The Blade Itself – first book of the First Law series, mile- and cornerstone of the grimdark subgenre – has been in my reading list since time immemorial. Why hadn’t I read it yet? Perhaps because I have always seen it as something I had to read, something to get done, rather than something I’d particularly enjoy? Finally, I found myself in the mood for some gritty medieval fix and I decided to give it a go.
Title: The Blade Itself
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Publication Date: 4 May 2006
Genre: Fantasy – Grimdark
Length: 515 pages
Stand Alone or Series: First book of the First Law trilogy
Synopsis: In a land beset on all sides by hostile forces, and tainted by conspiracies and corruption on the inside, different characters walk each on their own path, focused on their survival or personal gain, without suspecting their paths are about to cross. Among others, we meet Logen, infamous barbarian exiled from the North and now looking for a new purpose in life; Glokta, a torture surivor turned ruthless inquisitor; Jezal, a vain and selfish young nobleman; Ferro, an escaped slave whose entire personality could be described as “REVENGE!”. Their personal plots and goals end up intertwined with the larger conflicts that are brewing up, as well as with Magus Bayaz’s plan to reclaim his power.
Analysis: Abercrombie uses an immersive third person subjective to shove us violently into the mind of his troubled, unpleasant main characters. Multiple points of view are adopted in order to follow different plotlines, but most importantly to dig into each character’s personality The prose is, in all cases, raw and brutish, purposefully indulging in the less pleasant facets of the reality, with the occasional touch of very dry humour; at times it comes across as overdone and repetitive – please, tell me again how Glokta licks his empty gums – but I can’t deny it does fit the mood of the novel.
While there’s no lack of physical action (it’s a rough world of manly men after all), in this first book the focus is heavily slanted towards the characterization of its protagonists. I guess their misadventures will one day build a larger master plot, and perhaps even the barely-there magic system will pay off, but by now it’s mostly their personalities that carry on the narration. Once again, the author takes the brutal rather than the subtle path: characters are thoroughly explored, sure, but there isn’t much nuance to their personalities; complexity, indeed, is replaced by a copious insistence on the same few traits, and a good spatter of moral hideousness.
Typically, the author gives them a vaguely sympathetic theme, just to immediately and utterly destroy any potential likability. For instance, Glokta could inspire some compassion for his tragic past and physical state, however all he learnt from his suffering is the most cynical sadism; Jezal could fit the archetype of the brilliant-but-lazy young noble who feels constrained by his duties – but he’s also presented as incredibly selfish and shallow; his friend Collem West may come across as more sympathetic, due to his status as an ambitious but sensible commoner, struggling to get the respect he deserves in a highly classist society – until we see him
Now, I generally like morally ambiguous characters, and I don’t mind villain protagonists either – if their portrayal and their plots give me some incentive to care about their destiny. For comparison with the other master of grimdark – say what you want about George R.R. Martin, but his grim and flawed characters don’t lack charisma, and his dark and gritty world has plentiful of engaging events. This is not the case here; all we have is an extended study on bitterness and squalor – admittedly an effective one, but oh, have I really just committed to reading three thick volumes of this stuff?
Additionally, my overall impression is that Abercrombie was more interested in subverting all the idealistic tropes of traditional fantasy than in writing something interesting in its own right; which might work as shock value for those who have, indeed, only read idealistic traditional fantasy, but that falls flat if one’s already accustomed to a wider variety of styles and thus not easily impressed by such a revolutionary deconstruction on its own. That said, this is the first book of a series so I have still some hope that what follows will be more engaging – although, after reading The Blade Itself, “hope” sounds almost like a dirty word.
Conclusions & Recommendations: Ok, I think it’s quite clear this book won’t make it into the list of my favourites. That said, I realise this is at least partly a matter of tastes, I can’t say the book is bad or poorly written on its own, even though objectively it has now lost some of its impact to the extent it relied on shock and novelty. If grim darkness is inherently appealing to you, or you think that spending some sizeable amount of time in the minds of the above-mentioned characters sounds entertaining in its own right, you’re likely going to love The Blade Itself, as it does deliver what it promises.
Content Warning: Torture – Violence – Gore – Domestic abuse – Slavery – Rape – Cannibalism.