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10 November 2015

REVIEW: "The Blade Itself" -- The book itself incites men to reading

The Blade Itself is the first book in Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy, which is blessedly finished unlike some other notable fantasy series. Abercrombie came enthusiastically recommended by one of my fellow undergrad math tutors at Western Washington University; it's been something like four years between recommendation and finally picking the damn thing up.

So what kind of book is The Blade Itself? One of my favorite kinds: it's gritty, low fantasy with extra pulp! Abercrombie's style reminded me somewhat of George R. R. Martin, with a bit more of an ironic voice to the narration (it helps that most of the POV characters take an ironic view of life), and with far less in-your-face ill fortune. In other words, POV characters don't die at inopportune moments—i.e. just when you're getting invested—and yet by the end of the book there are more than enough looming dangers to keep you waiting for the next installment.

One amusing bit: I listened to the Audible audiobook, which is really well narrated by Steven Pacey... except that he's now ruined me on the pronunciation of the names! With his natural English accent, Pacey's pronounciation of "Inquisitor Glokta" sounded to me more like "Inquisitor Glocter," and "Ardee West" more like "Adi West" (or maybe "Addie")... which spellings I prefer more. So dang.


The story follows several POV protagonists around and across a vaguely-Western-European-feeling landscape, from "The North" of savage barbarian clans and swarming totally-not-orcs called Shanka, to the sort-of-Holy-Roman-Empire called the Union, highly political and lapsing into decadence. There's brief mention of other lands, too: the Ottoman-Persion-sounding Gurkhul and the Free Cities of Styria and so on. I don't think the actual map of the world resembles Western Europe (or even like Robert E. Howard's prehistoric "Hyborean" Europe) but I slotted the various civilizations into known geography pretty easily.

Our first protagonist is Logen Ninefingers, an infamous barbarian mercenary, former champion of the new King of the North, and leader of a band of badass mofos that were still no match for him. Just why that is gets saved for the very end of the novel—Logen ends up traveling South after being presumed dead, muttering "I'm still alive" all the while, and trying to shake off his bloody reputation.

Next in the POV narration is Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, formerly a strapping colonel in the Union army and a champion swordsman, who got captured by the Gurkhish and mutilated in their torture pits. His narrative refrain is an introspective Why do I do this? Why would anyone do this? even as he demonstrates a real talent for inquisiting and torturing. He's helped by his two masked "practicals," the tongueless albino giant Snow and the basically-a-Cockney-ruffian Severard, as they stumble upon a conspiracy in the Union.

There's Jezal dan Luthar, a foppish captain in the King's Own officer corps, high-born and a complete dick to everyone. He's also rather thick-headed. Then he meets his friend Major West's seductive and inebriated sister Ardee (not Addie!) and falls in love. Oops! But maybe falling in love with a peasant girl from the sticks will teach him about class inequality...?

The POV also touches on a few other characters, like "the Dog-man," one of Logan's band as they go on without him; and Farrow, an escaped slave of the Gurkhish emperor and one of the last of her people, who is ridiculously hell-bent on revenge and amusingly racist towards the "pinks" of the Union.

Tying them all together are the machinations of Byaz, First of the Magi, sort of like Gandalf except not half as morally upright. There's some tantalizing backstory about who exactly the Magi are and what Byaz is trying to do with the Union, and I hope the rest of the trilogy explores what I saw as an opening to the magical version of the Prime Directive.


What does Abercrombie do with this story that I particularly like? First of all, he plays with (often subverting) some typical tropes of "high" fantasy. Yes, his world seems brutal, but there's an air of humor to it, even if it's sometimes bleak humor. In that respect I sort of imagined everyone as being Warhammer Fantasy characters. Compare to George R. R. Martin's way of playing with tropes, which is to say he brutalizes them and takes them to their horrible logical endpoints. 

Abercrombie manages a subtler feat—he undermines the "good triumphs over evil" inevitability of high fantasy, gives his world some pretty high stakes from a multitude of threats, and yet you don't expect him to start offing POV characters on a whim. Moreover his POV characters are not really "good" people; they're variously stupid, petty, self-loathing, melancholy, prejudiced, and so on, but you do find yourself caring about them. Yeah, even Jezal, hard as it was to come to that. I'm in agreement with the other fans that Glokta is the best character so far though.

I also really appreciated the nice touch of subtle narrative differences between POV characters. For example, Logen's narrative uses short, choppy sentences or fragments, and some frequent sayings, like "Say one thing for X; say (he/she/it) Y" and "And no mistake." Glokta's narrative has by far the most inner musings, as he is by far the most introspective character. Jezal's narrative is obviously colored by his class prejudice. Pacey, the Audible narrator, does a fine job of reading all this seamlessly, so that it's probably possible to tell whose POV it is just by his inflection. He also gives Glokta a weird lisping voice that isn't indicated by the text: the Gurkhish removed alternating teeth so he can't chew food, or pronounce things properly.

Finally, I always appreciate a story that includes magic as a mysterious, otherworldly, and terrifying force. Abercrombie's story is no exception. Plus, magic comes from the "Other Side," where demons live... very Warhammer-y.

If I could find one criticism, I'd probably have to go with the common one among reviewers. The First Law, being the first book of a trilogy, feels rather slow and meandering. The character arcs mostly converge on three plot points: A quest to the ends of the earth led by Byaz, the Gurkhish undermining the Union's hold on an eastern city-state, and the Union's brewing war with the Northmen. It's essentially all setup for the next book... but that said it's a pretty cracking story for all that.

Highly recommended for fans of pulpy low fantasy, as well as "new fantasy" authors like Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind) or older "grim fantasy" writers like George R. R. Martin, Glen Cook (Chronicles of the Black Company), or (for a more epic feel) Michael Moorcock.

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