10 August, 2009

Review: The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

"The characters are so rich I almost had a heart attack."
- Anonymous

The Blade Itself (2006) [US][UK], by Joe Abercrombie, is the first book of The First Law trilogy, and what an amazing beginning it is. There are few debuts that have appealed to me more than this marvelously gritty collection of unassuming heroes.

The Setup

Every good fantasy prologue, at least in my book, involves a fair amount of action, if not outright bloodshed. Mr. Abercrombie delivers both in a stunning first chapter, while simultaneously introducing one of his would be heroes, the barbarian Logen Ninefingers. However, far from engaging in some heroic act of noble intent, we witness Logen's fear and resignation as he prepares to plunge to his death. The scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel where the will to live is balanced on a blade's edge, surrounded on both sides by death and surrender. I don't know whether or not our first encounter with Logen on the cliff is a metaphor for Mr. Abercrombie's 'plunge' into a writing career, but I am eternally thankful that he took the risk.

As the story unfolds, we are introduced to a deformed torturer and a vain nobleman who is quick with a sword. The first, Glokta, is embroiled in a plot to overthrow a powerful political group, while the other, Jezal, struggles to prepare for the yearly fencing Contest. Both are unpleasant men whose motivations are anything but righteous. Oh, let me not forget the all powerful wizard Bayaz, whose return to politics after centuries of self-imposed exile hints at the awakening of a great evil.

My Take in Brief

You have heard me say, again and again, how I love the books I review here, and this one is no exception. Mr. Abercrombie must go outside every morning and rub dirt into his hands, because I can't think of any other way an author can be so excellent at conveying gritty realism to his readers. Some of the reviews I have read criticize the novel for its slow pace, and I could not disagree more adamantly; the pace is exactly where it needs to be. The originality of the characters demands a certain degree of buildup, and denying them the opportunity would be tantamount to asking for flat and lifeless talking cliches.

The Blade Itself is an unassuming Fantasy which repudiates many of the genres eccentricities while managing to appear humble. The most intriguing part for me is the way in which the characters all seem to personify some internal contradiction. Usually, such constructs tend to come off as unbalanced or slightly deranged, but Mr. Abercrombie shows us that good is not necessarily perfect, and that the perfect are not necessarily good. Only by following such endearing and complex characters through their respective journeys can one truly be impressed by the moments in which they put their lives on the line.

While violence plays a central role in the novel--indeed, Logen can be seen as its deadly personification--it is balanced in equal measure with political intrigue and deceit. In retrospect, the first novel in The First Law trilogy reveals little beyond the history of its characters, setting the stage for an epic journey and conclusion, but I promise that you won't feel the loss while reading. I certainly didn't. While we get a brief look at the power and potentiality of magic, it does not play a central role in the book. Mr. Abercrombie rightly chooses to focus on the physicality of violence and the raw energy of unrestricted combat.

Piqued Your Interest?

Mr. Abercrombie's website is an excellent resource for diving into past interviews and book news. The tone of postings is wryly humorous and extremely entertaining, so make sure to have a gander. I discovered Mr. Abercrombie only recently with the release of his latest book, Best Served Cold. Not being one to start at the end, I promptly went to the bookstore and dug into The Blade Itself. I was back in the book store two days later, in tears, when I discovered that they did not have the second book in stock. Don't make the same mistake I did, get the whole trilogy right off the bat and save yourself the anxious wait for the mail man. To be noted, The Blade Itself [US][UK] comes as a very sexy trade paperback.


ediFanoB said...

Great review! You hit the nail right on the head.

I read all three books and I promise you that you won't be disappointed. San Dan Glokta is my favorite character.

Now I look forward to read Best Served Cold.

Dave said...

I'm waiting to pick up Best Served Cold when I arrive in the US next week.

In complete agreement with your review. The next books only get better! I wish I could write like that... perhaps someday I shall...

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Yea Dave, the whole reason I picked it up the trilogy was to be ready for BSC. I just finished "before they are hanged" so I'll post up that review and get started on Last Argument of Kings.. can't wait!

Dave said...

Nice!! I'll be waiting for the review in my RSS feed ;)