Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review: "The Blade Itself" by Joe Abercrombie

My attempt to catch up with some of the “big” books I’ve missed in recent years continues with the first installment of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, “The Blade Itself” ($17, Pyr).

The story starts with introductions to a cast of characters. Up first is Logen Ninefingers, a legendary barbarian warrior who finds himself a bit down on his luck and, in fact, running for his life from his former boss who has become King in the North and a group of savage warriors who seem to want to kill everything.

Then, we’re whisked away to learn about Jezal dan Luthar, a dashing, narcissistic swordsman, who is also a bit of a lazy, unmotivated jackass. (OK, he’s more than a bit of a jackass.) Jezal’s mentor Collem West is a commoner who has risen to a high rank through his military prowess, and also has a sister named Ardee that will play heavily in Luthar’s life.

That brings us to Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, a former dashing narcissistic swordsman and former companion of West, who has been crippled by years of torture in an enemy prison camp. He now works for the King’s Inquisition, getting confessions by any means necessary. Then there’s

Ferro Majinn, a fierce warrior and former slave who has declared vengeance and death on her former captors – the entire nation of them. A ragtag group of barbarians once led by Ninefingers is trapped between the King in the North and those same savages. And there are a number of other, smaller characters who play big roles.

So there are a lot of people to keep up with, and many of them have interesting stories on their own. You know they’ll eventually come together somehow, which is the task of Bayaz, the legendary First of the Magi, who is about to throw all of their lives into greater chaos.

When I started “The Blade Itself,” I was a little unsure. In the early going, it seemed a bit rough and clumsy, fitting, I suppose, to the introduction of Ninefingers. A few chapters in, though, I found myself settling in and flipping pages frantically.

Abercrombie creates a colorful cast of characters that are both familiar and a little unique at the same time. Glokta is easily the best of these, reminding me much of my favorite character from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, Tyrion Lannister. Both are reviled men – Tyrion because he is a dwarf and Glokta because he has been physically broken – and both have a great, black humor. Glokta’s, however, seems a bit more sinister. The inner thoughts that we are often privy to are some of the best moments in the book.

Bayaz is a wizard pulled out of the old-school mode. He has incredible power and brooks no nonsense. Without giving it away, the way he dispatches a foe in one of the final scenes of the book is one of the most awesome and vicious things that I’ve ever seen done with magic in a fantasy novel. Still and all, though, he does have a bit of good humor, too, notably when he takes a little childish revenge on an inquisitor who is questioning whether or not he really is Bayaz and demanding that he break a table with magic to prove himself.

One of the complaints I’ve seen about this book is that the characters are unlikeable, but I found that to be far from true. I can understand where that comes from. All are seriously flawed, and all have traits that are not so nice. For the most part, though, I found them fascinating and easy to get involved with. I’m not saying that I’d want to invite any of them to dinner, but I certainly want to go on reading about them.

As a bit of a warning, though, “The Blade Itself” is an introduction book. It brings the players on to the scene, lets you get to know them and puts them together. Though there are some great stories and scenes, at the end, nothing is resolved. In fact, the reader is still not quite sure what the game is. It’s still an entertaining and engaging read, and on the bright side, all three books are already out, so you don’t have to wait to find out what happens next.


Matthew said...

I found your review very helpful, since I'm trying to decide how I feel about the book in preparation for my own review of it. I think you hit the nail on the head in calling it an introduction that presents us with the cast rather than getting the plot rolling in earnest. I also think you articulate it well in saying that the characters are at once familiar and unique. They do occupy some pretty well-used archetypes, but the way they are presented makes the characters feel vibrant and new, and the individual voices are easily the best part of the book (especially since a lot of the plot isn't revealed).

Fred Phillips said...

Thanks. It's interesting because while I enjoyed the book, I also haven't been in a real rush to get to the other books in the series. They keep getting bumped down my to-read list.