Friday, 28 January 2011

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

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.


  1. I've heard a lot of good things about Abercrombie's work, but I have yet to actually pick up one of his books and read it. I know I'm going to have to some day, to see what all the fuss is about, and because from the sounds of it, even if he doesn't bring much original to the genre, I hear he can tell a good story.

  2. I felt somewhat the same. Joe's writing was some of the best I'd ever read, making me wondering if this really was his d├ębut novel. It seemed too good.

    However, upon reaching the end of the book I didn't feel too bothered about continuing with the rest of the series. There didn't seem to be any underlying reason to do so.

    Whilst the characters are certainly very memorable, for me, the plot was somewhat lacking. Which was a real shame.

  3. The books get much better as you go along. I agree the first book, the plot is very light. In Before They are Hanged, the plot reallly takes off and it is a great read. The third book, Last Argument of Kings is amazing. This is where Joe Abercrombie's originality shines.
    If you are not a fan by the second book, then the series is not for you.


  4. It was the characters that really kept me reading. There's the "only seven plots blah blah blah" thing, but for me, what's really important is a connection with the characters and Mr Abercrombie certainly offered that.

    Beyond that, I found it refreshing to read a fantasy that wasn't too full of itself. Too often, a perfectly serviceable novel drowns under its own seriousness (yes, yes ... we must save the realm AGAIN). But The First Law had a sense of humor that made it fun to read.

  5. On Jezal: Yes, his storyline in BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED will change your viewpoint.

    This series really does work as a whole, all three books together, and then BEST SERVED COLD and THE HEROES exist to add flesh to some things.

    Your complaint about new and fresh. I think this is another instance of reading the whole series MUCH of the stuff that Abercrombie does that is different from the status quo actually happens in the second and third books, and I tend to think that's where that moniker of "new and fresh" came from.

    I agree with Anonymous, they build and build. BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED is my fave, no question. There is more worldbuilding in it and it just feels like Abercrombie was more at home in his world in that one.

    Think on it thusly:

    THE BLADE ITSELF is the batter (uncooked)
    BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED is the cake (plush and delicious)
    LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS is the icing (nuff said)

    BEST SERVED COLD is the cappuccino they bring you after the cake, you weren't expecting it but it adds to the afterwarmth of the cake.

  6. Even though it really doesn't sound like my kind of thing, I still keep meaning to read some Abercrombie just to see if the hype is at all justified. I have to say, you haven't really changed my prejudices against it: I find battles generally quite boring, the prose sounds pretty pedestrian, the setting pretty cliched, and self-conscious "grit" is a real turn-off.

    Morally-ambiguous protagonists really are nothing new. If you really want to go back to roots, Clark Ashton Smith's tomb-robbing chancers, Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, or many incarnations of Moorcock's Eternal Champion were pretty far from Lawful Good. It's just that straight-up 'good' heroes and 'evil' villains are two of the oldest form of cliche to occur in any form of narrative, genre Fantasy or not. By the sound of it, people must have pretty low standards, short memories or a limited knowledge of the genre if a bit of sex and death courtesy of less than squeaky-clean main characters is seen groundbreaking. The whole thing just seems a bit like a marketing ploy.

  7. I'm fairly certain people keep throwing 'morally ambigious' around, when what they actually mean is 'well-rounded, character driven fantasy'. And yes, 'morally ambigious' isn't anything new, but it sure is welcome from the standard square-jawed, virtuous, shiny hero.

    On a personal note, I didn't like Jezal either. But that's the point; he's a pampered, spoilt, arrogant narcissitic arse. At least he can't get any worse. Right?

    Also, I didn't find the grit self-concious. Rather it didn't attempt to frame violence as some noble art form, loving describled in lush prose. But that's just my take on it.

  8. I thought Blade Itself was a well-written first novel showing potential and as not a fan of the battle-heavy Ftanasy genre to enjoy it meant I wanted to see what else he could do. The next two books see both his writing abilities get more confident and the beginning of some familair fantasy plots being inversed. Would defintely recommend reading more


  9. I think I agree with you on this one. However, I'm planning on re-reading it to see what I missed as so many people loved it. To be fair, I read it around the same time as Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora which was more to my taste. I also felt the same with Rothfuss'The Name of the Wind. But then, maybe I've been spoilt by the Malazan books.