The Blade Itself – by Joe Abercrombie
Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet Joe Abercrombie, a British fantasy author who’s best known for his First Law trilogy. He was great, and spoke with so much passion about his fantasy, what inspires him and what he’s trying to do with the genre that I though it was high time I read some of his work! I promptly devoured the first book in his trilogy, The Blade Itself, and this is my take on the novel:
Logen Ninefingers has been a warrior of one sort or another for a long time. He’s shed a lot of blood and dealt more than his share of death. But, he keeps reminding himself: he’s still alive. The main thing Logen’s learnt is that there are no heroes. There are only the dead, and those still hanging on.
Glokta’s still alive too, although some days (okay, most days) he wouldn’t mind if he wasn’t. He’s fallen as far as any man can and clawed his way back. After his career as a champion fighter for the Union was cut short by two years of torture in captivity, he is now one of the Union’s most ruthless Inquisitors, because he simply couldn’t care less about others’ pain.
Jezal knows he’s a shallow bastard, but that’s okay. He has more money than anyone needs and not a care in the world. He’s only training to win the upcoming tournament because he knows how much more adulation he’ll garner when he wins – the Union’s latest darling.
But none of these men can guess at where their roads will lead; and neither can you, dear reader. This is not your run of the mill fantasy, and follows no predetermined rules. There’s no reluctant anti-hero, no wise and benevolent elderly mentor, and no clearly delineated bad guy who’s evil just because, all right? A lot of fantasy, past and present, follows these set patterns, and if they’re well done they’re fantastic reads – but The Blade Itself is a different beast altogether.
The best thing about Abercrombie’s world is that his characters are just people, with their virtues as well as their petty, selfish vices. Logen, Glokta and Jezal all take turns fitting into the clichéd definition of hero as well as standard issue villain, and for that very reason they are neither of these. This makes them at once less likeable and also more relatable.
It’s easy to cheer on the good guy, who’s definitely good and never makes the wrong call, or even wants to. It’s even easier to hate the evil one, who’s determined to see the world as our heroes know it burn. What’s not easy, but infinitely more interesting, is finding yourself inexplicably rooting for the crippled Glokta as he mercilessly tortures a (mostly) innocent man by chopping off his fingers, hand and then entire arm in one-inch segments.
The Blade Itself doesn’t sugarcoat human behaviour or the realities of violence, but it’s also not a bloodbath for the sake of it. It’s a sweeping story of change and challenges faced by ordinary people trying to live up to the kind of heroes this genre expects them to be, while at the same time being only human.
And it’s really, really, good.
If you want more from your fantasy than heroes and villains, if you like reading about people trying to make the best of their lot, and if you enjoy a hugely ambitious plot in a gritty, well-established fantastical realm, you’ve got to read The First Law trilogy.
Have you read any Joe Abercrombie? Or have you come across other fantasy that plays outside the box?