Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

30 Jun

the blade itself

 

***SPOILERS AHEAD–YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED***

Ok now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I’m going to give you a big earful about a great little Fantasy series by Joe Abercrombie–the first three books are The First Law trilogy, and then he has three further standalone books set in the same universe.   The universe is vaguely medievalish, but that’s where the similarity between traditional fantasy and Abercrombie’s novels end.

Generally fantasy can be split between two broad categories–there’s the traditional sword and sorcery epic that’s usually strongly pulling from Tolkien, and the more fashionable Machiavellian gritty fantasy written by the likes of George R.R. Martin.  These books don’t comfortably fit into either trope, so if you want something that fits into either one comfortably you’re going to be disappointed.  Most criticisms of The First Law series I’ve noticed were because of wanting the books to be something they’re not.

Ok, so let’s start with the traditional fantasy side.   In those multi-volume epics what you’ve generally got is very clear lines between good and evil where the good is on a quest to save the world (or at least the world as they knew it) from destruction.   The Blade Itself does not draw its lines so neatly between sides in fact I’d go so far as to say he mostly doesn’t draw lines at all–all the characters are mostly amoral, and even those who have some sense of honor end up being very close to being hypocrites.   Also, the world that Abercrombie presents is relatively small, you’ll find no maps with multiple countries here–he’s got only four areas:  The Union (aka Europe in the Middle Ages), The Gurkish Empire (ancient Middle East), the North (warrior era Scandinavia), and the Old Empire which is just shy of total anarchy.   Even with this sized world, we spend time in The Blade Itself in very little of it, other than a little wandering in the North and one side-plot in the Gurkish Empire the entire story takes place in the Union’s capital city of Adua.

“Oh well then!” You might say, “Dark characters plotting?  This sounds like a Martin style book!”  Hold up there, sport.  Martin’s books (and the books like them) are largely concerned with powerful families plotting for power.   There’s a lot of scheming, some battles, but it’s more like a game of chess where you’ve got the people on top determining the best moves to get what they want.  While there are some similarities, particularly in the character development range, the big difference is that the scheming is not to get some great aim, the characters are (mostly) plotting to meet their own personal aims and nothing more.  We’re in a world where the people in power are largely inept, and very few people have any clue about what’s going on.  What’s more, the characters, are all from positions of low to middling influence.  Even if they wanted to gain power, none of them are really in a position to do it (other than–perhaps–Bayaz.)

What we have instead is a picaresque book, along the likes of CandideDon Quixote, or Tom Jones.  What we have is a loose bundle of ne’er-do-wells wandering about a very corrupt world moving from one circumstance to the next.  The action is episodic, full of black humor, and incredibly violent. My favorite thing about this book is that Abercrombie has a knack for making complex characters that react differently when different circumstances are presented to them. 

So who we follow are Glokta, a crippled ex-soldier now working as an inquisitor.  Rather than his torture experiences making him more empathetic, it simply makes him do his job more efficiently.   Logan Ninefingers, AKA the bloody-nine,  is a barbarian who is weary of killing and war, but remains stuck in it.  Jezel dan Luthar is a spoiled nobleman who thinks everyone is beneath him.  Collem West is a low-born Union officer with a nasty temper.   Bayaz, is a scheming enchanter who claims to be connected to the god-like founders.   Finally we have Ferro Maljinn, a Gurkish ex-slave bent on revenging herself on the empire, who hates everybody.

The world presented is brutal and cruel, we constantly see sights where the powerful abuse the less-powerful with shocking consistently.  Battles nearly always end with significant losses on both sides and very little gained.  Life is cheap, Abercrombie makes no bones about killing significant characters, often the very ones who manage to have something of a noble cause about them.  Also, there’s a general sense of the powerful not listening to advice from their underlings especially when that advice should be heeded.

Magic here is not a super-power, but rather a mysterious force that is very sinister.  Other than Bayaz, anybody who uses magic gets corrupted and turns outright evil.   Even Bayaz has very shadowy motivations, and when he takes the seed (which we know nothing about other than it’s incredibly powerful) I’m left wondering whether taking anything powerful out and placing it into that world is a good idea at all, considering there’s not one individual who can responsibly use the little power they have.

Sounds like a downer, right?  Well, the one thing that saves this book from total bleakness is the humor–Glokta in particular has many wry observations that made me chuckle.   Where this book entertains is the ways all these characters make due in this cruel universe, and the general idiocy every character has.

I would advise you not to expect any character to get rewarded at the end of The Blade Itself which basically leaves everyone starting where they begun.  Glokta had finished a series of assignments and is given a larger new one with bigger threats and bigger risks.  Logan, who left the North to escape fighting ends up with more fighting, Ferro is farther away from the Gurkish Empire than ever, Luthar wins his fencing match but doesn’t move up on the political ladder because of it, West beats his sister in a rage and then goes off to war.

The rewards are much smaller than that–a surprisingly touching scene is Glokta and West making up towards the end having cut ties due to a series of misunderstandings.  It’s the tiny things that matter, just like life.

My only quibbles are that there’s a little character crowding so some of them don’t get the time needed to make them interesting.  Ferro, in particular, comes off as a raging psycho and little else, also the Dogman and his crew show up rather late in the book, and I couldn’t really tell the characters apart. However those are the short side-plots in this book, and they’re passable, just not quite as dazzling as the action in Adua.

I’ve already started the next book, and will review it in due course, but for now if you want something a little different, a little clever, I’d strongly recommend picking up The Blade Itself.  You’ll either love it or hate it, but you’ll be left with an unforgettable experience either way.  I think it’s the best fantasy book I’ve read in a good ten years at least, perhaps the best book period.

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