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Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

By / June 12, 2011 / no comments

Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy is not your typical Fantasy series; but it is not made clear in the first novel just how atypical it is. You could be forgiven for thinking that it is merely a darker than usual contribution to the genre of above average quality. And, besides setting the stage for its sequels, that is all that The Blade Itself sets out to be. It’s not until the end of the series that the true scope of what the author has done can be grasped.

Most of the novel is split between two locations, the untamed North with a culture vaguely reminiscent of the Vikings, and Adua, capital of the Union, a nation which stretches from the far reaches of somewhere all the way to somewhere else entirely (No map included). The Union is ruled by a weak king dominated by his councillors who are in constant conflict for power within the realm; especially given that the grotesquely fat king will be dead soon and with no heir the struggle to replace him will be fierce. The Union faces external threats as well, to the South, the Gurkish Empire, ruled by Khalul, the self-proclaimed prophet of God, to the North Bethod is ruthlessly exterminating all opponents in an attempt to unite the North under his banner and wage a war of conquest on the Union.

One of those opponents is Logen Ninefingers, also known as The Bloody Nine (Abercrombie has an undeniable talent for evocative names) a former champion of Bethod who, disgusted by his ruthlessness turned on him. We’re introduced to him moments before he’s ambushed. Barely escaping himself and thinking his followers are dead, he decides to consult the spirits, who tell him he has an appointment to the South. In Adua the Inquisitor Glokta, once a charismatic and successful soldier who was tortured and crippled, is made a pawn in the machinations of Arch Lector Sult as he attempts to gain power within the city. Then there is Captain Jezal dan Luthar a young, handsome son of a minor Nobleman and competitor in an upcoming and highly prestigious fencing competition. Into this mix of intrigue and ambition teetering on the brink of war strides the Magi Bayaz with a plan to secure the safety and stability of the Union, but to do so he needs help of the people he and his friends have quietly gathered in Adua. There are several other characters like Ferro, an escaped Gurkish slave whose a bit touchy (Exceedingly violent, even by this standard of this series), Malacus Quai a student of Bayaz, Ardee West, Jezal’s love interest. None of them has a particularly large impact on this book but they’re given an increasingly large presence as the series continues. There is also Threetrees, Harding Grim, Black Dow, Tul Duru Thunderhead, the Dogman and Forley the Weakest (Remember what I said about evocative names?), Logen’s colourful band of followers, each of whom were champions of rival factions whom he bested in single combat. And because it’s the North and they’re barbarians, this resulted in them owing him their life and loyalty. The narrative follows them as they continue to try and resist Bethod giving the reader a very entertaining perspective on events in the North.

For a plot driven novel that might as well be marinated in blood, the characters are exceptionally well drawn. Two stand out in this regard, Logen and Glokta; Jezal, the third main character, is whiny, selfish and arrogant. Don’t worry though; Character Development will sort him out sooner or later, rest assured. Logen, as we’re introduced to him, is trying to be a better man; this goal of self-betterment was a major contributor to his decision to leave the North, because apparently a society whose basic cultural interaction is ritual violence can be a bad influence. His struggle to overcome himself is surprisingly compelling, especially given the obstacle he faces; himself. Or rather the Bloody Nine his violent alter-ego, weapon of last resort and the reason his name commands fear. Whether it’s a separate personality within him or a case of possession is never made clear, but what is clear is that the Bloody Nine is absolutely ruthless and very good at violence. It may also be capable of overwhelming him forever. Glokta is a similarly interesting character, and in a less contrived way. Once a war hero, crippled at the hands of Gurkish torturers and now working as an Inquisitor (No prizes for guessing what that’s a euphemism for) he’s a twisted warren of resentment and self-loathing. He hates his crippled, painful body, unsurprisingly, and he hates himself for what he does despite showing no sympathy for his victims and seeming to enjoy his work. He despises Jezal who is everything he used to be, except less talented and less intelligent, Glokta assures us, and therefore less deserving. But despite the pain and the hatred he goes on. In fact he excels, showing up his rivals and thriving among the schemes and plots of Adua. Despite all this he isn’t defined exclusively by hatred and pain (Though he comes close); eventually he develops a soft spot for Ardee and is surprisingly willing to go along with Bayaz’s plans despite vocal resistance. In any case he is a complex and fascinating character who, like Logen, is a personification of Abercrombie’s pet theme; everyone is defined by their own, inescapable path. The series sees character after character struggle to escape or avoid their past; none succeed.

The author’s approach to mythology is as minimalist as his approach to geography. The reader is treated only to the basic elements of the local cosmogony; it’s somewhat frustrating but the mysterious atmosphere maintained in this way is admittedly pleasant. It also makes sense given that Bayaz is a character straight out of said legends, too detailed a description of them would give away much of his backstory and ruin the excellent Mysterious Old Wizard vibe he has going. And in every instance of his bare bones world building his attention to detail and careful construction of societies and myths leaves no doubt that the world doesn’t end with his words.

Stylistically the book is well written, there’s no grating prose or stilted dialogue. His fights are an intense, gory and exceptionally well-w blend of action and introspection, thought and deed. Though the plot at times seems forced, if not contrived, including multiple instances of perfectly improbable timing and chance meetings, it hardly detracts from this incredibly fun novel. More importantly it’s the introduction to a masterfully constructed trilogy which culminates in an absolutely magnificent finale. Recommended for any fans of George R. R. Martin or Steven Erikson.

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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