Review: The Blade Itself

Just an hour or so ago, I finished reading[amazon-product text=”The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie” type=”text”]159102594X[/amazon-product], and had to get my husband David’s help so that I could do a proper review.

The book, in paperback, is an attractive, hefty size for someone like me that doesn’t like wimpy little short books about heroes, rogues, and adventure. The cover art alone made me want to pick it up and look at it; it’s made to look like a tattered old leatherbound volume, stained with blood and God knows what else. It looks like it’s been through the wars and back. One glance at the description decided me, as it promised something rarely found in this kind of fantasy-genre work; humor, irony, and interesting characters.

I haven’t been disappointed, either. It’s a solid read, and worth taking time over as the author has a vivid style that puts you into the middle of the action, and inside the character’s heads. You can almost smell the blood, shit, and spilled wine. It would make a good movie, too. Funny, and full of gore. Just what Hollywood is looking for: the next action-adventure franchise.

There are a number of characters and usually it’s hard to keep a large cast straight while reading, but each major character is unique and more fully rounded than you might expect for a first novel. In fact, one of the most fascinating is a terrible, terrible man, the Inquisitor Glokta. Formerly a respected military leader, two years of torture while held prisoner have left him bitter, but not quite broken. He’s now a feared investigator whose personal experience of his instruments of interrogation (pliers, blades, hot needles) enable him to know exactly how to put the screws to suspected traitors and law-breakers. Yet, he’s a curiously sympathetic character, because he’s in constant agony from his old wounds, and his bitterness makes him almost… almost incapable of human feeling. He expects betrayal and death from his Superior and the Arch Lector, but does their bidding anyway. Why? It’s something to do before dying. His internal dialogue, different from every other character’s, is set off in italics. It’s wickedly sardonic and self-deprecating (especially at those times when he’s most helpless and self-defecating).

Much of his activities (hunting down suspected tax-evaders and traitors in the Mercer’s Guild) appears to be a Macguffin, but there are some loose ends left, like the frayed remnants of one hapless Mercer’s poorly woven coat. That probably means we’ll find out more in books to come about what’s really rotten in the kingdom of the Union. Some of the political, sociological, and economic underpinnings of the world of the Middleland seems be commentary on something much more familiar. It remains to be seen how this will develop in the next two books.

A fair amount of the book is taken up by moving various groups of characters into place, setting up the events in the next book, [amazon-product text=”Before They Are Hanged” type=”text”]1591026415[/amazon-product].


The rest of the review contains plot spoilers; read on if you like…

With Glokta in the Union city of Adua, are the slightly foolish Captain Jezal dan Luthar of the King’s Own, his commoner commander Colonel Collem West, and various hangers-on and political figures at the court of the senile old King Guslav. Off in the wild North, a barbarian named Logen, also called Nine-fingers or The Bloody-Nine, is separated from his ragtag warrior band and finds his way to the stronghold of a surprising old bald-headed wizard, Bayuz, who hauls him off towards Adua for reasons of his own along with a weakling apprentice named Quai. Logen, mighty warrior, is actually frightened of the city and all the people crowding its streets and high buildings; he can’t wait to get out of the place and away… somewhere else. The wizard seems to need him for whatever his plans are, and Logen is content to go along. He’s still alive, he reminds himself after every violent scrape. Still alive.

The remnants of Logen’s old warrior band coalesce around a new leader and head vaguely southwards too, fighting off various enemies and gradually getting their heads thumped into the realization that they must align with Adua’s forces against a common threat. We’ll probably see more of them in the next book.

For some reason, Captain Jezal simply must win the Summer Fencing Contest, even though he doesn’t really want to work that hard at it. He grits his teeth, foppish card-playing fool that he is, and literally soldiers on with fairly surprising results. A love-hate interest is presented in the person of West’s rather difficult and infuriating sister Ardee; she’s got her own issues. Glokta is busy searching out treason and political enemies (and fabricating evidence as required). And a Northern barbarian king named Bethod seems poised to invade and sends some frightening “emissaries,” but the pleasure-loving people of Adua are less interested in preparing for war than they are in what to wear to the victory celebration, and who to stab in the back for political gain. Appearance is everything in Adua, and so Bayuz’ first stop on arriving is to pick up gear to help him and his companions look the part of The Wizard, The Warrior, and The Apprentice for their appointment with the Outer Council.

Finally, a strange couple of characters from the far South, in the territory of a fearful Emperor and an even more frightening Prophet start heading toward Adua. One, Yulwei, appears to have strange powers over the air or sight, and the other is a woman with yellow eyes, a knack for self-repair, and a terrible thirst for vengeance named Ferro.

All of this is laid on a backdrop of rather subtle, offhand wizardry; strange things happen around the wizard Bayuz. At least, they either burst into flames, fall to bits, or suddenly become more powerful or stronger. There is a cost, however, which seems to be one of the underlaying conceits of the world Abercrombie has constructed. It’s an intriguing world, and he cleverly conceals the works so that the reader is kept off-balance. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy novels, you’ll still never know quite what’s up the writer’s sleeves. Yet the book is refreshingly lacking in “hey rube, watch this” smugness. The characters are what they are; fragile people doing their best not to go back to the mud, trying to snatch a little happiness (or a hot bath and a good meal) before the inevitable end. Bayuz needs to fetch something that’s been locked away in Adua for centuries for his next jaunt; what it is and why he needs it, and also why he needs the companions he’s chosen remains to be seen.

Like a chessboard, the pieces are moved into place for the middle game. Some will go North to fight, some will go South to spy and intrigue, some will go to the Edge of the World (or be dragged there whether they like it or not).

I can’t wait to pick up the next book, and then the final one, [amazon-product text=”The Last Argument of Kings” type=”text”]1591026903[/amazon-product].

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