Wed
Sep 7 2011 10:14am

Firsts In Fantasy: Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself

Firsts in Fantasy: The Blade Itself by Joe AbercrombieIt’s standard practice to end the first volume of a trilogy with a cliffhanger — but how about starting the series with one? That’s what Joe Abercrombie does in the prologue for The Blade Itself, as Northern warrior Logen Ninefingers dangles over the edge of a precipice, an equally vicious raider clutching at his ankles. I’m not giving anything away by saying he survives the fall... or that it quickly becomes the least of the crises he’ll have to face, none of them with any great enthusiasm.

If you like the panoramic sweep of George R.R. Martin’s worldbuilding, there’s a good chance you’ll dig The Blade Itself. Abercrombie grounds the majority of the story in three viewpoint characters. Soon after crawling out of the river at the bottom of the cliff, Logen learns that he’s been summoned by the great magus Bayaz, who wants Logen to accompany him on a mission to Adua, the capital city of the Union. By the time they arrive, we’re already quite familiar with two of that city’s residents: Jezal dan Luthar, a dandy-ish aristocratic military officer who is resentfully training for the Union’s annual swordfighting competition, and Sand dan Glokta, a former Contest champion himself (about a decade back) who barely survived a long captivity as a prisoner of war and now works as a torturer for the Inquisition. The three storylines meet in the middle, bounce off each other for a bit, and then settle into a synchronous orbit that leads to some spectacular set-pieces in the novel’s back half.

Abercrombie’s universe is as dark as Martin’s, maybe even a little darker. It’s not enough that Glokta’s captors crippled his leg, for example, or even that they yanked out several of his teeth — they made sure that the remaining teeth in the top and bottom rows never touched, making it impossible for him to chew. Small wonder, then, he’s become gleefully sadistic in his work, without ever letting his suspicions drop. “Why me?” he wonders when his superior charges him with building a case against some of the Union’s most prominent citizens. “Because of my results? Or because I won’t be missed?”

How pervasive is the meanness and brutality? Let’s put it this way: There’s an emperor who doesn’t even appear in the book, and one of the first things we learn about him is that he was his father’s youngest son but, upon hearing of the previous emperor’s death, had all his older brothers strangled. The Blade Itself could almost read as a grim, ultraviolent parody of A Song of Ice and Fire, with hyper-accelerated political intrigue covered in blood and guts and shot through with savagely dark humor, except that Abercrombie works hard to keep even the most venal or manipulative of his primary characters well-rounded. You may not quite sympathize with some of these people, but you’ll be able to understand where they’re coming from.


There are a few awkward passages, where it seems like Abercrombie is still finding his way around the epic voice, but for the most part he has a firm grasp on constructing scenes for maximum dramatic effect. A passing joke about Logen trying to eat a flower from a decorative setting at a royal banquet segues effortlessly into a chilling discourse on military strategy; a fleeting encounter with Jezal and a female companion reveals not just the depth of Glokta’s hatred but the ease with which he can still be affected by human kindness. All the while, Abercrombie maneuvers his pieces into position, setting up the Union for wars with its neighbors to both the north and south, bringing secondary characters into the foreground for future prominence, doing everything he can to assure us the story can only get bigger. As The Blade Itself ends, the real purpose of Bayaz’s trip to Adua has only just been revealed, with Logen’s continued involvement unguaranteed, Jezal’s dreams of military glory have been abruptly shattered, and Glokta has received yet another devious assignment. After all, if you’re going to start a novel with a cliffhanger, what can you do but end it with several?


Ron Hogan is the founding curator of Beatrice.com, one of the first websites to focus on books and authors. Lately, he’s been reviewing science fiction and fantasy for Shelf Awareness.

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15 comments
Teawench
1. Teawench
I actually hated The Blade Itself. Decided I was done wasting my time when I only had 100 pages or so left to go. It seemed pretty disjointed and I had no idea where he was going with the story. Nor did I care. I liked Glotka, but since he was, at best, a secondary character it wasn't enough to compel me to finish the book.

Now it could be that everything gets wrapped up quite nicely in those last 100 pages. I've had people tell me I didn't miss anything and people tell me I should have finished it. I got rid of the book so I'll never know. And even if by some stroke of weirdness I had kept it, I don't think I would have finished it. Too many other books are far more interesting.
Valentin M
3. ValMar
For once I shall be the first, I guess. Or 3rd :
Teawench
4. Efrost
I loved all 3 books. I'd hate to see people not read these because unconventional and original character arcs are labeled as disjointed. No one does action and battle scenes better than Joe Abercrombie. If you love dark, action-packed fantasy these books are for you.
Sean Vivier
5. SeanVivier
I personally loved it for its take on the manipulative wizard archetype, and what manipulative people are actually like.

Also, I don't know why people call Abercrombie a nihilist. I think you can see an undertone of moral outrage for the way people can sometimes treat each other. Writing a fun cautionary tale is not exactly moral bankruptcy.
Teawench
6. Northman
Abercrombie's work is sheer genius, shunting the laboured fantasy genre into new and exciting arenas. If you didn't like these books you souldn't be allowed to read a fantasy novel ever again! He stands head and shoulders over the stultifying dullness of Brandon Sanderson and the imature cheesfests of Brent Weeks.
paul
7. cluegoo
loved these books kinda took me a while to read them because most of the charecters were so unlikable but when i neared the end it became impossible to put down also i would like to point out that it takes a special kind of author to make reading about complete and utter bastards compelling and enjoyable
Ian B
8. Greyfalconway
It took me a few tries to get started on these books, but once I finally did start I marveled at the wonderful characterization and great subversion of different genre tropes, these are really great books, and definitely deserve a read.

At first I thought they would end up being some pointless throwaway pulp fiction type stuff, but they get so good, the characters and subplots and humor are just great.

In response to @6 Northman, I agree these are head and shoulders above those authors, which is saying alot for me because I'm definitely a Brandon Sanderson fanboy, I've been wearing my Way of Kings bracelet thing ever since the book was released lol. I love Sandersons stories but Abercrombe's writing is just outstanding, and he doesn't pull any punches in the least.

I don't really compare these to GRRMs series very much, yes they're both dark and somewhat convoluted, but I'd have to liken the first law trilogy to only A game of thrones if I had to, with its tight focus on a few central characters. This series never gets too sprawling and is never once boring in the least, the intriguey bits have enough going on that you never feel like you're simply listening to a bit of world history.

All in all I'd definitely recommend this trilogy to anyone looking for smart, hilarious, fun, gory, and sometimes scary times, with a fair bit of drama, love story, subplot, manipulation and twists, all laid out in perfect prose with simply amazing characterization.
Michael Grosberg
9. Michael_GR
It's odd the A Song of Ice and Fire is old enough to have influenced a writer to complete writing an entire trilogy and a couple of related novels, while ASOIAF itself is still far from being completed. But what can you do, different writers, different writing speed. Not everyone is a Pratchett or an Asimov.

I liked the trilogy while reading it, but man, what a bummer it is. You think GRRM is mean to his characters for killing them? Abercrombie is meaner - he lets them live, but makes their life a living hell. And yet it's still darkly funny. At times, the world Abercrombie describes appeared to have more in common with the Discworld than with Westeros.
Ashley Fox
10. A Fox
I had to force myself to finish this book. Now I can barely remember it. Just how tedious it was. It felt like it was trying to be cool; dark and actionpacked. But for me was just cheesy, with stuttering battle sequences, including the oooh-isnt-this-awesome moments. Full of tired machicismo.

I honestly dont understand how people can say this turns tropes on their heads!

However seem to be vaguely intersted in a couple of the characters, so it couldnt have been all that bad. Perhaps I'll pick it up one rainy afternoon in a couple of years, and see if it goes down any easier second time around.

(@6 How very dare you!)
Bobby Stubbs
11. Valan
I really don't like this book. The characters seem overly archetypal, the plot is dull, and Jezal is plain annoying. Plus, the writing seems amateur to me. Glokta was the sole saving grace for me finishing the novel.

However, I was convinced by my friend who loved this series to finish the series, and I can say that this is most definitely a part 1 of a whole. The second and third volume are much, much better and fun to read. Mainly because Abercrombie starts the character development soon in the second novel, and the humor get much better, and tropes are indeed turned on their head in far more satisfying ways than in this novel. His stand-alone Best Served Cold, is absolutely brilliant. And the Heroes... well the Heroes is alright.
So I guess if you can force yourself through this one, do so, because it does vastly improve. But its not Erikson by a long shot.
Teawench
12. Croaker40
I liked these books at the start, but by the end of the series I grew bored and a bit jaded. The author has said many times that he doesn't do happy endings because they are not realistic. I for one do not agree with that premis, but I see where he is coming from. That in itself is not the problem. The problem is that this means he is basically a one trick pony. There is no use rooting for anyone because you know things will end badly for everyone. There is no chance of redemption through experience and sacrifice. Because of this all character development is rendered meaningless. I did kinda like how he turned the archetype good guy wizard into Gandalf on meth, but overall I don't get what the big deal is. At the end of the day, for me, this was an unsatisfying story that tried too hard to be dark and edgy. Read The Black Company if you would like an example of proper dark fantasy.
Jim Millen
13. jim.millen
I did enjoy these books a fair bit - there's a lot worse out there! Likewise for the stand-alone Best Served Cold. Having said that, I can't help but agree with Croaker @12 (Great name, BTW. ;-))

Gritty, dark fantasy is all very well but when overdone it gets just as frustrating as the happy "nobody ever dies" cliche of Eddings-style works. By all means focus on how grim and how dark things are, but there need to be moments of redemption and hope, otherwise you're ultimately left struggling to care about the characters.

I also felt a lot of the violence & pain in Abercrombie's books was making too much of an effort - "Hey, look at this, it's not Lord of the Rings! We've got explicit maiming and everything!" Meh. I've got nothing against explicit descriptions of what weaponry actually does - again in contrast with some very saccharine fantasy cliches - but it needs to serve the story, not just be there for shock value.

So whilst I'll pick up future Abercrombie books from the library, I'm not going to rush to buy them. Having said that, these were his first books and it did seem he wrote them quite quickly. Entirely possible he'll improve - let's hope so! :-)

Strongly second @12's recommendation for the Black Company as an example of doing this better, and I'd also suggest Erikson's Malazan series (Unsurprisingly, since Erikson has acknowledged Cook as an influence).
Teawench
14. Steve Aryan
Absolutely loved this book and the series. Exciting, interesting, gripping stuff. Three dimensional and sometimes quite horrible characters that are fascinating to watch, even the ones you dislike. It's real blunt force trauma fantasy, or dark fantasy for lack of a better term, and might not be for everyone, but then I can't stand paranormal romance novels with some tattoed tart on the front cover and they sell like hot cakes! For me Abercrombie's stuff is always unpredictable and always entertaining, which is exactly what I enjoy.
M F
15. Madeline
I read the first three. If you're ok with sausagefests with explicit torture, and you can get past books that aren't self-contained (even after three, there still wasn't enough actual conclusion!), they're fine.

But I can't stand books that end on "to be continued".

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