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Author: Joe Abercrombie

Title: The Blade Itself

Publisher: Gollancz

Paperback: 515 pages

ISBN: 978-0-575-07979-3

Price: £8.99

Publication Date: 08/03/2007

Having been a fairly heavy-duty fantasy reader during my teenage years, I have to admit that I have somewhat fallen out of touch with the genre more recently. So when someone recently recommended Joe Abercrombie to me I was interested to give his books a go and see how – or if – the genre had changed.

On the face of it Abercrombie’s first novel in The First Law series, The Blade Itself, seems to fit within the old school parameters of the genre. For a start it’s part of a trilogy. Then there are the characters. An ancient wizard. A barbarian hero being mentored by the aforementioned wizard. There’s a callow and untried youth who slowly evolves over the course of the book. There’s a feisty and [very] angry young woman. And, because this is a fantasy novel, there’s also the threat of a non-human force gathering on the northern-most reach of humankind’s lands.

So far so similar. And I definitely saw elements of David Gemmell’s gritty fantasy style about The Blade Itself, as well as similarities to Gene Wolfe’s seminal Shadow and Claw series. Indeed one major character in The Blade Itself, the crippled Inquisitor Glokta, is a torturer by profession – like Wolfe’s Severian [and one of Glokta’s two assistants is called Severard. Which is surely not a coincidence!].

But, scratch beneath the surface – and after reading just a few pages of the book – and it quickly emerged to me that what makes Abercrombie’s debut novel so special is quite how human and nuanced he is able to make his characters. Indeed all of the three ‘major’ characters – Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar and Inquisitor Glokta – are flawed in some way, emotionally and sometimes mentally. And whilst the reader may have difficulty empathising with them [something that frequently occurs –at least early on in the novel – especially with the arrogant and preening Jezal], they still display enough human potential that the reader cannot pigeonhole them as either good or evil. They are characters with texture and depth, drawn in shades of grey, rather than in black or white. None of them are perfect, and you suspect that at some point in the trilogy each of them will do something horrifically evil.

They are credible as creations, and this is also true of the world that world that Abercrombie has constructed. It does have a distinct Mediaeval Europe flavour to it [there’s a place called Angland and knights and ‘barbarian hordes’]. And there is magic, and mystery and elements of the supernatural in the story, but none of it is done overtly.

Interestingly, for a fantasy novel, there isn’t a map at the beginning of the book. Whilst this might be a negative for many readers, I actually liked it. Truth be told I tend to skim past maps when they are inserted in books. It’s a personal thing, but I prefer to just be immersed in the story and not have to overthink where the characters are or the action is taking place – I would rather build up my own vision of the landscape and cities, rather than be led by the nose! And I can think of nothing more annoying than having to flick back and forth between what you are reading and the map at the beginning of the book.

I also thought that the dialogue was incredibly impressive – it is gritty and snappy, but also very humourous. There are also heavy-duty amounts of swearing [not actually a bad thing!], which might be a bit much for some readers, but this is supposed to be a vicious environment and, for me, it really complimented the world that Abercrombie has constructed.

And, whilst it has a number of characters and a certain degree of Machiavellian skulduggery, The Blade Itself resists becoming too complicated and tangled [a charge that could certainly be levelled at other fantasy series around at the moment!]. And this allows Abercrombie to balance just enough action with backstory, character development and intriguing plot. And the ultimate compliment that I can pay is that I liked all three of the storylines. Usually, when an author has multiple character arcs, there is one [or sometimes more] that I find slightly boring. So I will skim those chapters to get to my preferred characters. But, in The Blade Itself, this never happened. I might not have always liked or empathised with the characters [indeed, at certain points I absolutely loathed each and every one of them], but that did not stop me being completely fascinated by them. This is gritty, nasty, brilliantly realised fantasy that I absolutely loved. And if you are hoping for a happy ending, then don’t – Joe Abercrombie isn’t an author who does nice and fluffy! Mwahahaha!!

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