The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

December 17, 2007 at 7:56 pm (Joe Abercrombie, Reviews)

Hoe Abercrombie - The Blade ItselfI had heard such a buzz about Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, book one of The First Law trilogy, that upon its September US release date, I rushed out to the store to find a copy, and immediately began reading it.

The first thing that I want to make clear, Joe is a fantastic writer. He has a flair for characterization that I’ve not seen matched by another author (for what that’s worth). His characters came to life, the very prose dripping with personality, not to mention a crisp sense of humor. Each character’s PoV chapters were so variegated, that I might believe they were written by different authors. In short, this is a character driven story.

The Blad Itself has many PoV characters, but three seem to warrant the title of “main character:”

Logen Ninefingers, the Bloody Nine, a legendary barbarian warrior. His name is respected and feared in the Northlands that were his home, and has now been exiled from. Logen is surprisingly refined for a savage, marked by an acute practicality. He is also reluctant to fight, though perfectly capable of handling himself when the need does arise.

     “Wells bent down and tested the flesh round the wound while Quai peered cautiously over his shoulder. ‘It’s mending well. You’re a fast healer.’
     ‘Lots of practice.’
     Wells looked up at Logen’s face, where the cut on his forehead had already faded to one more pink line. ‘I can see. Would it be foolish to advise you to avoid sharp objects in the future?’
     Logen laughed. ‘Believe it or not, I always did my best to avoid them in the past. But they seem to seek me out, despite my efforts.’” – page 146

Captain Jezal dan Luthar is a arrogant snob. Self-absorbed and untrustworthy, he has no real ambition but to live in pampered leisure. In order to achieve his goal, he needs to first make a name for himself. To do this, he has entered the Contest, a renowned fencing tournament, that to the winner goes fame and the likeliness of position. Under the training of lauded instructor and former champion, Marshal Varuz, Jezal trains for the prestige that he deserves, though not without complaint.

     “He wiped his face, and then-his favorite part of the day-gazed at himself in the looking glass. It was a good one, newly imported from Visserine, a present from his father: and oval of bright, smooth glass in a frame of lavishly carved dark wood. A fitting surround for such a handsome man as the one gazing happily back at him. Honestly, handsome hardly did him justice.
     ‘You’re quite the beauty aren’t you?’ Jezal said to himself, smiling as he ran his fingers over the smooth skin of his jaw. And what a jaw it was. He had often been told it was his best feature, not that there was anything whatever wrong with the rest of him. He turned to the right, then to the left, the better to admire that magnificent chin. Not too heavy, not brutish, but not too light either, not womanly or weak. A man’s jaw, no doubt, with a slight cleft in the chin, speaking of strength and authority, but sensitive and thoughtful too. Had there ever been a jaw like it? Perhaps some king, or hero of legend, once had one almost as fine. It was a noble jaw, that much was clear. No commoner could ever have had a chin so grand.” – page 311

Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, an embittered cripple. A former winner of the Contest, and possibly the greatest swordsman of his day, he was left mangled in a conflict with neighboring Gurkish Empire. Once a tortured prisoner of war, he learned firsthand how to break a man. Now Glokta works in the House of Questions, along with his two assistants Practical’s Severard and Frost, putting his experience to use rooting out treasons against the Union.

     “What a place. Glokta stifled a smile. It reminds me of myself, in a way. We both were magnificent once, and we both have our best days far behind us.
     ‘It’s big enough, wouldn’t you say?’ asked Severard, picking his way in amongst the rubble towards a yawning doorway under the broken staircase, his lamp casting strange, slanting shadows as he moved.
     ‘Oh, I’d have thought so, unless we get more than a thousand prisoners at once.’ Glokta shuffled after him, leaning heavily on his cane, worried about his footing on the slimy floor. I’ll slip and fall right on my arse, right here in all this bird shit. That would be perfect.
     The arch opened into a crumbling hall, rotten plaster falling away in sheets, showing the damp bricks beneath. Gloomy doorways passed by on either side. The sort of place that would make a man nervous, if he was prone to nervousness. He might imagine unpleasant things in these chambers, just beyond the lamp light, and horrible acts taking place in the darkness. He looked up at Severard, ambling jauntily along in front, tuneless whistling vaguely audible from behind his mask, and frowned. But we are not prone to nervousness. Perhaps we are the unpleasant things. Perhaps the acts are ours.” – page 162

So there are the characters, but what do they do? Sadly, not much. We see Logen in a couple of fights. Jezal spends most of the book training for the fencing match, and agonizing over his love interest Ardee. Aspects of the upcoming war against the Northmen are brought out through Bayaz, the First of the Magi (using Logen as an intermediary), and Colonel West. Glokta tortures anybody he can get his hands on, in remarkably inventive ways. And that’s about it for more than 500 pages.

It looks like the main plot of The First Law revolves around the conflict between the Union and the Northern barbarians, but the book shuffled through so much characterization that it wasn’t made clear until the book was almost finished. Not that I mind a little characterization. Or even a lot of it. But I think that The Blade Itself goes a little overboard. Memorable characters will only go so far, if they don’t actually do something.

The plot dragged so badly, that after 340 pages, I had had enough. It was boring me silly, and I could force myself to press on no longer.

I don’t know if I needed the break, or if I just put it down too soon, but when I came back to it last week, I found the story much more enjoyable. The last couple hundred pages started to pick up steam, and an actual plot materialized.

As much as the pacing bothered me, I can’t put down The Blade Itself too much. Indeed, I think that it should not be judged on its own merit. It was not the first episode of a trilogy, but the first third of a story that is being spread out into three volumes. At that, I think that The First Law should be judged as a series. But, alas, I have not the other books, and so cannot speak for the series as a whole.

Overall Impression: Regrettably Mediocre

Final Thoughts: Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, while enjoyable, is ruined by an unfocussed plot. By the end, though, it picked up enough to offer hope for the next volume, Before They Are Hanged.

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