The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Oh God I love starting a new fantasy series so much; that sense of potential and possibility is thrilling to me, and Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the first in his ‘The First Law’ trilogy, kept me entertained pretty much the entire way through. Abercrombie is definitely part of the Martin/Erikson breed of fantasy writers, rather than the slightly more mythical and optimistic Sanderson/Rothfuss crowd. For those who like their fantasy bloody and dark, The Blade Itself will be just for them.
The Blade Itself primarily concerns itself with the ‘Union’, an empire with its base in the centre of the world, which has spread it’s imperial limbs outwards. It is still recovering from a brutal war ten years before with the desert Empire of Gurkhul to the south, and now finds itself at risk from both sides, as the King of the North Bethod seeks to liberate the imperial province of Angland and the new Gurkhish Emperor musters his forces to retake the Union city of Dagoska. Similarly to Martin’s setting, magic has largely faded from the world of ‘The First Law’, although it certainly plays a larger role than it does in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire.’ Although there’s little obviously unique in Abercrombie’s setting, his world building is good, and I was certainly drawn into the setting. Lots is hinted at but not revealed yet, so I’m confident that there’s more interesting stuff to come in the following novels.
The Blade Itself primarily follows three characters; Jezal dan Luthar is an arrogant Union nobleman and military officer who is being trained for the annual fencing contest in the Union capitol of Adua. Sand dan Glokta was a decorated military officer, and former victor of the fencing contest himself, who had been captured and horrible tortured by the Gurkhish in the previous war. Crippled by his ordeal, Glokta finds his new calling as a torturer himself, a job for which he is uniquely qualified. Logen Ninefingers is a Northern ‘barbarian’ with a terrifying reputation, but as we find him he is much calmer and philosophical. Logen is summoned to meet Bayaz, an ancient wizard known as the ‘First of the Magi’, due to his unique ability to speak to spirits. As well as these three primary leads, we also have a handful of POVs from the Dogman, a former companion of Logen’s, Collem West, a rare Union commoner who gained high military rank, and Ferro Maljinn, a former Gurkhish slave out for vengeance upon her cruel masters.
The plot is pleasantly tightly structured, and we’re never really left wondering what the relevance of each story is. The Blade Itself is fundamentally concerned with introducing them to us separately and then bringing them together and watching the sparks fly. Some elements of the story are more interesting than others, with Logen’s story with Bayaz standing as probably the best. Although I really liked Inquisitor Glokta as a character, his storyline involving a potential conspiracy against the crown didn’t really hold much interest for me, but hopefully more will come of this in following books. Similarly, Jezal’s training for the Contest lacked any real narrative drive due to how damn unlikeable Jezal is as a character, sapping any investment in this storyline that we might otherwise have had. Still, The Blade Itself is largely compelling stuff, and certainly hooked me for the following books.
Abercrombie writes well for a debut novelist, with pleasantly naturalistic and un-portentous dialogue, with a good eye for comedy as well. He’s less strong on the fight scenes, of which there are many, and are at their best when reserved to a couple of pages, with one chapter long fight scene towards the end being particularly dull and repetitive. Action isn’t an easy thing to get right in print, and Abercrombie wouldn’t be the first to leave me confused and bored during a long action sequence, but I hope that he shows a little more restraint in the following books.
Probably the area in which Abercrombie shines best is in his characterisation, which is almost always on point and successful. Many of his characters are incredibly unlikeable, but still compelling to read, although at times Jezal did try my patience. Logen is a great character too, definitely within the ‘philosopher barbarian’ archetype, but likeable and compelling. I love characters who know they have done terrible things and have to live with their past actions, and Logen fills that role well. My favourite character had to be Glokta however, who does some really horrible things, but still remains sympathetic. His constant internal litany of self loathing and disgust makes him hard to condemn, and although he is constantly straddling that line into irredeemable, he never quite plunges into it, and that tension is at the heart of what I liked about this book.
The Blade Itself is a confident and strong debut which, whilst not without its flaws, manages to exceed them and stand as a compelling and dark read. I’m looking forward to continuing with ‘The First Law’ trilogy, and recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the darker side of epic fantasy.