…incites to violence.
Or so says Homer, and Joe Abercombie seems to think he might be on to something. The Blade Itself is Abercombie’s first novel, and the first volume in a series of three (The First Law Trilogy).
When I picked it up, I had a very vague idea that it was a conventional fantasy book with some gritty Steven Erickson style trappings. In short, I was expecting an entertaining enough experience, albeit a fairly derivative and ultimately forgettable one.
Luckily for me, though, I haven’t been so surprisingly delighted with a novel since The Steel Remains. Now, it’s not that long ago that I read that book, but I certainly didn’t think that I’d be coming across another writer of the same quality so quickly. We live in fortunate times; able to pick and choose from an embarrassment of riches of talented writers doing new and interesting things within the fantasy genre.
This book is all about character. The jewel here is Inquisitor Glokta, once war hero, now crippled torturer. He’s clever and complex, and engages in a constant cynical internal commentary that keeps him sympathetic even when he’s eyeing up the teeth of his latest questionee. Glokta contrasts nicely with Jezal, a lazy noble soldier training to win the yearly fencing contest that Glokta himself won when young. He is petulant and bigotted and completely selfish, but also, somehow, (almost) entirely sympathetic. The other character from whose perspective we see the majority of events unfold is Logen (a name that is geek shorthand for a sort of feral nobility). Logen ‘Bloody Nine’ Nine-Fingers is a named man, unequaled in combat and feared to such an extent that tales of his exploits are used to scare children. Logen was once champion of the now King of the Northmen, but has since found his fate entwined with that of (Joan?) Bayaz, First of the Magi; one part Gandalf, one part Samuel L. Jackson; who brings him south to Adua where the other characters reside.
There are a plethora of other characters who are also very nicely sketched, including a couple of great comic creations. There are only two female characters, but they’re both pretty compelling. Neither is as well rounded as the main male characters, but there’s time for that in the next two volumes.
It’s fairly meandering, plotwise. The volume ends with the main characters gathered in Adua ready to go off and do some questing to solve the central problem of the series (which still isn’t clear, but it seems to have something to do with defeating an evil wizard). However, while this book is in some ways just set up for this, there are enough little subconflicts to keep the pages turning (and how!). F’rinstance, Glokta attempts to unravel a conspiracy of dodgy book-keeping, while Jezal has love troubles that intersect with his efforts to win the fencing competition. It’s all a bit slight, but it doesn’t matter really — they’re just opportunites to see the characters in action. Speaking of which: The fight scenes are rock solid, and there’s an absolutely riveting sequence near the end where we catch a glimpse of why Logen rightly deserves to be called ‘bloody’. It’s the most savage fight I’ve ever read and I cackled all the way through…
The world-building is deftly handled. There’s nothing that original going on (for example, see the evil wizard comment above), and the cultures depicted seem like pretty straight lifts from the big book of fantasy peoples, but it all comes together very well and there’s a nice sense of politics and of history. Abercrombie also does an exceptional job of slowrolling tidbits of info that relate to the events and key players that are important to the overarching conflict, letting you fit things together yourself. There’s no artificial infodump scene, and even by the end the reader only has tenuous ideas about the mechanisms of magic and the nature of the villainous Eaters. This kind of pacing reminded me a little of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series, where it felt like the entire trilogy was just preamble. While I was frustrated there, here I’m confident that this first volume fits appropriately alongside the next two as an opening act. I’m very eager to go back for more.
Note: I had a quick wander around Abercrombie’s website (www.joeabercrombie.com — what else) and was very entertained. He’s an extremely funny guy with a nice line in ironic self-aggrandisement/deprecation. It’s worth having a look at, and gives an interesting perspective on being an author and the ins and outs of writing and being published.