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Friday, September 14, 2007

"The Blade Itself" by Joe Abercrombie

Order “The Blade ItselfHERE
Read An Extract HERE
Read Interviews with Joe Abercrombie via Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist + A Dribble of Ink
Read Reviews of “The Blade Itself” via SFF World + The Gravel Pit

Joe Abercrombie’sThe Blade Itself” is another fantasy debut that I’ve been hearing about for a while now having been released in the UK since May 2006 and only now is available in the US thanks to Pyr Books. With all of the positive publicity and strong word-of-mouth surrounding the novel, is it any wonder that I’ve been greatly anticipating Mr. Abercrombie’s debut? At the same time though I’ve been trying to rein in my excitement, more so than usual because I was afraid of a possible let down. Now that I’ve read the book for myself, not only was “The Blade Itself” better than I could have hoped for, but I find it hard to imagine anyone not liking this fantasy extravaganza…

Looking at other reviews you might see words such as ‘old-school’ and ‘throwback’ used to describe Joe Abercrombie’sThe Blade Itself” and while I can see the reasoning behind such terminology, I don’t completely agree. To me, “The Blade Itself” is simultaneously an homage to fantasy of old, a satirical riff on clichés common within the genre, and a contemporary revision. After all, how else can you explain a plot about a WIZARD putting together a team of UNLIKELY HEROES to set off on a QUEST to SAVE THE WORLD from an EVIL PROPHET that is both nostalgic and original in the telling? Two things actually. One is the characterization. While “The Blade Itself” lacks the in-depth analysis that such authors as George R. R. Martin, Jacqueline Carey, et cetera bring to their books, as far as sheer inventiveness and likeability, I haven’t read such an enjoyable cast since Glen Cook’s Black Company novels and Steven Erikson’s Malazan books. Not ironically it is these two series that I would compare Mr. Abercrombie’s characters to, partly because of their colorful names/personalities (Ninefingers, Threetrees, Dogman, Black Dow, the Weakest, Frost, etc.) and partly due to the dry sense of humor that permeates the characters’ behavior. In fact, Logen Ninefingers—an uncivilized Northman warrior with a bloody past and a dark secret—and his fellow exiles (Threetrees, Dogman, Tul Duru Thunderhead, Black Dow, Grim, Forley the Weakest) in particular are very much reminiscent of characters that Glen Cook/Steven Erikson would dream up.

As far as who’s who, the main players include the aforementioned Logen Ninefingers who harbors quite a surprise for readers late in the book, my personal favorite Inquisitor Glokta—a former Contest champion who was tortured/crippled by the Ghurkish and is now a torturer himself, and Captain Jezal dan Luthar—a condescending nobleman training for the Contest. Other minor narratives follow Dogman and company in the north as they try to survive against the Northmen & Shanka; Major Collem West—another former Contest champion but from common blood; and Ferro Maljinn, an escaped slave from the south who’s hellbent on getting revenge. Of the supporting characters, there’s the First Magus Bayaz, his apprentice Malacus Quai, Practicals Frost & Severard who work under Glokta, Arch Lector Sult, Major West’s sister Ardee, the Navigator Brother Longfoot, and a host of others, moral, unsavory and somewhere in between…

As mentioned before, the characterization in “The Blade Itself” is not as deep as other books, but I think a lot of readers will appreciate the ironic angles Mr. Abercrombie takes with such clichés as the wizard, the noble, the warrior, etc. While the author isn’t able to avoid every truism out there, he makes a pretty valiant effort :) My only real complaint with the characters is that there are just so many of them, that inevitably a few get the short end of the stick such as Ferro, Dogman, Quai, and a few villains (Bethod, Fenris the Feared, Khalul the Prophet) that I wanted to see more of. Thankfully there are two more books in The First Law Trilogy—“Before They Are Hanged”, “Last Argument of Kings”—so I expect further development of characters already introduced and yet to come, and a greater emphasis on the bad guys :D.

The second reason why Joe Abercrombie’sThe Blade Itself” is such an enjoyable book to read is the writing, which reminded me of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard Sequence. While “The Blade Itself” doesn’t possess the same level of flair and technical proficiency that Scott Lynch’s novels do, it shows off the potential for Mr. Abercrombie to get there one day and is easily one of the book’s strengths along with characterization. Inevitably this brings me to the book’s weak spots. As I’ve heard from other reviewers, “The Blade Itself” is a bit lacking when it comes to worldbuilding. There’s the north which includes Angland, Dagoska and the southern Ghurkish Empire, and the Midderland where the majority of the book takes place, specifically the capital city of Adua. In Adua you have some interesting concepts such as the House of Questions, Practicals, Closed/Open Councils, etc., but a lot of ideas (kings/princes, noble/common prejudices, the Contest and so on) aren’t that original and the world as a whole leaves a lot to be desired, especially if you’re a fan of detailed worldbuilding. Another sore spot with certain readers is the story. The plot, as I described earlier, is basically about Magus Bayaz putting together a team consisting of Logen Ninefingers, Captain Luthar, Ferro Maljinn, Malacus Quai and Brother Longfoot to set out on a quest in search of something called the Seed, so a lot of the book deals with introducing these characters, getting them together, and setting up events for the sequel. Of course there’s more to the novel than that—war threatening Midderland from the North & South, political intrigue, the Prophet Khalul, his Eaters, and plenty of other subplots (the Contest, a love story), some of which work better than others—but the basic outline is pretty simple. While I can see why some readers might be less than impressed with the worldbuilding and/or story, I didn’t have a problem with these areas. Personally, I was enjoying myself so much with the characters, their comic witticisms, and entertaining (mis)adventures that I wasn’t paying much attention to the book’s deficiencies ;)

The way I see it, if you like fantasy but are tired of the same-old routines, enjoy a healthy dose of black humor, are not afraid of a little over-the-top violence and foul language, and appreciate the writings of Glen Cook, Scott Lynch & Steven Erikson, then Joe Abercrombie’sThe Blade Itself” is tailor-made for you. Even if none of that fits in your criteria, give the book a chance. You might just be pleasantly surprised…


SQT said...

I am soooo looking forward to reading this.

Robert said...

Theresa, I think you're going to love this :) I mailed the book out to you on Friday (9/14) by the way!

SQT said...

I soooo love you right now. ;)

Robert said...

LOL! Well thank you :) Let me know when you get it though...

chintz-of-darkness said...

This is such a wonderful book. If you love great fantasy it is a must read!

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