Served Cold and is much more integral in The Heroes as some sort of pyrotechnics and weather sorceress.
  • Chekhov's Skill:
    • Jezal wins the Competition, so you'd expect him to show off his fancy fencing in a real fight when he goes on the quest for the Seed. In his first fight he just freezes, but in the second he takes down two bandits with ease, though he doesn't notice the third...
    • Glokta is mentioned many times to have won the Competition in his youth and might have been the greatest swordsman of his generation before he was crippled. He ultimately reveals that the skills haven't completely left him when he kills an attacker with his sword cane.
  • The Chessmaster: Bayaz treats everyone like pawns in his game against Khalul.
  • Church Militant: The Gurkish Temple, while many civilizations of the world have God, only the Gurkish Temple is headed by a crazy cannibal wizard who thinks that he is God's Right Hand to purify the unbelievers through fire and steel (though it's implied that Khalul uses his station as Prophet to control the Empire, much like how Bayaz has a permanent seat on the Union's Closed Council).
  • Cold-Blooded Torture:
    • Several instances in each book, generally performed by Glokta.
    • Also in Best Served Cold, with Shivers' torturers.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: Some of the titles are this coupled with Literary Allusion Title, and are taken from a quote which is (one of the) work's epigraph(s):
    • The first novel, The Blade Itself comes from a quotation from Homer that "The blade itself incites to deeds of violence'' (as discussed here, it is a loose translation).
    • The second novel is titled Before They Are Hanged, and derives from a Henrich Heine quote, "We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged."
    • The third novel's title, The Last Argument of Kings, refers to the words Louis XIV had inscribed on his cannons: "Ultima Ratio Regum," which is Latin for "the last argument of kings."
    • A standalone novel Best Served Cold derives from the proverb that "Revenge is a dish best served cold", which fits the novel being about the heroine's Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
    • Another standalone novel, The Heroes alludes to a quote by Bertolt Brecht that "Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes"
  • Continuity Nod: Characters and events from the original trilogy and later books crop up constantly in books and short stories that follow them.
  • Covers Always Lie: The setting of Best Served Cold—obviously modeled after Italy and Spain—as well as the style of the dueling make very clear that Monza's sword is made for fencing, not to mention it being described as thin at one point. Despite this the American hardcover shows Monza with not one but two arming swords, and the mass-market paperback has a snake curling itself around a greatsword of all things! As if that weren't bad enough the UK edition—which came out first—very clearly has a rapier on it. Why?
  • Crapsack World: Not just a shitty place to live, but a place that actively makes decent people shittier.
  • Dead Person Impersonation:
    • Tolomei, who, much to Bayaz' dismay was Not Quite Dead. She had been impersonating Malacus Quai since the middle of the first book.
    • At one point, Jezal notices that High Justice Morovia has eyes that are two different colors. The real man is actually lying dead and frozen.
  • Deadly Decadent Court: The Midderland court is portrayed like this, with some criminal levels of indifference and sometimes stupidity among its nobles.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mainly Glokta, although many other characters give as well.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: One of fantasy's best. By the time of Red Country, Abercrombie is Deconstructing himself.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Arch Lector Sult and Bayaz believe that the people are too stupid and gullible to make their own decisions in any capacity.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Ardee West. It's strongly implied that finally being of some use to someone has taken most of the sting out of her marriage to Glokta.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Poor Logen in Before They Are Hanged.
  • Downer Ending:
    • Logen is left friendless, alone, and driven to jumping out a window, trading certain death for likely death. Glokta has given up on any hope that he might redeem himself and set to torturing for a malevolent master once again. Jezal lives beaten, disillusioned, and resigned to being a puppet at best, knowing that the man he hates most has married the only woman he ever loved. Ferro has abandoned all reason and gone off on her own to murder Khalul. Longfoot is maimed, and Bayaz has achieved his goal at the cost of immeasurable pain to those around him. Oh, and peace between The Union and Gurkhul is prevented because it would hamper Bayaz's desire to wage war against Khalul, dooming any chance of peace in the future as well. How's that for cheerful?
    • Also, Shivers' fate in Best Served Cold, although most other characters fare better. Or at least those left alive.
  • Do You Want to Copulate?: "You want to fuck?"
  • The Dragon:
    • Fenris the Feared is Bethod's latest chief enforcer.
    • Shenkt in Best Served Cold ( although he turned out to have an agenda).
    • Shivers is one to Black Dow in The Heroes... until he turns on him - not because he wants the power, but simply in revenge for bad treatment. Then he becomes one to Calder.
  • The Dreaded:
    • The aptly named Fenris the Feared, though he's ironically a unknown entity prior to Bethod's invasion of Angland.
    • Logen Ninefingers is the most feared man in the North.
    • Black Dow is known as a merciless bastard. Even in a company of famous Named Men, it's Dow's name they usually use to make threats.
    • In The Heroes, Craw notes that, these days, there are no harder names in the North than Cracknut Whirrun.
  • Drowning My Sorrows:
    • Temple's gets drunk when he gets down on himself.
    • Ardee West drinks heavily when she starts to contemplate the wreckage of her life.
  • Dual Wielding: Noblemen of the Union learn a form of fencing using a "long steel" in one hand and a "short steel" in the other. It's apparently based on the western style of fencing using a rapier and parrying dagger. They even use the style in pitched battles.
  • Duel to the Death: A popular custom in the North.
    • All the Named Men who follow Logen do so because they lost one to him, and he chose to spare them.
    • Quite a few throughout Best Served Cold, and not all with Monza.
    • The Heroes has a hilariously one sided bout between Black Dow and Calder.
    • Red Country has one between Glama Golden and Lamb/Logen.
  • Eccentric Mentor: Subverted, with a vengeance — Bayaz at first seems like your average grumpy wizard mentor. Quickly you suspect he's a much darker figure than that, but the full extent of his chessmastery is only revealed at the end, when you realize the number of people he betrayed while pinning the blame on someone else. In fact, he is as much a Big Bad as Khalul is, more so in fact since for all the lines he has crossed; Khalul's primary motivation is simply to bring Bayaz to justice for his murderous treachery.
  • Eldritch Location: The House of the Maker, then the Dead Lands surrounding the ruins of Alcus.
  • The Empire: The Gurkish Empire from the south.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Facing death, the extremely selfish opportunist and cutthroat Severard blurts out, "But who will feed my birds?" which causes his attacker to spare him.
  • Every Scar Has a Story:
    • In the original trilogy, there's a scene where Jezal and co. bond over their respective stories and Logen and Longfoot tell stories about how they got theirs. All goes well until Longfellow presses Ferro on how she got hers, and she reveals she scarred herself as a way of spiting her owner, who was using her as a Sex Slave and would have sold her for that purpose.
    • Parodied in The Heroes in a scene where Stranger shows off various scars to other Northern warriors and tells how he got them in predictably badass, Barbarian Hero ways. In each instance, Black Dow drily notes how Stranger could have easily avoided those injuries.
  • Evil Albino: Played with in the case of Practical Frost, a large and passive man who just follows Glokta's orders. Played straight with him again when he sells out Glokta.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: The female Eater Glokta encounters (later revealed to be Tolomei) leaves him with this impression. Given that she has literally made a Deal with the Devil and implies she has actually been to Hell, this might not be just metaphorical, either.
  • Evil Sounds Raspy: Justified with Shivers. In Best Served Cold, he's captured and tortured, causing him to damage his vocal chords screaming and to make a Face–Heel Turn. So his voice and his evil both have the same cause.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: Crummock says he expected the Dogman to be larger, given his reputation.
  • Facial Horror: Lots.
    • Glotka's ravaged appearance, particularly his destroyed teeth, unnerve strangers as well as those who knew him prior to his torture.
    • The convict Pike who West befriends and who was formerly known as Salem Rews has a face that is frequently described as "melted", a result of a forge accident. Even Glokta finds it disturbing.
    • Following his Eye Scream incident in Best Served Cold, Shivers invokes this in everyone who sees him, even hardened warriors.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: As explained by Abercrombie here:
    "So the Union I based around a kind of Holy Roman Empire (largely Germanic) with some banking and commerce from medieval Flanders and a political system closer to the Venetian Republic. That produced names like Sult, Marovia, Valint and Balk, Bremer dan Gorst. Gurkhul was more like an Ottoman Empire that had absorbed a whole range of Middle-Eastern and African cultures, producing names like Uthman-ul-Dosht, Khalul, Mamun, and Ferro Malacus Quai. With the North I went for something slightly different, a kind of Viking or Scots culture, but with a northern English tilt to the language, and in which the men were given names when they reached manhood related to some deed they’d done or the place they’d done it — things like Rudd Threetrees, Caul Shivers, Forley the Weakest, and Black Dow."
    • Styria is very similar to Early Modern Italy with a dash of Eastern Europe thrown in. Though they're never really expounded on, the throwaway references to Suljuk and Thond seem to evoke the Far East, although further throwaway comments seem to imply that the Thondese are white.
    • Red Country gives us The Ghosts/The Folk, who, appropriate to the Medieval Fantasy meets Wild West setting, are sort of Native Americans that look like Celts (pale skin, reddish hair, blue warpaint). They cut off ears instead of scalps.
  • Fantastic Drug: Aside from alcohol, there seem to be two main vices in Abercrombie's world: husk, which appears to be an expy of opium, and chagga, a weed smoked by the Northerners and frequently chewed by Cosca's motley band of mercenaries, which seems to combine elements of both marijuana and tobacco.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: On the cusp of aversion. The Gurkish enthusiasm for gunpowder is apparently contagious, and Bayaz oversees the testing of primitive cannons in The Heroes. A more advanced one is successfully field-tested in Red Country.
  • Fantastic Nuke: The Seed in Book 3, down to a mysterious illness very similar to radiation poisoning.
  • Fantasy World Map:
    • Downplayed in Best Served Cold, the opening of each section of the book has a map of the locale in Styria that the characters are currently occupying. When pieced together, a coherent map of the continent emerges.
    • And in The Heroes we actually get annotated maps of the ebb and flow of battle throughout the book.
  • A Father to His Men:
    • Marshall Burr is this, at least to West.
    • Curnden Craw to his dozen.
  • Fiery Redhead: Vitari in the original trilogy. Shy South from Red Country.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In The Blade Itself, Jezal spends a long time admiring himself in the mirror, particularly his chin, which he is especially proud of. One book later, he gets his jaw broken in his first real battle, and spends the rest of the series with a crooked chin and an obvious, though not disfiguring, scar.
    • Dow and West offer a bit of this, especially when Dow approves of killing a leader who turned on their own people, and is later interested that someone who did so might end up in charge.
  • Functional Magic: We get this gem from The Heroes
    Finree: "Why don't you just use magic?"
    Bayaz: "Because it's lot easier to just get people to kill each other."
  • The Ghost: Khalul.
  • Gilded Cage: Jezal after he becomes King of the Union reflects on how he's lost all of his freedom and happiness.
  • Girlfriend in Canada: Wonderful's family comes up several times in conversation with her crew. Some of them ask he when she'll go back to them, and she laughs them off. Towards the end of the book, she admits she had returned to her farm for a visit several years ago. The entire valley they lived in was abandoned; she has no idea what happened to them.
  • Good with Numbers: Friendly, who is obsessed with counting.
  • Grim Up North: The North is a simpler place with limited technology and civilization. It usually exists in a state of constant war as minor warlords and feuds drive unending battles. Bethod is forced to invade Angland just to keep the men focused on an enemy that isn't each other.
    • South of the North, but north of Midderland, is Angland, a backwards and ill-developed province. It's the Union's own grim up north, to which the North is even grimmer and north-er.
    • North of the North (yes, really) is an unnamed land beyond a mountain range, a tundra that the Shanka invade south from. The Northmen consider it their own Grim Up North.
      • The above meaning there are three levels of Grim Up North, each one more northern and grimmer than the last.
  • Grave Robbing: Shanka like it as well as the Gurkish sorcerers, but really no one is above the practice.
  • Happily Married:
    • Subverted like crazy with Cas and Vitari in Best Served Cold. Played straight with Calder and Seff in "The Heroes", though.
    • Double subverted then deconstructed with King Jezal and Princess Theresa's marriage in "The Last Argument of Kings". They look like a fair and happy family for everyone in public; however Theresa not just simply hates and despises her husband, but is actually a lesbian, and has been forced and threatened by Glokta to act like a good and loving wife, with the only goal to give birth to a royal heirs. She pulls her acting quite professionally.
  • Heroes Prefer Swords: Bayaz lampshades this when he gives Logen a sword to use for their quest. Most of the sympathetic characters in the series usually use swords. On the flip side, the Face–Heel Turn of Shivers coincides with a switch to an axe.
  • Heel–Face Revolving Door: Shivers undergoes one across the entire series. He starts out as a good guy in the original trilogy, undergoes a Start of Darkness in Best Served Cold, is fairly villainous in The Heroes, and finally ends up a bit more like his original self in Red Country.
  • Heel–Faith Turn: Temple from Red Country. Oh so much.
  • Hero Killer: Fenris the Feared, specifically when he fights Rudd Threetrees.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Deliciously subverted with Cosca's apparent death in Visserine. He is found by the invading soldiers, mistaken for a friendly casualty because of the uniform he stole and wore to infiltrate, and nursed back to health. He then proceeds to reclaim leadership of the Thousand Swords, right from under Monza's nose.
    • General Jallenhorm quite intentionally, to make up for his past failures in The Heroes.
  • Hidden Depths:
    • In spite of being a hulking, laconic brute with a speech impediment, Practical Frost occasionally displays historical knowledge and a dry wit. He also has beautiful penmanship.
    • In spite of barely ever talking (and being a Captain Obvious when he does speak up), Grim reveals that he speaks the Common Tongue without accent and gives an eloquent eulogy for Rudd Threetrees.
  • High Collar of Doom: Archlecter Sult wears an immaculate white uniform, of which the high collar is occasionally mentioned.
  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: Glokta to Ardee in the last book. Once Jezal is king, it wouldn't be safe for her to have his child unless she was married to someone else. Given the nature of the world concerned, the "honorable" is only partly there, but it is the only way he can save her life.
  • Humanoid Abomination: Fenris the Feared, who was left over from the Old Time, created by Glustrad using magic from the World Below, immortal and nearly invulnerable. As his name suggests, merely looking at him fills one with fear and dread. It is said again and again that he is no man.
  • Idealized Sex: Constantly averted. Sex is almost always awkward, messy and a bit gross, especially the first time two lovers are together. That doesn't stop it from being portrayed as fun, mind.
  • The Igor: Glokta's practicals (assistant torturers) Severard and Frost, are portrayed this way.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The Second Law is about eating the flesh of people, and the Eaters have broken it. Grants superhuman abilities, including differing levels of increased speed and strength. Aside from the speed and strength, some are given unique abilities like taking on the form of the eaten or use of High Art.
  • Immortality Immorality: The Magi (one in particular), combined with We Are as Mayflies.
  • Implacable Man: Fenris The Feared can shrug off wounds that would be fatal to normal men and keep fighting.
  • Ironic Name/ Ironic Nickname: Often used or played with throughout the series:
  • It Gets Easier:
    • Logen and the rest of the Named Men basically run on this trope. Red Beck however is a subversion, as he turns his back on the whole business after he gets his name.
    • Inverted by Glokta, who feels the weight of his previous atrocities building up over the course of the series, prompting him to be more merciful.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Whirrun invents the sandwich by slicing bread using The Father of Swords and sticking cheese between the slices. He presents his creation to the group, but it falls apart in his hands, and no one is impressed.
  • Jerk Ass: While many characters are real assholes, the fact that Malacus Quai starts acting like a total prick about halfway through the first book is an important clue.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Hinted at with Black Dow. While he has a reputation as one of the most sadistic and murderous bastards in the North, he gets the occasional Pet the Dog moment to hint at a more principled interior. He always comes through for his companions when he's needed, and always gets the most emotional about losing a friend. He was also the only one brave enough to demand that the Bloody Nine answer for the slaying of Tul Duru and Crummock's child, as well as getting the North into a war it hadn't wanted.
    • Calder. He appears to be a Manipulative Bastard, but thats not all he is. Just ask his brother.
  • Karma Houdini: Of the six novels so published, Bayaz is still on top.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Luthar is introduced in a series of scenes in which he gloats to himself about how superior he is to all of his friends. In another scene soon after, he enjoys watching a poor scribe chase after a wayward paper.
    • The final short story of Sharp Ends hinges around Logen's ultimate Kick the Dog moment, and sets the stage for why he and Bethod are opposite sides of a war during the opening of the trilogy.
  • King Bob the Nth: King Guslav V, High King of the Union.
  • King on His Deathbed: King Guslav is nearly catatonic and not in control of his bodily functions by the time the series begins. He's not expected to last much longer.
  • Kneel Before Zod: Bayaz forces anyone who tries to stand up to him to kneel (often literally, with the aid of death threats and an Agony Beam like magic power), most notably Jezal at the end of the first trilogy and Calder in The Heroes. Correspondingly, Bayaz's pupil turned enemy, Shenkt, has the mantra/catchphrase "I will not kneel".
  • Knife Nut:
    • Logen. You can never have too many of 'em...
    • Friendly fights with knives and doesn't like swords.
  • Large Ham: Nicomo Cosca, to the point that an entire story in Sharp Ends is dedicated to him chiding his biographer on not being hammy enough.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: In the third book, Ardee discusses trying to make her way through the third book of The Fall of the Master Maker. She complains that it has too many battles and journeys as well as so many wizards that she can't keep them straight. All of these could be criticisms of The First Law itself. Glokta admits that he couldn't finish the first book.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Terez and her lifelong friend turned lover, Lady Shalere.
    • Shevedieh's longtime crush Karkov is implied to be one, though her sexuality may be negotiable based on her current needs.
  • Little Girls Kick Shins: Crummock-i-Phail's daughter kicks him in the shins when he insults her. He's pained but amused.
  • The Load: Crown Prince Ladisla, once the campaign in Angland goes awry. He does nothing but whine, complain, and sap resources from Colonel West. What he does when unsupervised leads directly to his death.
  • Ludicrous Gibs: Bayaz can make people messily fall apart using his magic, which he does in moments of extreme need or displeasure.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Tolomei.
  • Male Gaze: Almost always invoked around Ardee West. In The Blade Itself, this is done to spur drama between her and her brother. Its presence also serves to put a lurid sheen on the male viewpoint characters' perceptions, in keeping with the series grim tone.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Pretty much all of the conflicts throughout the books have their root in rival magi battling each other through numerous intermediaries.
  • Manipulative Bastard: The series is overflowing with them, but Bayaz takes first prize.
  • The Magic Goes Away: The more generations magic gets from Euz, the less powerful it becomes. Bayaz and Khalul have less power than the two generations of wizards before them, and their apprentices are less powerful then they are. The spirits are also gradually going to sleep. Each time Logen calls them, fewer show up, and they admit as much. Eventually there will be none left to answer his call.
  • Magic Versus Science: A war not particularly desired by anyone whose torch is nonetheless carried valiantly by Morveer. And even then, the lines are blurry. As the magic is supposedly leaking from the world, Bayaz seems to have no problem turning to science. If it can help him crush his enemies, he's all for it.
  • Master Poisoner: Morveer is literally a Master Poisoner. He even has an apprentice.
  • The Mole:
    • Both Frost and Severard.
    • Bayaz has a few in the Northmen's camp in The Heroes.
  • Meaningful Name: Practical Frost is as white as snow and as cold as a blizzard.
  • Medieval Stasis: The Maker's Magitek not withstanding, technology doesn't seem to have improved much over the past thousand years or so. However, the Ghurkish are just now beginning to use black powder in their military, which Bayaz becomes very interested in exploiting for himself.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: In the North, Named Men are people badass enough to earn one of these, like Shama Heartless, the Bloody-Nine, or Tul Duru the Thunderhead. Sometimes, however, even the strongest among them gets pegged with an Embarrassing Nickname, such as Cracknut Whirrun or Caul Shivers, who fell in a freezing river during a raid.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: When confronted with the plan of the conspiracy to sell Dagoska to the Ghurkish, even Glokta agrees that it would have been a better outcome for almost everyone involved, at the very least saving thousands of lives.
  • No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me: Sergeant Pike, aka Salem Rews, to Glokta.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Plenty.
    • After Glokta spares the life of Carlot dan Eidar, she shows up again to blackmail him with her survival.
    • Logen ordering Black Drow to negotiate with Scale and Calder instead of fighting them. Black Drow does... and the three of them decide to kill Logen.
  • No Immortal Inertia: Eaters usually turn to dust when they are killed.
  • North Is Cold, South Is Hot: The North is cold, and the farther south you go down the Circle of the World, the hotter it gets.
  • Nostalgia Filter: A lot of Northmen like to imagine that everything was glorious before Bethod set out to make himself king. Only a few characters point out that the "good old days" were even more pointlessly bloody than the present.
  • Not So Different: A recurring theme. Odds are fairly good that opposing characters or factions will be more similar than they care to admit.
  • Only Sane Man: West, during the Angland campaign.
  • Opposing Combat Philosophies: The Union army is divided among those officers who value discipline and structure and self-sacrifice, and those officers who value flair and initiative and derring-do. In the original trilogy, both approaches are presented as working about equally awfully, and West has to deftly play one side against the other to ensure that anything actually gets done. They get a more sympathetic portrayal in The Heroes, with each side being shown to have reasonable arguments for why their way is best, and the army's sole Reasonable Authority Figure claims that a commander who subscribes to one philosophy should have a second-in-command who subscribes to the other to avoid falling victim to dogmatic blindness.
  • Our Ghouls Are Creepier: The Eaters are a combination of Ghoul and Vampire tropes.
  • Our Orcs Are Different: The Shanka are essentially orcs in everything but name.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Eaters don't just drink blood, they must consume human flesh. In return, they gain a varying assortment of supernatural powers, including superhuman strength, immunity to pain, a potent Healing Factor, command of powerful magicks, shapeshifting, eternal youth, or any of a myriad other powers. As Shickle says, the boons granted by Eating vary by the individual. The one thing that all Eaters share, however, is their curse—they can never stop Eating.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Most of the Union and parts of Styria take this stance towards deities. Euz and his sons used to be worshiped in Midderland, but are currently seen as mere ancient heroes.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Glokta gives mercy to several people over the course of his torturing career.
    • Logen saves Quai in the opening chapter of the book.
    • In spite of his evil reputation, Black Dow is repeatedly shown to get the most emotional at funerals and generally take the death of companions the hardest.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Calder and his wife Seff were promised to each other since they were babies, yet they truly love each other, even though she's not very attractive and he's a selfish pretty boy.
  • Perky Female Minion: In spite of being an apprentice poisoner, Day has a very sunny disposition and never lets anything get in the way of her appetite.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: A very common occurrence.
    • Hired thugs are often motivated not by a nefarious scheme, but simply because they've been hired to do a job and don't see any alternatives to make a living.
    • In the North, Logen often notes how various Named Men find themselves on different sides of a battle purely by circumstance, even after fighting side-by-side in the past.
  • The Quest: The focus of most of the second volume, subverted when they do not find the McGuffin at the end of their journey.
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad:
    • Goyle's circus of practicals.
    • Monza's victims in Best Served Cold.
    • Khalul's small army of Eaters.
  • The Rain Man: Friendly in Best Served Cold and Red Country. There were 37 letters in that sentence.
  • Red Right Hand: Yoru Sulfur has mismatched eyes, one blue, one green. It's mentioned every time he appears. It's the only thing he keeps when he changes form.
  • Replicant Snatching: Yoru Sulfur most notably impersonating High Justice Marovia and The Tanner.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder:
    • When Glokta mutters to himself about bad things happening to him after he is independently betrayed by both Frost and Severard with Ardee nearby, she answers with Brutal Honesty:
    Glokta: "To be betrayed by both. That hurts. Even me. One I expected. One I could have taken. But both? Why?"
    Ardee: "Because you're a ruthless, plotting, bitter, self-pitying villain? You asked."
    • Taken further and Played for Laughs:
      Glokta: "The question was meant to be rhetorical."
      Ardee: "Rhetoric? In a sewer?"
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Best Served Cold has Monza on a quest for one.
  • Russian Reversal: In a short story, Jolly Yon asks Whirrun of Bligh if he ever sharpens the Father of Swords. Whirrun replies, "It sharpens me."
  • Sacrificial Lion: Bethod's advance in Before They Are Hanged is halted when Shivers' crew manages to defeat Fenris the Feared's flanking maneuver. Threetrees doesn't survive the fight against the giant.
  • Satisfied Street Rat: Ferro Maljinn is content to fend for herself.
  • Scars Are Forever: Abercrombie seems to like scars on his characters. It appears to be one of the running features of his main cast to have some physical peculiarity or visible injury about them. If they don't, they soon gain it in one way or another, for example Jezal, who was hit in the face with a mace and from Best Served Cold, Monza, who got thrown down a mountain after being stabbed several times.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: The Banking House of Valint and Balk. It's the primary means through which Bayaz maintains his influence over the world and its inhabitants.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!:
    • Shivers does this regarding Black Dow's attempt to murder Logen at the end.
    • Vitari and Friendly appear to do this partway through Best Served Cold.
    • Beck in the end of The Heroes. Craw tries as well, but fails and returns to fighting.
  • Serial Escalation: Present in the original trilogy. At the beginning of the first book, the primary viewpoint characters are a storied but broke and alone Northman, a promising army Captain with no particular distinction to his name, and a mid-level operative in the Inquisition. By the middle of the third book, they are two kings and a member of the Closed Council, respectively, and the Council Member is running the whole Union behind the scenes.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The epic quest to retrieve the Seed that takes up the bulk of Before They Are Hanged. The Seed was hidden in the House of the Maker the whole time.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat:
    • As a youth, Jezal is a vain and spoiled nobleman's son who knows nothing of war or difficulty.
    • Prince Ladisla is so sheltered that he has no idea how the world works, which is quite disastrous when he's put in charge of things.
  • Shout-Out: For a change of pace, Black Dow is a shout-out to James Douglas, Robert the Bruce's Dragon. Contemporary spelling of his nickname would have been "the Blak Dowglas," and like Dow, he was the most feared northerner of his day, known for guerrilla warfare and for an incident where he massacred and burned his enemies.
  • Smug Snake: Castor Morveer is inordinately impressed by his own deviousness.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Ferro, Black Dow, The Bloody-Nine, eventually, Shivers, although the "hero" part is practically non-existent.
  • So Much for Stealth: The Dogman, despite his fame for stealthiness, has a habit of tripping over stumbling over things when silence is vital.
  • Son of a Whore: Jezal. Bayaz claims that his father was some unknown patron, not the King of the Union.
  • The Stoic: Harding Grim, also an Archer. Shivers after his... accident.
  • The Straight Will And Grace: Curnden Craw and Wonderful in The Heroes.
  • Subverted Catch Phrase: In his last chapter of the trilogy, Logen's "Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he's a..." is cut off before it gets to the one thing.
  • Superpowered Evil Side:
    • Logen Ninefingers is a pretty decent guy and a powerful warrior, but his split personality the Bloody-Nine is a nigh-indestructible personification of violence. When a battle gets too tough, Logen is prone to suffering a Split-Personality Takeover, where the Bloody-Nine takes over and kills everything in his field of vision. It's unclear whether this personality is supernatural in origin.
    • In Best Served Cold, Caul Shivers undergoes a very similar transformation as the Bloody-Nine. It's unclear whether this was a one-time occurrence or if he's haunted by the same affliction as Logen.
  • Supporting Leader: Rudd Threetrees' actions shape the Angland War's outcome more than anyone else's, but Threetrees isn't a viewpoint character. Instead, he is a supporting character for chapters told through the perspective of the Dogman, who eventually replaces Threetrees after his death.
  • Tautological Templar: Bayaz, who believes civilization cannot function without his guidance, even if he has to massacre a few thousand people every now and then.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Happens in both Bayaz's expedition and among the leadership of the Angland campaign. In the former case, it leads to a comfortable working relationship between Jezal, Logen Ninefingers, and Ferro. In the latter, it just leads to greater and greater tensions, until the army is ultimately paralyzed when Lord Marshal Burr is no longer present to keep his Generals from fighting each other.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: A big part of Shivers' decision to join Monza, and his later Face Heel Turn; upstanding morals don't go down well in Styria, especially not when the guy with the morals is a Northman.
  • There Is Another: Bayaz invokes this trope by surprise upon the Open Council as they prepare to elect a new king after both princes and their father are dead, revealing that King Guslav V had a bastard who has been raised in secret among the nobility. None other than Jezal dan Luthar. Then subverted when Bayaz reveals Jezal was not royal, just a useful pawn.
  • Those Two Bad Guys:
    • Frost and Severard, Glokta's two practicals.
    • Deep and Shallow in The Heroes.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Black Dow. Sure, he looks after his companions and respects the "good" ones of the lot. At the same time, he's a horrible, murderous bastard and everyone knows it. His loyalties are about the only thing holding him in check... and even that doesn't always work. And then he goes and uses his time as regent to form and consolidate a power base, (probably) more or less murders Logen, plunges the North into another civil war, and seems dead-set on being an even worse ruler than Bethod ever was.
    • Not many of Monza Murcatto's teammates are precisely good, per se, but Castor Morveer definitely qualifies as the most evil among them.
  • Torture Always Works: Even though he doesn't always necessarily want the confessions his victims give him to be truthful, Glokta always knows when he's being lied to.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Crown Prince Ladisla really should have picked up that of the survivors of his army's massacre, Colonel West was the only person who wouldn't happily leave him to freeze to death. Naturally, he tries to rape the woman West is attracted to and who had previously saved West's life.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Comes up a lot:
    • Somewhat overlapping with My Grandson Myself, Bayaz claims, apparently truthfully, that following his disappearance centuries before, he's been returning to the Union under different identities to serve as advisers to various kings. Of particular note, he was also Arch Lector Zoller, the notoriously harsh founder of the Inquisition. He's also both Valint and Balk.
    • The horribly burned convict Pike befriended by West turns out to be Salem Rews, last seen sent to a penal colony in the North by Glotka; Rews had an accident in the forge on his first day. This is revealed in a case of No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me a the very end of the trilogy.
    • Toward the end of the trilogy, a peasant revolt starts lead by a man calling himself The Tanner. He is transparently Yoru Sulfur, and this is an early hint at his shapeshifter abilities. It is later revealed that the revolt was set up with a fake leader by Bayaz so that it could be easily suppressed and Jezal could be made to look like a populist hero.
    • Lamb and The Mayor in Red Country are clearly Logen Ninefingers and Carlot dan Eider.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In Best Served Cold, Morveer often thinks about his mother's death and how it has traumatized him, and we sort of sympathize with him as he recalls how he was bullied in the orphanage. That is, until we find out that he actually poisoned his mother, as well as just about every person he ever had more than a passing acquaintance with.
  • The Uriah Gambit: A Northern proverb cited in several books states that during battle is the best time to settle a score with an enemy on your side, as after battle, people don't look closely at the positioning of wounds on corpses. In a bit of parallelism, the proverb is always raised in regard to Shivers- the first time it comes up, Logen worries that Shivers will backstab him; in the second time, Shivers thinks of the proverb when considering backstabbing Monza; and the third time, it is raised as something that could be done to Shivers, who is an unpopular messenger for Black Dow.
  • Vestigial Empire:
    • The Union and Gurkhul.
    • The Old Empire has sunk beyond "vestigial."
  • Wave Motion Gun: Wave Motion Vortex Spell Of Death
  • We Are as Mayflies: Bayaz gripes that people's lives are over so quickly, he has to constantly teach their replacements the same lessons all over again.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • The last we see of Finree's friend Aliz, she's still in the clutches of Stranger-Come-Knocking. Who wants children.
    • Also, Bedesh, third son of Euz. The fates of Juvens, Kanedias, and Glustrod are all well-detailed in the trilogy. All that is mentioned of Bedesh is that he could speak to the spirits and hid the Seed after Glustrod's defeat.
  • Would Hit a Girl:
    • Collem West punches Ardee in a fit of rage, which he deeply regrets immediately afterwards.
    • Jezal smacks one of Terez's ladies in waiting after receiving an earful of abuse.
    • Dogman expresses reluctance to kill Caurib, but Black Dow gets the job done.

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