The Blade Itself is Joe Abercrombie’s first novel, and it’s a darn fine one at that. And as a self-professed fantasy hater, that’s saying something. Abercrombie has forgone the intricate trappings of modern day fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire and the Malazan Empire spring to mind, and instead focuses his efforts on the characters. The lack of a detailed, epic setting allows Abercrombie to construct some very interesting and unusual characters, and focus on writing very frenetic, violent fight scenes.
The first thing that you’ll notice when reading The Blade Itself is that Abercrombie doesn’t spend a lot of time on describing the setting or in fabricating a complex plot. Basically, The Union, ruled by an incompetent King, is rotting from within. It’s enemies smell blood and are mobilizing to attack. We do get hints that there is more going on behind the scenes, something involving the continuation of a centuries old conflict, but it’s hints only.
This sparse setting and streamlined plot allows the characters to really shine. At just over 500 pages, and with only a handful of main characters and a few supporting ones, Abercrombie can focus on each character and make them come alive on the page. Each one is unique and interesting: the barbarian who is sick of fighting but will retreat into a barbarian rage when needed, the Inquisitor who is physically crippled and takes his pleasure from torturing others, the nobleman whose father bought him his Captaincy in the army, and the powerful, enigmatic wizard who knows a lot more than he’s saying.
Each one of these characters is well thought out and well presented and each one has a role to play in the story. While you may not be sympathetic to them all, Abercrombie has a knack for creating believable characters.
The Blade Itself has been praised elsewhere for its wit and fight scenes. Accolades that are well justified. Too often, many fantasy stories are weighed down by their own self-importance and take themselves too seriously. In The Blade Itself, Abercrombie shows that humor can go a long way to energizing a story, and putting a human face on characters. We get a little sarcastic humor and some physical humor, all well timed and used to great effect. Also, the fight scenes are exceptionally well done. Abercrombie’s fights are all fast paced, violent and bloody. He does a great job of describing the action without going overboard on the gore. If only more fights were described thusly, I might like more fantasy books.
The one big issue for me was that, at several points in the story, scenes that were supposed to be heavy on drama, really felt more like melodrama, and detracted from the effect of the events. There were a couple of times where I felt like saying, “Oh come on, that’s a bit much. No one would fall for that.” It didn’t happen often, but enough to be noticeable.
Aside from that, I’m happy to say that The Blade Itself is the first book in The First Law series. Happy because if the others are anything like this one, it should be a great series to read. Write faster Joe, people are waiting!