The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Book One of the First Law.
Published by Gollancz, June 2006.
Review by Hobbit.
A promising start to a new fantasy series by a new writer.
At first glance, the book has a similarity to many other fantasies currently doing the rounds. The book has been sold as ‘gritty heroic fantasy’, though there are subtle differences enough here to make it better than a run of the mill fantasy.
One of the key themes through the book seems to be about heroism, from a number of different perspectives. The book starts with Logen Ninefingers (so called because he is missing the middle finger of his left hand), a Northern barbarian-hero-type figure, who starts the novel running from a potentially good beating. After a subversive meander through the landscape, a meeting with an injured Malacus Quai leads him to meet the First Magus of the Old Time, Bayaz.
As an alternate view of heroism, the book also concerns itself with the importance of organised heroism – through an upper-class military hero, a vain and rather self-absorbed scoundrel named Jezal dan Luthar. Here the story concerns itself with his preparations for The Contest, as he is a contestant in the grand fencing competition held in a rather bread-and-circuses manner whilst the Union is at war with the nations of the North, who are led by Bethod, King of the Northmen and once Ninefinger’s employer.
Most impressively, the book deals with ex-hero-gone-bad, the Inquisitor Sand de Glokta, a former war hero who was captured, tortured and crippled, but then returned to be Inquisitor (Head Torturer) for the Union. His battles these days are of a different sort, dealing with the complex political shenanigans of a morally corrupt empire.
The story has an element of dark humour running through it, though we’re not talking Terry Pratchett here. Though there is a lighter humour concerning Jezal’s infatuation with the sister of a fellow officer, it is perhaps mostly grimmer – more gallows humour than Pratchett humour. Much more noticeable throughout the book is the bleakness of the landscape and the opulent decay of the urban environment which gives an impression of empirical decline. Some of the images of the city and decaying technology are impressively memorable.
The grimness is also shown in the rather brutal violence through the book in the same style as, say, Steven Erikson. There are violent scenes of torture and killing here – Glokta, for example, was tortured by having selected teeth removed, no doubt without anaesthetic, and is happy to continue such practices now as head torturer. Though reluctant to fight unless he has to, Logen’s battle style is deceptively efficient as he hacks his way through the book.
On a slightly negative point, the story does (after the initial chase through the woods) start a little slowly – we are looking at a trilogy here – but it is careful to set up the landscape and the backstory whilst introducing the broad variety of characters. If we are looking at the first novel setting up a world and the conditions therein, then this does the job. There are situations set up and conflicts unresolved by the end of the book, which no doubt will be dealt with in the later books.
As this is a first book, there are a few little lapses in phrases that clunk a little, though not as many as perhaps expected. Some of the place names are a little too reminiscent of others – Angland (England), Gurkish (Turkish) – though this is a minor quibble and may not worry others as much as they did me.
Despite this, after the first 50 or so pages I was hooked. The chapters are short and not difficult to read, which kept the pages turning. There is nastiness and violence aplenty, which may not be for everyone, but the old themes of revenge, vengeance and heroism are enough to keep the pages turning.
In summary then, a surprisingly good debut novel, perhaps rather protracted, but if you like many of the recently published dark fantasy (Steven Erikson, George RR Martin and KJ Parker spring to mind) then this is worth a read.
The second book, Before They Are Hanged, is due early 2007.
Hobbit, July 2006.