The Blade Itself

Thursday 12 June 2014 by

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie, Gollancz, BookThe Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Published by Gollancz

THE FIRST LAW: Book One

Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught up in one feud too many he’s about to become a dead barbarian, leaving nothing behind but bad songs and dead friends.

Jezal dan Luther, paragon of selfishness, has nothing more dangerous in mind than winning glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules.

Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like little better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then he hates everyone. Cutting treason out of the heart of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendships – and his latest trail of corpses could lead straight to the rotten heart of government… if he can just stay alive long enough to follow it…

~*~

It takes a little while to get back in to the “fantasy” swing of things when you’ve not been reading it that much lately. You have to get used to the casual re-naming and re-imagining, and have to remember peculiar names that you could never pronounce.

But, for all the stumbling blocks, fantasy is one of my favourite genres to read, and Joe Abercrombie is lauded as one of the better fantasy authors. However, before you rush off to buy an Abercrombie, there is a warning on this particular packet: you will have to invest some time. The Blade Itself is just book ONE of the series, and at 515 pages, it’s not a quick read in itself.

The Blade Itself tells the story of three main characters – Logen, Jezal and Glokta – as they come up against Bayaz. Bayaz: first of the Magi, and a really powerful (but often grumpy) person, who has decided that these hapless three are needed for the epic task he has in mind.

I’ll say one thing for Abercrombie: he does some pretty decent characters. You could despise Glokta, whose business is torture, but actually you kind of like him, and even the vain Jezal and slightly terrifying Logen are the kind of people you secretly want to be friends with. The characters are well-defined and you invest in them almost immediately. Abercrombie never strays from the path, and they will always perform true to their personality, and there is something comforting in that.

Even the setting is good (although aspects of it smack of Robert Jordan – which can hardly be a criticism when Jordan’s Wheel of Time-world is infamously one of the best in the genre). The geography is clear, and I had no trouble following our heroes.

But perhaps I’ve been spoilt by George R.R Martin… For me, the goodie-vs-baddie plot felt a little humdrum. Where was the oh-God-what-next-I-can’t-take-it rollercoaster of not knowing? Where was the truly teeth-gritting backstabbing and plot twists that make you weep uncontrollably on the stairs (actually happened)?

So it’s Book One. Y0u can hardly expect it to leave you breathless after being metaphorically beaten over the head with action scenes and Grand Reveals. But you do get to the end and feel a little… left hanging. Plenty of stuff happens, but not a lot of STUFF happens. You are given the build-up towards the storm (or journey, in this case) and then left to fumble around until you can get hold of Book Two. Masterful! I heard you cry: how else do they get you to read all in the series! True. As a marketer, my cynical side feels gleeful that you’re effectively up-selling the next books. But as a reader, I feel like my 515-page-long investment came to a big pile of “tune in next week”. The same can be said of Tolkien – many of his early chapters give you a sense of dissatisfaction as he tries to rig up the Big Stuff Later On. And perhaps in that sense you can argue any story spread over a series can be guilty of this, so should we hold it against them?

Short answer: no.

You can judge a book by its merits, and you can judge a series by the length it takes to get there, but technically you can’t go the other way around. The Blade Itself is a good read; I can’t fault the characters and even the introduction of magic is wielded beautifully (so many good fantasy books fall down at this hurdle). It’s even laugh-out-loud funny at some points, and it’s masterful at bloody violence when it does feature it. As a popular fantasy author, Abercrombie lives up to his reputation, with witty dialogue and brilliant descriptive passages, and managing to walk that line between immersive fantasy and explanatory fantasy. From the barren wastelands of 70s/80s fantasy-writing (Terry Brooks, anyone?), it is a welcome relief to find authors like Joe Abercrombie, Terry Pratchett, Scott Lynch and George R.R Martin gracing our shelves with fresh stories that haven’t shamelessly ripped off Tolkien.

This book is one of those peculiar juxtapositions between a satisfying read as you go through it, but a dissatisfying ending when you finish it. Perhaps, like the Song of Ice and Fire series, I should have picked up all the books at once so I can read them all in one sitting. It hasn’t had me frantically rushing for the next book, but it does have that inexorable pull that means, if you come back to me at Christmas, I will have read the lot with undoubtable relish.

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