The Blade Itself: Book One Of The First Law
Why do I feel like this? Well I don’t know him personally, but you can tell that he has got a wicked and subtle sense of humour and a great way with words. In many ways his books are standard fantasy fiction fare. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is the first part of a trilogy for instance and is a fairly weighty tome. The book is set in a world with a mix of medieval and colonial era style settings. The main country featured is the Union, which is very much like Great Britain – a number of separate nations brought together with colonial aspirations to the north in Angland and to the south in a city called Daroska which is very much like the Raj in India or maybe an outpost in the Arabian Gulf.
The plot is constructed so that we follow the character arcs of the main characters and how they fit into a larger narrative that is made up of world events. In The Blade Itself this larger narrative is about the threat to the Union from the king of the Northmen, Bethod, and also the dangers posed by a rogue magi, Khali. However, its really the individual character narratives that provide most of the interest and I think this is where Abercrombie raises his work above the humdrum of regular fantasy concerns.
Abercrombie’s narrative switches between a number of viewpoint characters, most of which have been constructed well. Probably my favourite of these is the Inquisitor Glotka, once a dashing cavalry officer and now a cynical and very funny secret policeman. His scenes are definitely the best in the book. Other characters such as Logen Ninefingers and Jezal Luthar work well too and you can see how they are all going to come together eventually in a satisfying conclusion to the first book. The Blade Itself however is definitely not a stand alone book. In the best traditions of fantasy trilogies it is just getting things started, by the end of the book we have all our heroes pretty much together and ready to set out on an important quest.
This sounds a bit clichéd, but you ignore that because of Abercrombie’s earthy and descriptive style. This is what he really excels at and its what keeps you reading and basically enjoying nearly every page. This is definitely muddy fantasy in the best traditions of something like the Warhammer game, where warriors are scarred, swear constantly and life is cheap and muddy and deadly. But Abercrombie doesn’t write with a blunt instrument like some other British fantasy writers do, such as Stan Nicholls or James Barclay. His descriptive powers really make you feel like you’re there tramping through wet woodlands or watching as Glotka hauls his crippled leg up yet another flight of stairs.
Here’s a paragraph that shows this quite well:
“The gorge was deep. Very deep with sheer, rocky sides. Here and there a tree clung to a crack, growing out into the empty air and spreading its leaves into space. The river hissed away far below, fast and angry, foaming white water fringed by jagged black stone. That was all bad, for sure, but the real problem was closer to hand. The big Shanka was still with him, swinging gently back and forth with its dirty hands clamped tight around his left ankle.”
Abercromie uses sound as well as sight to describe the scene, but he also supplies the viewpoint character’s opinon: ‘very deep’ the gorge seems, and ‘all bad’.
I think my only reservation would be the setting. We have seen it all before, but the way Abercrombie tells it makes it fun and exhilarating, but having only started reading the second book I’m not sure if it will ultimately prove to be a let down in the grander scheme of things. The style at the moment is winning over the feeling that there is a lack of substance to it all. I would also have to say that some of the minor characters are real clichés. There is the pathetically weak old king of the Union, the evil barbarian king etc. Although there’s nothing unrealistic about these characterisations on their own, they do feel a bit hollow when set against the main characters of the story. But then I perhaps shouldn’t complain as the story isn’t about these other characters anyway.