At first glance, there is nothing new, original, or earth-shattering about Joe Abercrombie's debut novel, The Blade Itself. The first of a trilogy (set to conclude next month in the UK and in the fall in the US) called The First Law, the storylines revolve around four main, rather stereotypical character roles: a barbarian, a torturer, a nobleman, and a mysterious wizard. One may be pardoned after reading the above sentence (or the blurb on the back of the American edition) if s/he thought that this tale would be but one more epic fantasy adventure of travel, with "plot coupons," and battles and conquests and feats of magic that defy the odds...and many readers' lowered expectations. However, in this opening book, Abercrombie injects a bit of a cynicism into the mix, sometimes doffing his authorial cap to the epic-wearied reader with tidbits such as the following scene between the noble-born Jezal and the sister of a commander-friend of his, Ardee West:
When I first read this book back in January, I approached it with some skepticism. I had heard many almost rapturous reviews of the work, about how it "subverts" the standard epic fantasy tropes and how the wit and humor are excellent, etc. After a few bad experiences with such heightened expectations, I lowered my hopes. I just could not see how a story could be attention-grabbing and original if, as the few bits and pieces of actual detail I gleaned from the first reviews indicated, the action took place in a standard-issue cod-medieval setting with character types that might have come from Epic Casting Central. But I resolved to give it a chance and to see if Abercrombie's story and characters could make a positive impressive.
"How's the book?" asked Jezal.
"The Fall of the Master Maker, in three volumes. They say it's one of the great classics ... Full of wise Magi, stern knights with mighty swords and ladies with mightier bosoms. Magic, violence and romance, in equal measure. Utter shit." She slapped the book off the table and it tumbled onto the carpet, pages flapping. (p. 185)
For the most part, this opening sequence exceeded my modest expectations and did little to change my beginning impressions. The introductory scene, with the northern barbarian Logen Ninefingers (who happens to be missing his "bird" finger, which I thought was a nice touch) fleeing from the Dogman member of a northern tribe in a land called Angland (itself a possible play off of so many thinly-disguised analogues for England), provided a false start. After this fast-paced action scene, we are introduced to each of the other main characters of this novel in segments that felt a bit too short before the next PoV section would begin. This ultimately led to a disjointed feel to the novel, as though the entire book were comprised of four sets of opening prologues to the action rather than being a work in which there were distinct rises and falls in action.
Normally, these faults alone would be enough to damn the book. However, Abercrombie's saving grace here was how he took these stock characters and instilled some sense of individuality to them. While I felt at times that he used asides too often (particularly in the italicized quips of the torturer, Glokta), for the most part his characters have a fairly realistic attitude of world-weariness leavened with some rather biting humor. Below is from the introductory Glokta segment, in which Glokta's old war injuries are alluded to in a rather interesting way:
Instead of launching into a long infodump regarding Glokta's past that would have been inconsistent with the limited third-person point-of-view perspective that this scene has taken, Abercrombie smartly lets the reader get the idea for her/himself of Glokta's bodily ruin without belaboring the point. Later in the series, these injuries are shown to have some consequence when Glokta deals with another.
If Glokta had been given the opportunity to torture any one man, anyone at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of steps. When he was young and widely admired, before his misfortunes, he had never really noticed them. He had sprung down them two at a time and gone blithely on his way. No more. They're everywhere. You really can't change floors without them. And down is worse than up, that's the thing that people never realise. Going up, you usually don't fall that far.
He knew this flight well. Sixteen steps, cut from smooth stone, a little worn toward the centre, slightly damp, like everything down here. There was no banister, nothing to cling to. Sixteen enemies. A challenge indeed. It had taken Glokta a long time to develop the least painful method of descending stairs. He went sideways like a crab. Cane first, then left foot, then right, with more than the usual agony as his left leg took his weight, joined by a persistent stabbing in the neck. Why should it hurt in my neck when I go down stairs? Does my neck take my weight? Does it? Yet the pain could not be denied. (pp. 16-17)
In another scene, the barbarian Logen Ninefingers reveals his thoughts on a situation that runs counter to what a stock barbarian might have said in regards to the glories of war:
Yes, these are some wounded, weary characters that populate this tale. While the notion of a barbarian north or of some nefarious evil group arising from the transgression of some law (in this case, there are two Laws, the First dealing with contacts with the other world of demons and the Second concerning with the consumption of human flesh) is a rather worn epic fantasy trope, it is due to the strength of Abercrombie's characterizations and the rather up-close and personal approach to the storytelling that manages to keep the plot just interesting enough for readers to want more. And while I have held off discussing the characters of the nobelman Jezal and the wizard Bayaz for now, due to events transpiring here that will be explored in much greater detail in the next couple of volumes, the scenes I cited above are representative of their general introductions and character developments. The "action," such as it is, is more of a set-up for the following two volumes, but with the promise that what follows after will make these oft-meandering plot threads into portents of something rather moving.
Logen winced. In his youth, he would have loved to answer that very question. He could have bragged, and boasted, and listed the actions he'd been in, the Named Men he'd killed. He couldn't say now when the pride had dried up. It had happened slowly. As the wars became bloodier, as the causes became excuses, as the friends went back to the mud, one by one. Logen rubbed at his ear, felt the big notch that Tul Duru's sword had made, long ago. He could have stayed silent. But for some reason, he felt the need to be honest.
"I've fought in three campaigns," he began. "In seven pitched battles. In countless raids and skirmishes and desperate defences, and bloody actions of every kind. I've fought in the driving snow, the blasting wind, the middle of the night. I've been fighting all my life, one enemy or another, one friend or another. I've known little else. I've seen men killed for a word, for a look, for nothing at all. A woman tried to stab me once for killing her husband, and I threw her down a well. And that's far from the worst of it. Life used to be cheap as dirt to me. Cheaper."
"I've fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I've been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I've stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I've run away myself more than once. I've pissed myself with fear. I've begged for my life. I've been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I've no doubt the world would be a better place if I'd been killed years ago, but I haven't been, and I don't know why."
He looked down at his hands, pink and clean on the stone. "There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there's a lot of 'em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I've earned it. I've deserved it. I've sought it out. Such is my punishment." (pp. 146-147)
Publication Date: March 8, 2007 (UK); September 6, 2007 (US), Tradeback.
Publishers: Gollancz (UK); Pyr (US).