Monday, February 25, 2008

The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself
Joe Abercrombie
Pyr: 2007

Mr. Abercrombie may have to continue to chase that elusive and perfect 10/10 review of his fiction. The Blade Itself falls short of perfection, though if we really want to get right down to it, no novel or story should ever achieve a perfect rating because nothing is absolutely perfect. I say this, of course, in full expectation that Mr. Abercrombie will someday read this and bring down the full force of his wrath and scorn upon those who dare give him less than his due. Does this make me fearful? I tell you now, sir, that it does not. I am fully braced with my back against the wall. I can take it. To hedge my bets, I have also hired mutant attack dogs with grenade launchers attached to their heads, the Shrike, Rodents of Unusual Size, and a couple of accountants. I think I’m covered.

The Blade Itself is one of the more recommended books I’ve seen cross my mental radar in the last few years. The only other books that compare, in terms of hype, are The Lies of Locke Lamora and The Name of the Wind. That’s pretty heady company because The Lies of Locke Lamora has lived up to the hype. I can’t speak for The Name of the Wind because I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Mr. Abercombie opens The Blade Itself with a little prologue of a chapter called, interestingly enough, “The End”. It is a chase sequence with Logen Ninefingers running from some beings called The Shanka. There is some battle, more chase, and a leap presumably to the death. In other fantasies this opening prologue would conclude with Logen dead and the reader wondering what this Shanka invasion is all about. The rest of the world wouldn’t know about it. This is *not* what Mr. Abercrombie does here. “The End” is the beginning and the very next chapter deals with the after effects of “The End” and with Logen having escaped in a very exciting manner.

After a couple of Logen chapters Mr. Abercrombie begins to introduce the two other primary viewpoint characters in this novel: Inquisitor Glotka, a crippled former soldier turned torturer; and Jezal, a young pompous ass of a nobleman training for a sword fighting competition. While Jezal is, in many ways, na├»ve to the ways the world outside the particular sphere of nobility works (and to be honest, he could care less), Jezal is not your average heroic fantasy hero. I expect Jezal to make something of the hero’s journey over the new two volumes and change his outlook from the pompous asshood of his inexperience to somewhat more worldly and understanding once he actually has to be out in the world, fight, live, and work with those from different political / social stations. I do not expect, however, Jezal to be the singular hero other fantasy novels work with. This is not a kitchen boy / farm boy fantasy.

The most interesting aspect of The Blade Itself is the character of Sand dan Glotka, Inquisitor. Glotka physically is a broken man. He was tortured for two years and was left crippled, unable to eat solid food and barely able to walk. His existence is pain. But Glotka was once a man of great strength, he was a former swordsman, a former champion, a formerly dashing and bold man. Now Glotka is hurt, angry, and a member of the Inquisition. He takes no pleasure from his job or from his existence, but he has value to the state. He roots out treason one torture at a time. Glotka is fascinating in ways that are reminiscent of Tyrion Lannister from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, but unlike Tyrion, Glotka was made the way he is. Glotka had everything taken away from him when he was captured. Tyrion was born misshapen. What makes Glotka so interesting, besides his brutally sharp tongue, is the contrast of his former life which can be personified in Jezal (though Jezal does not have the class or talent that Glotka did) to Glotka’s present existence as a cripple. It pervades every little bit of movement and thought of Glotka’s life. Rather than being ponderous or overdone, Mr. Abercrombie somehow walks the line of keeping Inquisitor Glotka edgy versus delving too deep into the pathos of his situation.

I have no idea what that means. “The pathos of his situation.” But it sounds good, so I’m keeping it.

With Logen, Jezal, and Glotka as the lens through which we see this world Mr. Abercrombie has created the reader is given an action packed and intelligent debut novel (and man, can Abercrombie write an action sequence! Good God, the man writes action like a dream...a dream where there is brutal violence visualized in crisp detail). The Blade Itself is such a set up that as the novel progresses the scope of the world and the threat grows ever larger as more and more hints are given as to what, exactly, is going on.

There is so much going on in The Blade Itself. There are fascinating characters, political maneuvering a plenty, sword-play, action, a dash of romance, class politics, a variety of cultures, more action, magic, empires and feudal warlords, still more action, foul language, inventive language, something called action – all this, and more. The Blade Itself has something for everyone all wrapped up in a violent, action packed, sometimes profane package.

And I like it.

A lot.

Still, Joe Abercrombie will have to continue his quest for the perfect 10/10 review. There are two reasons I am willing to go into which will explain why I cannot give a 10/10 review for The Blade Itself.

1) The Blade Itself does not have a true ending. It is not a complete book in and of itself. The success of The Blade Itself will ultimately hinge on how successful volumes two and three are. The best way to describe this is that the novel reads and concludes as if Mr. Abercrombie took a 1500 page novel, chopped it into three parts and published Part I as The Blade Itself. So, if Volumes Two and Three are as strong or stronger than Part I, my estimation of The Blade Itself will go up. If Books Two and Three fall victim to the Suck Monster, I will think of The Blade Itself as a great opening, but not something I can confidently recommend because of the next two books. With all of that said, I have the utmost confidence in Joe Abercrombie to write two more kick ass novels and really deliver on the promise of The Blade Itself. He promises quite a bit with this novel.

2) I don’t grade my reviews with numerical values. Nyah!

So, that’s it. The Blade Itself is one helluva impressive debut novel, one that compares favorably to the other much hyped fantasy novels of the past three years, one that sets its own bar in terms of expectation, and one which I will be quite pleased to read the two sequels to.


Tia Nevitt said...

I loved your review. Very well done. I've read the opening chapters to The Blade Itself online, but I have not purchased the book. I thought it might be too edgy for my taste. Now, I'm rethinking that.

I don't give numerical values to my reviews, either. I'm sure people can tell what I think by what I say. Or, I hope so, anyway!

Anonymous said...

Hah! That was my criticism of the novel too. It even inspired one of his blog post on how to break up a fantasy series.