Review: “The Blade Itself”, by Joe Abercrombie

SPOILERS AHEAD for Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the first book in his The First Law trilogy.

I can’t claim that I enjoyed The Blade Itself, mostly finding to be a slightly amateurish slog through a fantasy world that felt a bit textureless and generic, and I doubt I’ll continue with Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, at least not for some time. That being said, The Blade Itself has merits in its ‘gritty’ exploration of the fantasy genre.

‘Gritty fantasy’ is almost something of a cliché in itself, nowadays. Every fantasy claims to full of grit and mud and blood. With Abercrombie, this is actually true; his protagonists are all subversions of fantasy tropes adapted for the ‘real, grown-up world’. And better than that, none of his characters feel like they’ve had a ‘grit injection’, where the author stands off-page and shouts “Look, isn’t this gritty!” Abercrombie’s characters feel naturally roguish and immoral.

Unfortunately, besides their lack of morality, they’re not really that interesting, either. Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta is the standout; I thought it was interesting how Abercrombie never made some slightly soppy speech about Glokta’s disability being his strength, as many writers would have. No, Glotka is bitter as bile, and unintentionally hilarious in places. You don’t feel pity for Glokta, because I never got the idea that he was ‘a good man who lost his way’; instead, he was flawed to begin with. He is an excellent fantasy protagonist, with an acerbic inner monologue that admittedly verges on over-use.

Logen Ninefingers, ‘infamous barbarian’, also has a lot of potential, and is perhaps the best example of a protagonist who embodies ‘true grit’. And Logen’s input in the story is needed: he’s a solid, honest presence who doesn’t kowtow to bullshit, and probably the most worldly-wise of the characters. Logen has a definite sense of place – when we see things through his eyes, the world seems the most real. However, the weakness with Logen is that his story essentially descends into nothing after he meets Bayaz, First of the Magi. Yes, the incongruous nature of an uncivilized man in a civilized story creates the book’s best moments of humour, but it does nothing for his character arc. Or maybe it does. Since I haven’t read the final two books in the trilogy, I don’t know if this is the ‘bedrock’ of Logen’s arc, or something like that.

Finally we come to Jezal dan Luthar. From very early on, I hated Jezal, not just because of his abrasive arrogance, but also because he seems something like a caricature. I can see that Abercrombie’s intention was to create a Rand al’Thor/Kvothe/Jon Snow type of character, of the young man on a noble quest, but to make him completely vile. Jezal has all of Kvothe’s arrogance but none of his charm, and I never really got the illusion that I was reading some sort of warped hero. I wanted Jezal to win, but ultimately that was only because he seemed like the lesser of two evils. But Jezal is so vapid and shallow that I didn’t really care if he won or lost, because it wasn’t going to matter. Then again, I think that was the point. Which is either stupid or fantastic. I don’t know.

Anyway, for his protagonists, Abercrombie scores 2.5 out of 3. Which is pretty good, I guess. Glokta is awesome, and Logen and Jezal have a lot of potential.

However, I think the characters are the strongest part of The Blade Itself… which leaves the rest of it. Abercrombie is his worldbuilding. He unusually chooses not to put a map at the front of his book, another small way of subverting the genre. In itself that isn’t too much of an issue, but you never really get to reorient yourself within the world. Basically, it feels like medieval Europe with a big city and a big tower called the House of the Maker. There were other places too, somewhere with an emperor and ‘fucking pinks’, and the vaguely defined area known as ‘the North’, but these were just words to me.

The issues don’t stop there, I’m afraid. Abercrombie’s main characters range from good to excellent, but there were no secondary characters that popped out to me. Once again, they all seem like caricatures, particularly the ‘righteous’ Major West and his sister, Ardee. Oh, good god, Ardee. Yes, this is a medieval fantasy in a male-dominated world, but Abercrombie’s female fundamentally fail as ‘characters’; instead, they are ‘things’. We see a greatly idealized version of Ardee through Jezal’s eyes, of course, but even when we see her ‘in the flesh’ from Major West’s POV, she appears to be ‘a strong opinionated female’ instead of an actual character. Ardee is like every fantasy cliché rolled into one, yet somehow she manages to amount to nothing at all. And aside from Ferro “X-23” Maljinn and a couple of vapid Jezal-types who don’t even get proper dialogue, she’s the only female character in the book. It’s a very poor showing from Abercrombie.

Now, I could be wrong about all these things. Maybe a different story unravels itself in the next two books and reveals my ignorance. But I don’t want to read the next two books, and that’s because of the fact that The Blade Itself gives me no reasons to read on. It’s an extended prologue where nothing happens. It’s entirely character-based, not a bad thing in itself, but uneccesarily dangerous for the first book in a trilogy. I want things to be happening that draw me in to learn about the characters, but Abercrombie instead runs with an incredibly low-stakes plot that culminates in a big nothing. We see the House of the Maker and the Bloody-Nine and there’s a whole lot of promising stuff up ahead, and then the book just… ends. And while I appreciate the necessity of this build-up, there’s far too much of it for far too little payoff. Yes, I agree that Abercrombie’s fight scenes are fantastic, and his characters have some great moments (particularly with the dry humour), but you have to wade through so much to get there.

You might find a jewel in the end, but you still have to walk across an arid desert to find it.

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