Monday, December 03, 2012

“The Blade Itself” by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz/Pyr)

Abercrombie-FL1-BladeItselfThe First Law, book one

Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled and increasingly bitter relic of the last war, former fencing champion turned torturer extraordinaire, is trapped in a twisted and broken body – not that he allows it to distract him from his daily routine of torturing smugglers.

Nobleman, dashing officer and would-be fencing champion Captain Jezal dan Luthar is living a life of ease by cheating his friends at cards. Vain, shallow, selfish and self-obsessed, the biggest blot on his horizon is having to get out of bed in the morning to train with obsessive and boring old men.

And Logen Ninefingers, an infamous warrior with a bloody past, is about to wake up in a hole in the snow with plans to settle a blood feud with Bethod, the new King of the Northmen, once and for all – ideally by running away from it. But as he’s discovering, old habits die really, really hard indeed…

Especially when Bayaz gets involved. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he's about to make the lives of Glotka, Jezal and Logen a whole lot more difficult…

Finally! Despite owning each of Joe Abercrombie’s novels, and having purchased each of them in its first week of release, I have only just managed to get around to actually reading one of them. My immediate thoughts? I’m very glad I did, and it’s not difficult to see why The First Law series has taken the fantasy community by storm. It does not display the genius a lot of my fellow bloggers sometimes ascribe to Mr. Abercrombie, and I had some issues with it, but it is nevertheless a very strong debut.

I’m not going to spend too much time on the plot, for two reasons: first, to do so would require spoilers. Also, and this is one of my issues, there isn’t a whole lot of plot to talk about, just yet. This is not to say that nothing happens, but The Blade Itself is the first in a trilogy, so the vast majority of this novel  is the chess equivalent of moving pieces into position. The novel is, therefore, focused pretty much entirely on the characters, with only vague and tantalising hints about wider events.

Each of Abercrombie’s characters is very well written and brought to life on the page. They’re diverse, well-rounded and realistic. Some of them are, however, rather familiar. Not entirely, but in their overall type. For example, the main characters are a barbarian warrior, a wizard, a noble swordsman, and (introduced in part two) a rogue. Which, as many fantasy fans will know, are the core characters in any number of fantasy games and novels. Now, before people think I’m saying the novel lacks originality, let me stress that this is pretty much where the comparison ends. Abercrombie has clearly drawn on some beloved fantasy tropes, but then he’s gone to town and made them very much his own. And, of course, there’s also Glokta…

Inquisitor Glokta is undoubtedly the star and stand-out character. Whether he’s in the middle of an interrogation, or running through an internal monologue on the tyranny of stairs, he is engaging and compelling. We get a perfect sense of his resentment and disability, not to mention the sociopathic tendencies they have engendered. Once the star of the annual Contest, handsome and rakish, he was crippled during the war after months of captivity and torture, which has made his life one of prolonged pain and indignity.

“The ignominy of it. To think that I, Sand dan Glokta, the greatest swordsman the Union has ever seen, must be carried to my bath by an old man so that I can wash my own shit off. They must be laughing loud now, all those fools I beat, if they still remember me. I’d be laughing too, if it didn’t hurt so much. But he let the weight off his left leg and put his arm round Barnam’s shoulders without complaint. What’s the use after all? Might as well make it easy for myself. As easy as it can be.”

His Practicals, Frost and Severard, are amusing foils for him, too. At the start, when Glokta’s perspective dominates, it could feel at times that Abercrombie may have been laying it on a bit thick, just how bitter and spiteful Glokta has become. He develops over the course of the novel, however, and we learn a great deal about his past and psyche. He’s really a unique character in fantasy.

On the flip-side, Logen, our fearless barbarian warrior, is a conundrum for different reasons. He was once as a tyrant’s brutal enforcer and champion, known as the Bloody-Nine. And yet. He’s rather clueless at times, and even vulnerable. He’s overwhelmed by a bustling city and its massive population (despite serving in large armies and sacking his fair share of towns, etc.). Some readers have told me that they don’t like him at all, and find him a little dull. But I did like him. His more conventional type does mean he’s eclipsed by the Inquisitor (true of every character, to be honest), but I liked his and the Bayaz’s storyline a lot, and I think the future of the series holds a great deal more scope for exploring his past and character. In the second half of the novel, when Logen and Bayaz arrive at the main city, we start to see a little more of Logen’s character and how he thinks and reacts to the world. At one point, he’s asked if he’s seen a lot of death in his time, and he offers this great, long response:

“I’ve fought in three campaigns [and] seven pitched battles. In countless raids and skirmishes and desperate defences, and bloody actions of every kind. I’ve fought in the driving snow, the blasting wind, the middle of the night. I’ve been fighting all my life, one enemy or another, one friend or another. I’ve known little else. I’ve seen men killed for a word, for a look, for nothing at all. A woman tried to stab me once for killing her husband, and I threw her down a well. And that’s far from the worst of it. Life used to be cheap as dirt to me. Cheaper. I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once. I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.”

Bayaz, the powerful, indeterminately-old grand wizard, has decided that it’s time for him to make an appearance at court once again. His decision will upend society and also spur on the efforts of those opposed to any changes that may threaten the (lucrative) status quo. He’s a strong character, but despite his centrality to events in the second half of the novel, remains a bit of an enigma. I hope he’s given more space in the next two novels.

Jezal’s story was another good alternative, if a little predictable. He’s a fop, interested in enhancing his reputation, drinking and chasing women. He has a profound fear of disappointing his father, and a massive sense of entitlement. He’s a spoiled rich kid.

“He wasn’t half as good at smoking as he was at cards, unfortunately, and most of the rings were no more than ugly puffs of yellow-brown vapour. If he was being completely honest, he didn’t really enjoy smoking. It made him feel a bit sick, but it was very fashionable and very expensive, and Jezal would be damned if he would miss out on something fashionable just because he didn’t like it…”

He’s extremely unlikeable, and Abercrombie litters the novel with reasons for really hating everything he stands for, perfectly painting a picture of an out-of-touch, uncaring arsehole. For example, in a chance meeting with a soldier of lower rank,

“Jezal favoured him with a terse nod and turned away to look up the avenue. He could think of no possible reason why an officer would want to be familiar with the common soldiers. Furthermore, he was scarred and ugly. Jezal had no use whatever for ugly people.”

But, then he meets Ardee, the sister of his best friend, who plays a part similar to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (she’s everything he thinks he doesn’t want in a woman, and yet she worms her way into his mind, while also clearly being the more intelligent of the two). Jezal is a typical arrogant, rich, self-involved protagonist. But I do love watching his rationalisations, and ultimately his development…

“With every step Jezal’s fury mounted until he was halfway to being strangled by it. He had been the victim of an assault! A savage and undeserved attack! He stopped in the corridor, trembling with rage… And from a woman too! A woman! And a bloody commoner! How dare she? He had wasted time on her, and laughed at her jokes, and found her attractive! She should have been honoured to be noticed!”

Like I said. He’s a real charmer…

He is, however, a product of the society we’re introduced to in this world. It is clearly, amusingly corrupt, and Abercrombie frequently describes it with a scathingly contempt. It doesn’t quite rival the decadence of Rome, but it’s getting there – and there are also massing barbarians on their way to the gates. Abercrombie saves almost all of his scorn and derision for the monied elite, who are callous and greedy in equal measure, utterly out of touch with reality. At one point, we’re treated to this little tirade:

“The commoners are up in arms again near Keln. Some idiot of a landowner hangs a few peasants and now we have a mess to deal with! How hard can it be to manage a field full of dirt and a couple of farmers? You don’t have to treat them well, just as long as you don’t hang them!”

Yes, hanging really is the only thing peasants have the right to be unhappy about…

One of the things any reader will notice upon starting The Blade Itself is the quality of Abercrombie’s prose – they’re superbly crafted throughout. The story moves at an excellent pace, and I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know these characters so well. The author deploys quips and gallows humour very well throughout. I think the only time I cringed was during a particular scene near the end, when the ‘fighting talk’ between two characters was just… well, bad. In such a long novel (not to mention a debut), that’s no mean feat.

One of my favourite moments? When a very angry, very naked wizard makes a man explode. Because he’s just about had enough of his bathtime being interrupted…

It’s definitely an opening part of a much larger story, and so any reader should take that into account. There were times when I was reminded of The Fellowship of the Rings, in really strange moments of unconscious reference. This wasn’t unwelcome, but sometimes I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was reminded of that book. Probably something as simple as the slow movement and collection of a group of heroes about to set off on a larger quest.

Abercrombie-FL1-BladeItself2I also can’t help but think that The Blade Itself perhaps shouldn’t be reviewed on its own, and that to do so is doing it a disservice. The novel is very much focused on introducing us to the players and moving them into position, and as a result some readers may find it a little unsatisfactory and uneventful. For me, my interest was certainly piqued, and I think the decision to focus on introduction was the right move. I really enjoy Abercrombie’s prose style and characters, so I’ll definitely be reading more. And not just because I already own them all… (Sadly, they’re actually all in storage at the moment, much to my chagrin.)

Despite my issues and concerns with the novel, I find myself needing to bestow upon The Blade Itself one of the highest compliments (for me) that I give novels: it’s stuck with me, and I can’t stop thinking about what I’ve read. The characters and world have wormed their way into my imagination.

The First Law: The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings.

Followed by: Best Served Cold, The Heroes, Red Country

Red Country was just published in the UK (Gollancz) and the US (Orbit).


  1. I just finished this two weeks ago and it's my first Abercrombie novel too. I enjoyed the characters and world building but would have liked it more if this book is a self contained story rather than just the opening act of a trilogy.

    1. I agree. It's interesting that it isn't a bit more self-contained: usually, debuts are more-or-less self-contained stories just in case it's a flop. But, if you read the acknowledgements, it was bought before the editor finished reading it, and I assume the trilogy was bought. So I guess it makes a little more sense.

  2. I just loaned this one out to a friend of mine, and he loved it. I hope you enjoy the rest of Abercrombie's books.

    1. Me too! I own them all already, but they're all in storage, so not sure if I'm going to wait until I settle before reading the rest of them, or if I'm just going to buy the eBooks...

  3. I still haven't read any Abercrombie; I'm hoping to make a start in the New Year :)


    1. One of my New Year's resolutions for 2012 was to read at least one Abercrombie by the end of the year. Just made it... :)

  4. This so far is one of the two Abercrombie novels that I've read and I really enjoyed it myself, although I enjoyed THE HEROES a lot more. I know I need to get round to the rest of the trilogy and his standalones asap, though.

    1. The Heroes worked as a stand-alone? Interesting...