The Blade Itself is the first novel in the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, and his debut novel. It follows the various misadventures of three interlocking storylines - that of Logen Ninefingers, a Named Man and barbarian; Jezal dan Luthar, a self-absorbed young soldier; and Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer. Bubbling away in the background is a war against the Northmen, the reappearance of the very mysterious Shanka, and the return of the First of the Magi.
Abercrombie has been held up somewhat as a saviour of fantasy, presenting a new and grimy look at low fantasy. There is not a great deal of magic in this novel - although the potential for much, much more in the rest of the trilogy, I'm sure - and the characters come to the fore, swearing and fighting their way through the minimal plot.
Okay, in the immortal words of one of my good pals: "I dug it, but was not blown away."
I loved most of the characters. Of course I did. Glokta reminds me of nothing so much as Igor the Butler in Count Duckula:
He was brilliantly grumpy, sarcastic and lugubrious. His snide asides to the reader during conversations as we followed his actual thoughts made me snort with laughter on a number of occasions.
Logen was also a gem - truly the thinking barbarian. I adored his habit of muttering 'I am still alive, I am still alive' after every battle; his wry amusement at the fact he frightens rather than attracts the lady; and the mystery of his altar-ego Ninefingers, hinted at late on in the novel.
I wasn't so keen on Jezal - the arrogant young nobleman has been done many a time. His plotline with the Contest and Ardee felt like filler, to some extent, compared to the brilliance of the other two main characters. I can only hope that he improves in books to come.
Now.... the plot. Which was...? This is my key complaint. So we sort of have a war bubbling away in the background. We have a sudden quest - for what, we still have little concrete idea. However, the bulk of this book is introducing the various characters and their motivations, which seemed a little bit one-dimensional to me. Glokta is motivated by his pain and humiliation of being a cripple. Jezal is motivated by arrogance and not wanting to be beaten. Logen is motivated by the need to stay alive. Past this, I don't have much of an idea about who they are and why they do what they do. Abercrombie's work was light on this point.
I also deeply object to the idea that Abercrombie brought something "fresh and original" to the fantasy field. He did not. Authors like Glen Cook, Steven Erikson and David Gemmell had been looking at ambiguous characters with dark backgrounds for years before Abercrombie came on the scene. Abercrombie's anti-heroes only reflect characters I've read before, such as Waylander, Kalam and the Captain. The plot, such as it is, could have walked out of many a fantasy novel. Nothing new there. (In fact, anyone who has read Jean M Auel's Children of the Earth series will have seen the term Flatheads before - I wonder if this is where Abercrombie got it from?)
The prose is no-nonsense and pragmatic - the very opposite of purple. It sometimes suffers from repetition, and is a little self-consciously clever at times. It never reaches the heights of authors like Guy Gavriel Kay or Patrick Rothfuss, but it is serviceable and flows.
The pacing of the novel was a little uneven. Sometimes I found myself turning the pages feverishly; at other points I reached almost a standstill, because of the slightly dull descriptive passages. Abercrombie is at his fiery best when describing battles - one on one combat; ambushes; midnight flights and fights through the city. All of these were splendid!
In conclusion, I WILL be reading more Abercrombie (and would have done, even had I picked this novel up in 2006 when first published, not knowing, as I do, that most everything improves about his work). It is a deeply entertaining novel, with flaws that can be overlooked in the main while enjoying the sharp-tongued characters and the unfettered joy of the battle prose.