I’ve heard of Joe Abercrombie – I’ve seen his books on the shelves, but I never picked one up. That was until I chose The Blade Itself on a whim. I was delighted by the richness of the characters and the impact of their experiences – ranging from lost love, to gritty and bloody combat. Here is my review of the first installment of the First Law series.
- Title: The Blade Itself
- Author: Joe Abercrombie
- Genre: High Fantasy
- Audiobook Reader: Steven Pacey
- Series: The First Law (Book 1)
- Publisher: Gollancz (UK), 2006
Warning: Minor Spoilers!
“The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.”Homer, The Odyssey
The first installment of this series introduces you to the world of the First Law. It is gritty and unwelcoming – something akin to the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. However, unlike Westeros, the world of Adua, the Savage North, and the Invading South are defined by distinct cultures, rich histories, and the wounds of a great magical past. Not that Game of Thrones doesn’t have that, just that the Abercrombie is more concerned with individuals and ‘little people’ more than he is about family institutions (i.e. great houses) and nobles.
Individual characters and their exploits is the focus of this novel. We are introduced to the following characters:
- Logen Ninefingers, a northern barbarian with a bloody reputation and the heart of a philosopher.
- Jezal dan Luthar, an arrogant nobleman, seducer of women, and favourite to win the most prestigious duel in Adua, is a coward.
- Ferro Maljinn, an escaped slave with a thirst for violent revenge, who has something secret in her blood.
- Sand dan Glokta, a crippled victim of torture, turned master torturer for the Inquisition, who longs to be a hero.
There are many more characters, but these listed above draw the greatest focus. There is an inherent contradiction in each of these – which make them compelling.
In the novel, the characters’ paths cross with the mage Bayaz. He recruits Logen, Luthar, and Ferro to accompany him on a journey to the oldest parts of the world. Something dark is coming, for Gustrod broke the First Law of magic ages ago and the consequences will change the world. The First Law states: It is forbidden to touch the other side and communicate with spirits, demons, and the things that reside in the world below.
Each of the main characters have some kind of internal contradiction. This makes for highly compelling characters.
The truth of this is yet to be revealed, as the first novel does a lot of set-up work for plot (secondary) and character (primary).
The novel is strongly character-driven. This is an understatement. There is almost no plot to speak of – no overarching road-map that make the reader understand what point A and point B is. This would normally put me off – not because I prefer a plot focus (I don’t), but it gives me the sense that there is no plan and that I’m heading towards inevitable disappointment.
Here it did not bother me. The author created such strong and compelling characters that the practice of placing them in a situation to see what they will do is entertaining rather than pointless. This is a great lesson for the writers out there (myself included): make your characters interesting enough, and you hardly need a plot.
I enjoyed the characters! Dispute the distinct lack of plot, the characters carry it through and keep you engaged.
I found myself strongly invested in the characters. I cared about the changing Luthar as he falls for a woman below his station, the introspective Logen who dances on the edge of berserker rage and Zen-like wisdom, and – most of all – Sand dan Glokta. The man is a perfect villain. Yet…is he truly evil? He is the best written and by far the most compelling character I’ve encountered in years and I wish I wrote him. He is capable of great cruelty and great compassion. His suffering makes you care about him, while his actions make you revile him.
The Blade Itself is worth reading just for the Inquisitor. Besides the lack of plot, I found the novel to be intensely compelling.
The lack of world-building info-dumps is usually a good thing in my opinion, but here the lore of the world is dished out so slowly that one often feels slightly lost. I am near the end of the sequel – Before They Are Hanged – and only now do I understand the complexities of High Art, the motivation of the Gurkish Empire, and more. I am usually an attentive reader, so I don’t believe I missed anything. I realize that some of this information is meant to be secret (secrets are good), but sometimes the lack of context reduces the impact of certain revelations.
This was not enough to put me off, but it worth noting – especially if ‘understanding’ the world is essential to your investment in the world of a fantasy novel.
While there are no info-dumps – which is usually a good thing – but the world-building is sometimes ‘too’ hidden.
The biggest con – as mentioned above – is the distinct lack of plot. The novel is strongly character driven, so this understandable to some extent. However, in similar works such as the Song of Ice and Fire series, you always have a sense of what is coming and where the characters are heading (usually to their graves, but you know what I mean).
The characters more than make up for this, but I can see how some readers might see this as aimless. Personally, it makes me worry that the author does not know how the trilogy is going to end (I hope I’m wrong).
Potentially Offensive Content
This novel is not for younger readers. Violence and foul language are used to the extreme (at least for a reason, rather than for the heck of it), thus some readers may find it distasteful. The combat scenes are particularly gritty and gory – sometimes making George R.R. Martin’s bloodiest scenes seem tame by comparison. Acts of torture, murder, domestic violence, and discrimination are abound in The Blade Itself.
Lots of guts, gore, and swearing. Not something to read to the kids
You have been warned.
The characters. It cannot be said enough. Each character is highly flawed and complex (something which refugees from Game of Thrones fandom will find alluring). No one is inherently good or evil and you are always aware of how a particular character’s worldview effects their opinions and actions. In fact, many of the characters (Logen and Glokta in particular) are refreshingly introspective. Inquisitor Glokta often judges himself (sometimes too harshly) and asks “Why do I do this?“.
This is a massive pro for me! Nothing is worse than characters that serve only a plot function and have no depth. If it’s deep characters you’re looking for, this is it.
Also, while the world-building is far in the background and the lore of this setting is shrouded behind mystery and misinterpretation, there is a sense of awe. By this I mean: there is an aura of a truth that is large and unfathomable in the history of this world. Something that I’ve only felt with the Lord of the Rings novels.
Final Review Score: 8/10
The Last Word
Enough about my opinion. Over to you! What do you think? Have you read any of the other books by Joe Abercrombie? Any recommendations?
As always, I appreciate likes, comments, and shares – it really helps me out.
Until next time…