I’ve been reading fantasy for a long time, and I’m a well documented geekfan of David Gemmell’s heroic fantasy work. Over recent months I repeatedly heard people banging on about some dude called Joe Abercrombie, Abercrombie this, Abercrombie that, nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Award, yeah yeah yeah. Anyway, during a short break in Kent, I was picking up some books in Waterstones and added The Blade Itself to my shopping cart. Go on, I thought. The cover’s a bit plain and grim, but I’ll give this dude a try.
Now, I have a very short attention span, and I’m quite a hard reader to please because I’m grumpy and cynical and like my action hot and hard (oo-er). I rarely review books, and I don’t review books I didn’t enjoy simply because if I don’t enjoy a book, I put it down. Life’s too short. My life’s too busy. And it’s hard to review a book you haven’t read (unlike, haha, and this is so incredible I can still barely believe it, the woman who reviewed Iain Bank’s new novel Transition on Amazon after flicking through it in a book shop. Awesome.) So, let me stop rambling like a fumbling teenager at his first party, and get to the point of the blade itself: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is the best new fantasy book I’ve read in the last 10 years. Yes. You heard that right.
First, I’m anal about good characterisation, and Abercrombie’s characterisation skills stood out head and shoulders as a masterclass of original construction. The novel kicks off immediately with Logen, the Bloody-Nine, in serious dire straits. Throughout the book Logen is not just the thinking man’s barbarian, a vehicle for sudden action and a cynical old (but lucky) warrior trying to stay alive, he’s also an element of dark comedy and a man who carries a strange (and originally implemented) secret. “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.” So then, Logen is my kind of hero. Particularly amusing are Logen’s occasional asides on the subject (and need) of a woman’s intimations: “A bit of dirt didn’t bother Logen… One girl caught his eye as they passed, leaning against a door-frame with one arm up. Watching them pass with a half-hearted smile. Logen found her pretty, in a desperate sort of way. Prettier than he was anyway, and it had been a long time. You have to be realistic about these things.”
Then we have the second of Abercrombie’s brilliant creations, Inquisitor Glokta, a twisted cripple, once a heroic and handsome champion, a master with fencing steels and nobility, now a bitter corrupted shell whose experiences at the hands of the Emperor’s torturers have transmogrified into his own love of torture. With the aid of his terrifying Practicals (Frost being a particularly fine example), Glokta is given an almost open passport to violence, corruption and torture under the wings of the Arch Lector Sult. During investigations Glokta tortures old friends and colleagues, and men of power and influence, and he limps and whines and gums his way through the novel with a beautifully twisted perspective on life and conjuring in the reader the same sense of horror but necessity to watch as one would experience at the scene of a car wreck. Glokta’s internal dialogues also make him shine as a character. His observations are funny, clever, bitter, cynical and as twisted as the bones of this corrupted victim caught up in a complex political machine.
The other characters in the novel are great, of course. Captain Jezel, spoilt nobility seeking fame and fortune as a fencing champion (and his associated and very well written love interest), Bayaz, a very well conceived magus who’s appearance as a butcher is worlds apart from the stereotype of Gandalf; and Ferro, a truly savage wild woman intent on wiping out thousands of her enemies – who for me, was the least interesting character until she teamed up with Logen and they ran riot near the end of the book. And of course, we have Logen’s band of ragtag violent companions from whom he’s been separated – Dogman, Three Trees, Black Dow and the others. One cruel critic compared them to Terry Pratchett’s parody, Cohen and his Barbarian Horde, but this is so unjust it stinks as much as Black Dow’s pants. Dogman and the guys are savage rebels, Robin Hood’s merry band without the merriness or supposed nobility, Named Men who’ve been spat out the arse-end of war and live in a decadent bitter world without rules and where death is sudden, and cheap. Their squabbling smacks of a painful reality and existence. After all, Hell is eternity with your friends, right?
The plot of The Blade Itself novel moves forward steadily and logically, with each of the three parallel narratives (to begin with) thoroughly engaging and woven together with the expertise of a master novelist. What also works well is the sense of doom and foreboding pervading every scene, continually hinted at, regarding Bethod and his Northern Armies and what you know is an impending attack against the south. War is coming. You can taste it in the water, you can hear it whispered in the trees.
Now, the fact that the day after completing The Blade Itself I immediately bought Before They Are Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings is testament to how much I thoroughly enjoyed Abercrombie’s masterful debut novel. The writing is precise, perfectly crafted, and so very well put together, the story is a sublime interaction better than any so-called World of Warcraft immersion, and the violence and language a necessary harshness of the world Abercrombie has created. I’m actually glad I came to Abercrombie now, rather than shortly after publication of The Blade Itself; that way, I can dive straight in to the next bout of Logen scrambling through Hell, instead of waiting for the books to be written. I can’t recommend Abercrombie’s books enough. Go. Buy. Sink into the world. Abercrombie, sir, I’m a fan for life.