It would be my luck that the first book I read this year would be over five hundred pages long. Granted, when your preferred genre is fantasy, books under three hundred pages can sometimes seem a luxury. The Blade Itself however, makes it so pages become irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the story, and after zipping through it in three days (thank you vacation) I found myself wondering if it weren’t a couple hundred pages too short, sequels notwithstanding.
The Blade Itself is a sometimes bloody, sometimes dark, sometimes funny story that dances along the edge of established fantasy tropes without ever setting foot in them long enough to become boring. It has a full cast of characters, running through their own converging plot arcs, which, impressively, each have a unique voice in narration. The characters are multi-layered and not confined to the skin of the fantasy mold they come from. There is real growth in most of them throughout the book, making them feel real and connectable. And while the frequent name-dropping of countries and territories hints at a vast world, Abercrombie doesn’t bog the reader down with needless details of geography and history. Really, the only place he spends considerable time world building is Adua—fitting as this is where most of the story centers.
In short this is a really, really good book.
First, a little bit about the mechanics. I already mentioned that each character arc has its own narrative voice. This technique didn’t sell me right away; the first two chapters had me grinding my teeth over the choppy prose and a supposed authorial disagreement with the word ‘and’. The voice changes drastically when the point of view shifts, however, and the light bulb turned on that this was intentional on the part of Abercrombie. I like when writers do strange things with a purpose in mind. Not only does it make me feel comfortable in the story, it hints to me that what I’m reading is going to be interesting.
Having the prose and voice change with each character added to the separate feeling of each arc, and dropped little crumbs of detail for each of the cast that would have been to clunky to add in exposition.
On that note, back story and exposition are minimal in The Blade Itself. The characters all clearly have off screen histories that are known well enough to the author to be dropped in casually throughout the story, but are never gone into in detail. I know this method of storytelling isn’t for everyone, but I absolutely love it. I don’t need to know every little detail of a character’s past, but I want to get the feeling that they have a past. It makes them more real.
Additionally, Abercrombie uses repetition very effectively. It keeps the characters consistent in their habits while at the same time allowing them personal growth. It also injects humor into otherwise dark or tense scenes, and ties up chapters, sections and even the whole book in a neat, satisfactory way.
Finally, the subtle humor is a noteworthy element of the book. Abercrombie doesn’t shy away from darker themes; there’s plenty of graphic blood and gore, swearing, domestic abuse, torture and mutilation. None of the characters are clean and everyone’s got blood on their hands in one way or another. Yet the story doesn’t take itself as seriously as a work by Goodkind or G.R.R. Martin. You can almost catch a whiff of parody in between the lines. Almost.
Let’s jump into the summaries now. Those who are spoiler shy should look away. Look away!
The plot definitely takes a bow to the characters in this book. Each character arc is its own tributary, curving and winding along, combining at their own pace into the larger river of what I’m going to on faith call the plot of the second book. Some have yet to merge, and I’m OK with that.
The thin plot is as follows: The Union, a kingdom sandwiched somewhere in the middle of the world map and sitting fat and comfy on success and prosperity is about to have its world shaken. The North has invaded, led by the barbarian king Bethod, and the southern Gurkish Empire is making its own similar preparations. I’m pretty sure this could be the dictionary definition of ‘oh shit’. In one way or another, these two events push and pull the characters in the story. The plot, therefore, is somewhat loosely connected.
The book opens with Logen Ninefingers, hulking, brute of a barbarian with a reputation that precedes him by miles and one hell of a berserk button—running for his life, barefoot through the forest, chased by foul, unnatural creatures, and leaving his men behind. Logen spends his time in the book occupying one or more states of tired, scared, thoughtful or pragmatic. He curses when he fights and reminds himself he’s alive when it’s all over and in fact, if no one in the book ever mentioned he was a barbarian, as a reader you wouldn’t peg him as one.
Convinced his men are dead and with no king, country or clan to be loyal to, he travels south to find a magi he’s told is looking for him. This magi—Bayaz, the first of the magi, and by all accounts the most powerful—is not what Logen or the reader expects him to be. Squat, fat, balding, dressed more like a butcher than a wizard, he’s crass and short tempered, a liar and a cheat, but at least he gives Logen a direction to go in.
Now, if there’s one problem with the wise old wizard archetype, it’s that they inexplicably withhold crucial information from the characters that need it the most. From a writer’s perspective this is necessary; there wouldn’t be much of a story if all the characters know exactly where to go and what to do when they get there. As a reader though, it’s a head-scratcher. Don’t the wizards want their mission to succeed? Why wouldn’t they make sure that their party is as prepared as they possibly could be? Abercrombie dodges the improbable while remaining minimalistic with five delicious little words:
“I don’t want to know.”
“All my life I’ve sought to know things. What’s on the other side of the mountains? What are my enemies thinking? What weapons will they use against me? What friends can I trust? … Knowledge may be the root of power, but each new thing I’ve learned has left me worse off. … Whatever it is you want from me I will try to do, but I don’t want to know until it’s time. I’m sick of making my own decisions. They’re never the right ones. Ignorance is the sweetest medicine, my father used to say. I don’t want to know.”
And just like that Bayaz—and Abercrombie—keeps his secrets, and Logen—and the reader—is left in the dark.
So far we have a philosophical barbarian and a not quite moral wizard, but surely the hideous, bitter and spiteful cripple will occupy the position of antagonistic slimeball throughout the whole story, right? That’s one trope that’s firmly stuck in its rut.
Like many of Abercrombie’s pointedly unlikable characters, Glokta, torturer of the Union’s Inquisition, has some surprisingly doubting, insightful and even tender scenes. He doesn’t torture for the pleasure of it, but because he’s good at it—first hand experience will teach a man a lot. He’s a low man on the Inquisition’s totem pole and he knows he’s being played, and does his best to keep his head above water while at the same time cautiously sniffing around what stinks in his organization. His attitude is a product of his history, and just when you think that his character is stationary, he has a surprising and stunning show of heart. I really do hope that Glokta continues to grow as a character—if he does then he will truly be one of my favorites in fiction.
The final major character arc in the story is that of Jezal Luthar, young man, noble, captain and arrogant asshole. Jezal occupies the lowest position on my list of likeable characters—possibly because he is the one who steps out the least from his character frame. He behaves precisely the way you’d expect a young, pampered nobleman to behave. He has everything he could want: title, money, prestige, admiration, looks, a strict but knowledgeable fencing master determined to get him to win the Contest that will skyrocket him to glory—and yet he’s lazy, unsatisfied and bored with life. The only thing that stirs him at all away from his mold is Ardee West, the sister of his friend and afoul talking, alcoholic commoner. The unconventionally beautiful Ardee ties Jezal up in knots with her wild behavior, her jibes and her flirting.
Unfortunately, his time with Ardee takes up less space in his arc than his training and participation in the Contest. I would have been bored to tears with his story if I didn’t sympathize so strongly with his position. The stress, the expectation, the anticipation, the hard training that doesn’t seem to go anywhere and the insatiable urge to give up are all elements of fencing tournaments that I’m well familiar with. Which is to say nothing about the strength and morale that’s bled out every time an opponent scores a point. Sharing in Jezal’s grief, I think, was the only thing keeping me from skipping the chapters he was in.
He does start to lean toward a change in character near the end of the book, but quickly snaps back to arrogant petulance when his plans for certain death on his terms are dashed when Bayaz recruits him against his will to join the as yet mysterious adventure the wizard has planned. I’m hoping he gets a little more character development in the second book.
There are really only two minor character arcs that I want to talk about: the remaining barbarians in Logen’s band, and Ferro.
The barbarians, first off, are just as entertaining as Logen, if not more. They share the same narrative voice, which breathes so much more life and realism into the writing than if the entire story was told with consistent prose. The barbarians are all Named Men like Logen (I love that concept, by the way—Named Men): Dogman, Threetrees, Black Dow, Tul Duru (Thunderhead), Grim and Forley the Weakest.
Figuring their leader is dead, they are introduced bickering amongst each other over what to do next; they can’t (and won’t) have anything to do with Bethod who has exiled them, and since they’ve got no place to return to in the North, south seems like the best option. Along the way they get the opportunity to show off their fighting and practical skills to the reader, though they truly make me feel all the feels (and I do mean ALL of them) when they come to the conclusion that Bethod needs to be warned about the monstrous Shanka overrunning the North lands. What happens next has forever endeared me to all five of them. I can’t even decide which of them I like the best, they’re all so great.
The other secondary character arc is that of Ferro. She is the only other woman in the story after Ardee, and while I think I liked Ardee a little more, there’s a part of me that really appreciates Ferro’s well, feral nature. She isn’t a shoot first and ask questions later sort of character. She’s a shoot first and piss on the corpse sort of character. Questions are never a part of the equation, which is perfectly justified given the bits of her history that the reader is allowed to know. The book hints at her being something of a key to the plot of the series, and I really hope that her character is more than just that. Woman-as-the-magical-key is a trope I find utterly repulsive in fantasy. At least she isn’t a delicate damsel in distress/virgin sort of key. Those are the worst.
Now that I’ve gushed praises for this book, and you’ve all run to go buy a copy for yourselves, I’ll sneak in here that it isn’t without its faults. The frequent use of interjections causes the prose to stumble in some places, as do some of the more bizarre dialogue tags. As well, the book is more of a set up to a plot, than its own, fully contained plot. If you’re looking for a book that breaks conventional fantasy, this isn’t it either. As far as I’m concerned, however, the things that the book does well (characterization, voice, and genre bending) far out-weigh the things it fumbled, and I found myself able to overlook little things that have in other books been unforgivable sins.
I’ve already started reading the second book in the series, Before They Are Hanged, so look forward to my thoughts on that one as well before too long.