Title: The Blade Itself
Series: The First Law Trilogy, #1
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Release date: September 2007
Genre: Fiction; fantasy
Source: Jack’s personal collection
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The Northmen have invaded Angland. The northernmost territory of the Union, a kingdom similar to Europe (or perhaps just a larger England), Angland has served as a tenuous barrier between the civilized Union and the wild tribes of the North, now held loosely under the control of Bethod, their self-proclaimed King.
This, of course, means war. But not just in the North.
The Gurkish Empire, a southern kingdom heavily reminiscent of ancient Middle-Eastern empires, sees the perfect opportunity to strike. They break their also-tenuous peace with the Union by attempting to annex its stronghold in the South, the city of Dagoska.
The Union finds itself pulled in two directions, and it will only take a hero to save the day… or will it?
The Blade Itself is the first book of the epic fantasy trilogy, the First Law, by British author Joe Abercrombie.
At first, the cast of characters seems pretty stereotypical for fantasy. There’s Logen Ninefingers, known throughout the North for his prowess in battle; Sand dan Glokta, a twisted torturer; Jezal dan Luthar, a handsome, charming army officer; and Bayaz, First of the Magi, the powerful order of wizards that helped form the Union countless generations ago.
But as the story unwinds, the characters take on new levels of complexity. Sure, Logen is an accomplished, brutal warrior, but he’s also tired of fighting and lonely for friends and family long dead. Glokta, it turns out, was once a handsome war hero who was crippled by years of being tortured in Gurkish prisons and who turned to the only thing he’s good at any more: torturing others. Jezal dan Luthar is handsome and charming, sure, and he’s not bad with a sword. But he’s also a complete idiot; the only thing he loves more than cards, booze, and women is himself.
The secondary and tertiary characters are also fairly complex. Collem West, one of Jezal’s honorable colleagues, struggles to maintain his success despite stress and mounting anger problems. Ardee West, his sister, also teeters between a charming exterior and alcohol-fueled rage. The Dogman, Logen’s former right-hand man, has an unusually friendly side. Even Ferro Maljinn, an ex-slave whose every thought revolves around revenge, has a softer side.
When I first began reading the series, Jack cautioned me. “It’s a good story,” he said, “but the writing may not be what you’re used to.” And there are certainly a few passages that flopped for me, such as the tense but unpoetic exchange between former war buddies Glokta and Collem West: “The memory of that unfortunate meeting hung between them for a moment like a fart, then West cleared his throat.”
However, for the most part, I was impressed by Abercrombie’s prose. In one scene, the atmospheric description of his surroundings sets up Glokta’s frame of mind perfectly:
Severard’s lamp barely lit the cavernous space of the entrance lull. Two enormous, curved, slumping staircases loomed out of the gloom opposite them. A wide balcony ran around the walls at first floor level, but a great section of it had collapsed and crashed through the damp floorboards below, so that one of the stairways ended, amputated, hanging in the empty air. The damp floor was strewn with lumps of broken plaster, fallen roofing slates, shattered timbers and a spattering of grey bird droppings. The night sky peered in through several yawning holes in the roof. Glokta could hear the vague sound of pigeons cooing in amongst the shadowy rafters, and somewhere the slow dripping of water. 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.
Not bad, sir!
Jack also mentioned to me the possibility that Ardee West is a kind of Lady Brett Ashley—a sexually powerfully but socially helpless woman who relies too much on men and drink to get her through life. I didn’t see this similarity on my own, but I definitely agree with his hypothesis. When was the last time your fantasy author referenced Hemingway?
I’ve mentioned before that Abercrombie’s unconventional characters are a shining accomplishment of the novel—where else do you get a battle-scarred barbarian who shuffles his feet awkwardly in front of the ladies, or a ambitiously scheming, all-powerful wizard who is going bald?—but his plotlines are also entertaining. As Jack observed in his review of the trilogy, Abercrombie expertly turns the reader’s understanding of the tropes and expectations he may have about the fantasy genre against him by creating a fun and funny story that balances historical allegory and social commentary with more standard fantasy fare. The story is entertaining, suspenseful, and very accessible.
Quote of Note:
It was so long since any one of them had tried to talk his way out of a fix he’d forgotten it could be done.
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