The Blade Itself

I just finished listening to the audiobook of The Blade Itself, volume one in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy. This was my first exposure to his work. The associations I had picked up over the years was dark and gritty, so I was expecting something like Hobbesian low fantasy (Joe Abercrombie’s Twitter handle is @LordGrimdark, after all). It took me some time to warm up to the story. In fact, a few hours in I was on the verge of cutting my losses and moving on. It struck me as something like a fantasy version of The Sopranos, at least in style, Logen Ninefingers some discount bin Conan, Inquisitor Glokta a caricature of petty tyranny. Why should I care about these characters, this relatively generic fantasy world with its savage northmen and bestial humanoids? About 25% in, however, my reaction had shifted diametrically.

It helped that the performance (narrated by Steven Pacey) was excellent, but in any case I am glad I persisted.

In some ways, The First Law seems something like what A Song of Ice and Fire could have been had it reached its potential, in the rough subgenre of low fantasy that assumes the worst about human nature. This is probably an unfair comparison, because I did enjoy the first two books of A Song of Ice and Fire, before I lost patience with the pace of releases, and I have yet to see how The First Law concludes. But I think Abercrombie has a reputation for satisfying endings (and it is already done). We will see.

Most important was the handling of the characters, both how Abercrombie gradually brings them together in the narrative, and how they begin to rise above their initial caricatures. Abercrombie seems like he actually cares about his main characters, even those that are unpleasant, and is disappointed and sympathetic (if not surprised) when they stumble and suffer, though he does have a tendency to revel ghoulishly in their flaws from time to time. I also found the story funny. One example of many: the chapter where Glokta first meets Logen and the wizard Bayaz—the juxtaposition between the seemingly basic honesty of everything Bayaz and company say with the totally reasonable but wrong distrust of the obviously intelligent, but rather repulsive, Glokta—is some solid writing. Pleasantly anticipating volume two.

Over the past few years, I have been catching up with a few of the popular genre fantasy authors that I had, for whatever reason, not gotten around to reading. Among that crew is also Brandon Sanderson, of whose work I’ve now heard the first three volumes of The Stormlight Archive and the first Mistborn book. More on that at some point in the future.

7 thoughts on “The Blade Itself

  1. Travis Miller

    I think you’ll find some of the reversals and reveals later in the series quite interesting. I’ve read through all of them and they’re some of my favorites. The most recent series was good, though I liked the first three and the stand alone novels better.

  2. Jeff Russell

    Well, not to get you down, but I had a similar reaction to book 1: initial skepticism, almost bailing out, and then thinking “maybe there’s something to this!” and then I pretty much hated book 2 and 3 (I did finish it, and read the spin-off “Best Served Cold”, so take with a grain of salt).

    For me, what happened was that Book 1 convinced me that the two-dimensionally shit version of the characters and the world was over-simplified, and then in books 2 and 3, he was like “actually, yes, it is that simply bad”. The writing and characterization remained great, the world kept on being interesting, but it was like Abercrombie is constitutionally against “growth” or “redemption” as naive bullshit concepts.

    For “dark” fantasy, I much preferred Glen Cook’s Black Company books, but maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough: I also kind of hated Viriconium, despite enjoying the creativity and imagery there.


  3. 71sullivan

    Big fan of both Abercrombie and Glen Cook.

    I wouldn’t call it grimdark by any stretch but the most enjoyable fantasy book I’ve read recently is Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by KJ Parker.


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