I’m not sure why, but I found myself much less dazzled by this, the follow up to Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, than I was by its predecessor. I think it basically boils down to it being a second novel. We got to meet all the cool new characters in the opening act, and we’ll get the explosive showdown in the finale. This one, however, just kind of moped along for a few hundred pages, then stopped.
The book has three strands. One depicts the efforts of Glokta (two-word description: crippled torturer) to fortify Dagoska, a colony city of the Union, against the Gurkish Empire. Of course, it would be a shame if we didn’t get to see his interrogatory skills in action, and Abercrombie does us the favour of making sure that there are traitorous elements within the city walls to be investigated too. A second deals with the ill-trained, ill-equipped, and ill-led army that the Union has sent to quash the Northmen. This strand is told from the point of view of Colonel West (two-word description: well-meaning, dull) and the likeable and well-characterised Named Men, old allies of Logen and no friends of Bethod (current leader of the Northmen). The third features Logen (two-word description: berserker softy) and all the rest of the characters that Bayaz (wizard extraordinaire) gathered in Adua to go a questing.
The first two of these are fine (though not brilliant), but the third is a little too far along the ‘tedious’ spectrum for my liking. The group meanders along through a mostly deserted landscape encountering the odd ruin. This is not a recipe for excitement. And this being the second book, there’s not even a great pay-off at the end of this journey; in fact, they’re only about half-way there by the end of the volume. It is in this third strand that we learn more about the history of the world and the place of magic in it. It’s all a bit soap-opera, but it’s pretty elegant stuff. Of course, mythos revelations are like catnip for fantasy fans; nonetheless, I felt like the way in which Abercrombie went about it was a little artificial: rather than emerging naturally from the narrative, Bayaz would just randomly become chatty and a little infodump would follow.
Despite the somewhat anemic plotting, the books strengths are the same as the last: great fight scenes and interesting and well depicted characters. There is, I’m glad to say, some development of all of the main characters, particularly Ferro (two-word description: angry ex-slave), and I hope this trend continues in the last book.
In sum, I feel like this book dipped a bit from the first — the sense of excitement that I had previously just wasn’t there for me this time. It seems likely, though, that the final book will not suffer from the middle-act problems that this one did. The promise of an exciting conclusion, plus the strong characters and action scenes that Abercrombie seems to be so good at, leave me optimistic that this series’ finale will be well worth the reading.
PS: Apologies for the two-word descriptions thing. I’m not sure what happened there…