By setting The Blade Itself (2006), the first book of his FIRST LAW series, in a well-built world and filling it with interesting, “gritty” characters, Joe Abercrombie creates a good balance of stage-setting and story-telling.
The story is told from the perspective of five major characters who are gradually drawn together and whose collected experiences create an engrossing tale. There is the mage, the apprentice, the barbarian, the gifted young noble, the crippled anti-hero… and so forth. Abercrombie writes engaging characters — perfect for my personal tastes. I particularly think that Sand dan Glokta, the Inquisitor, is an amazing character.
The only problem with The Blade Itself was that it takes a while before the story gets going. That’s not a serious drawback, but enough that it kept me from wanting to give it more than 4 stars. Once the story starts moving, then it’s truly a lot of fun to read.
Joe Abercrombie’s makes good use of classic fantasy themes and his world building is exceptional. I can’t wait to read Before They are Hanged.
[Subterranean Press’s version has a lovely cover and interior illustrations by Alexander Preuss. You can view those here.]
I started reading Joe Abercrombie’s debut novel immediately after finishing a very popular old 1970s classic post-Tolkien fantasy that had left me — quite frankly — bored. I had the flu, my body ached, and I was feeling sorry for myself. But by the end of the first chapter of The Blade Itself, I was feeling much better. First, Mr. Abercrombie’s writing was vivid, tense, action-packed, and droll — just the way I like it. Second, I found myself thankful that I was merely bed-ridden with the flu, rather than in the situation that Logen Ninefingers was in.
The story is told from several character’s points of view — the bloody barbarian who’s lost everything and just wants the fighting to end, the former champion turned crippled torturer who considers himself an artist, the lazy self-absorbed wastrel who wants to be a swordmaster, but didn’t realize he had to work for it. I would not like anyof these people if I knew them personally, but after being in their heads, learning their fears, histories, and motivations, and even sharing a few enlightening moments with them, I realized that I actually care what happens to them!
Mr. Abercrombie unfolded his story gradually — the reader is not told everything at once or given pages of backstory and explanation of this world’s history, culture, and geography. The plot just keeps moving and the reader picks up the details as he goes along. For example, we meet the Shanka on the first page of the novel, but we don’t find out what they really are until hundreds of pages later. There’s plenty more we’re not told, even by the end of the book. This mostly works because it keeps the pace quick and leaves a little mystery.
There was plenty of action in The Blade Itself. All of it was realistic, most of it was scary, and some of it was downright hilarious. Frequent doses of droll humor was a nice counterpoint to all of the violence. A few scenes read like a Monty Python skit and I found myself laughing often. For the most part, the writing was excellent. Tone changed between characters’ point of view, and the use of characters’ internal thoughts was effective. More than a few times, however, I was confused about the object of a pronoun and the profanity was a little excessive.
This book does not stand alone. The ending is not exactly a cliff-hanger, but it’s not an ending. I’m glad I’ve already purchased Before They Are Hanged and I hope it’s just as refreshing and fun as The Blade Itself.
Logen Ninefingers is a homeless, battle-scarred barbarian, hoping to live one more day. Jezal dan Luthar is a conceited rake with the vague ambition of winning an annual fencing contest. Sand dan Glokta, who won such a contest years ago, is a torture-crippled torturer in the Union’s Inquisition, rooting out whatever truths or half-truths will please his superiors (if not the Union’s senile king). Ferro Maljinn is an escaped slave, lean and feral, seeking vengeance against the empire that destroyed her people.
Against the backdrop of the mysterious agenda of the wizard Bayaz and an invasion by a new barbarian king, first-time author Joe Abercrombie slowly weaves together the violent lives of these four to open his FIRST LAW trilogy. It’s difficult to elaborate further without providing spoilers, but suffice it to say that so much of the story remains in the shadows that readers seeking closure may wish to wait until the trilogy is completed.
The Blade Itself — its title taken from a quotation attributed to Homer — is reminiscent of two other recent debuts by young authors: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. All three are lengthy, unfinished tales with competent writing and world-building, as well as displays of intelligence by the authors in striving to avoid, or at least execute freshly, fantasy clichés.
That said, even taking into account Joe Abercrombie’s hard-boiling of his prose to evoke the grit of his characters and their surroundings, The Blade Itself is distinctly the least well-written and -imagined of the three. (With regard to world-building, a map would have helped.) Abercrombie shows a knack for portraying hard-edged, brutally realistic characters scarred by their pasts — Logen, Glokta, Ferro — but his portrayal of the naive Jezal pales by comparison. On the other hand, a few displays of humanity throughout the tale are surprising and well-executed, as are some instances of dialogue and the repetition of certain phrases. As a final note, this reader found the liberal use of real-world profanities and grammatical errors distracting.
If it were a restaurant, The Blade Itself would never be mistaken for a fine-dining establishment, but it stands up well as a bar and grill welcoming to guys and gals with the time to overlook slow service and who enjoy plenty of red meat and peanut shells on the worn, wooden floor. Recommended as a library loan for everyone else. 3-1/2 blood-and-mud-crusted stars.
I haven’t been this excited about a book since I read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones! Speaking of which, be careful stacking Joe Abercrombie too close to GRRM or Steven Erikson, because even though it’s less-than-half their size, The Blade Itself may knock them right off the bookshelf!
Finally, a talented writer has combined the straight-forward, character driven adventure tales of old school sword-and-sorcery with the depth and multi-person-point-of-view of the modern epic fantasies.
This world is ruled by a centuries-old empire that’s oblivious to its rotting core and too arrogant to realize how easily its barbaric enemies may be more than it can handle. Also, it seems that a dark force may be rising that is the bigger threat. All this is just the back-drop for a truly character-driven tale. I haven’t liked a barbarian as much as Logen Nine-fingers and the Named Men since REH’s Conan. Inquisitor Glotka, despite his crippling and the disfiguring POW injuries, may be the most dangerous ally or enemy. Those are a couple of players in a story that has some of the most interesting and charismatic characters in the genre. Despite that this is a multi-person-point-view tale, the characters are refreshingly kept to a manageable number.
Be prepared to hit-the-ground running from the first page and be pulled along till the last. And this bone-jarring pace is not all due to the two-fisted action. Abercrombie has a knack for dialog that’s unprecedented in the genre. You’ll find yourself snickering or blown-away by the witty banter and one-liners as much as you’ll be grabbing the edge-of-your-seat during a running fight.