In Brief: Joe Abercrombie introduces a cast of realistic characters with a harsh and sometimes humorous Sword and Sorcery bent. There are quests and vendettas and backroom deals. The plot and world will no doubt seem familiar; the execution of the story, however, places this book above that fantasy norm.
Pros: The characters are flawed, human, and extremely well-conceived. You may not always like their actions or motives, but you damn sure know where they’re coming from. The author hits enough plot marks to keep it moving, introducing his world, history, and system of magic. Very well-written in a gritty realistic fashion.
Cons: The late Medieval European-style setting is awfully familiar, which may be off-putting to some. If you like your prose flowery and full of high Fantasy virtue, you may want to look elsewhere. Abercrombie plays in the mud (full disclosure – not a con for me).
Review: Author Joe Abercrombie has been so lauded and praised since he hit the scene a few years back, I think I subconsciously resisted reading his books. No good reason – other than having been less than impress before with writers getting that kind of pub. But I continued to read and hear about his Sword and Sorcery roots, his two-fisted action pieces, and the interesting, realistic characters he’s created. The final straw was listening to an SF Signal podcast on Sword and Sorcery, in which pretty much all the other writers and editors on the panel recommend the First Law trilogy and Abercrombie’s newest book.
So I picked up The Blade Itself, and I’m very glad I did. One book in, and I can already tell it’s likely to be one of my favorite series in years. I will probably end up recommending it highly to my friends who read fantasy and science fiction on a consistent, borderline annoying basis. And here’s why: Characters.
Some of them are pure archetypal renderings – the northman barbarian, Logen Ninefingers, the brash noble swordsman, Jezal Luthar, and the wizard Bayaz, First of the Magi. Some are a little less conventional but still familiar – Ferro, the bad-ass female warrior, Colonel West, the common-born soldier elevated on merit. And then you have Inquisitor Glotka, one-time military leader and hero but now a broken man, a torturer, a seeker of secrets.
No less compelling and colorful are many of the supporting characters – a twit of a king and foppish heir, scheming nobles and bankers, and the Northmen – the named men of Logen’s former band. The author brings them to us, fully realized, each with acceptable and realistic motivations, most of which concern the acquisition or maintenance of power and might, love and loss. And because the author brings many of these characters together, we see them not only from their own point-of-view sections and chapters, but we see them interpreted through other characters’ p.o.v’s as well. Abercrombie has true skill for this – something that’s not easy to pull off-.
Why did I enjoy Logen Ninefingers as much as I did? It’s because he is an archetype, a Conan-like presence with just that kind of reputation. And yet he’s not brash or arrogant, but humble and unassuming. He’s seen more than enough killing and would just as soon avoid it. But when he does take sword in hand… Jezal Luthar is an upper-class twit of the worst variety. Selfish, vain, a true narcissist – yet he has enough moments of introspection and small doubts about his destiny that you want to see if he will figure it out.
Inquisitor Glotka is technically a villain in the traditional fantasy sense. He was brutalized and tortured by the Gurkish Empire to the South when captured in battle during the kingdom’s last war. He’s been crippled. his face ruined, and is now shunned by the very society that once feted him. Now he commits his own torturing on behalf of the Inquisition. He questions why he does it; he questions his own lack of remorse and empathy. He’s not a nice guy. And yet you’d like to find a reason to root for him as the book goes on. Glotka is resourceful, intelligent, a survivor. Abercrombie lets him have the faintest glimmer of empathy, and imbues him with just enough sorrow. Certainly not easy, but no less impressive.
The plot points work well but really aren’t that important (at least for this review). If they were done poorly or ham-handed, I’d have something to complain about. As is, you have war brewing with the Northmen on one of the kingdom’s borders, the possibility of war with the Gurkish Empire to the south. Bayaz, First of the Magi, has decided to return to the Kingdom for reasons that soon become clear – acquisition of ancient knowledge to combat the Gurkish Empire and their Magi-prophet, who was once a peer and friend of Bayaz. By the end of The Blade Itself you have a sort of Fellowship forming up, though it’s decidedly less noble and more confused than Frodo, Aragorn, and company.
Mostly, you’re happy to have met these characters and eager to learn what will become of them. And if you’re like me, you immediately go to Abercrombie’s next book in the series.
Bottom Line: Joe Abercrombie’s pub and rep are well-deserved; The Blade Itself delivers. This is a realistic character-driven fantasy. It’s grim and bloody, sometime nasty, sometimes surprisingly funny. You don’t often see such an effective blend of storytelling and characterization. This one gets the highest Beemsville recommendation.