I’ve been waiting a very long time to sink my teeth into this particular book. I sort of blundered into Joe Abercrombie (Ashamedly because he was next to “Abnett” on the shelf, and the books looked interesting) in the middle of his career, with the stand-alone story Best Served Cold as my introduction to his gritty, intense style. I was hooked, and read several books with his name on them, and was pleasantly surprised when they all existed in the same universe and made at least passing references to the previous volumes. But unbeknownst to me, it all started with the First Law trilogy, and The Blade Itself is the first of that triumvirate of awesomeness (I’m assuming).
This work is a raw, less-refined Joe Abercrombie, no surprise since it’s his first published novel, but everything that makes him great is there. He has a way of taking the things we love about high fantasy, the spectacle, the magic, the knights, the whimsy, and slamming it face first into the sludge of reality. And then he pulls you through the gutter for 500 pages and all you want to do is say thank you, I want more. He is masterful with fight scenes, excellent at characterization, and has a knack for witty dialogue. One or two times a few of the characters make somewhat uncharacteristic leaps of faith or trust, but these aberrations occurs mostly near the conclusion.
One of the ways he grabs me, and makes particularly poignant the low high-fantasy setting, is in the inclusion of disabled or physically handicapped characters. In Blade Sand dan Glokta is horribly disfigured, borderline crippled, and yet an incredibly relatable, and even by the conclusion a highly likable character (as likable as an Inquisitor can be, at least). Best Served featured a scarred protagonist in Monzcarro, and one of his more recent ventures, Half a King, is based around a prince with a birth defect that left him with one hand. Though this theme repeats in his works, its still a very powerful device to insert some stark reality into a story that revolves around swords and sorcery.
That may be Abercrombie’s chief genius, particularly in The Blade Itself. He has a gift for crafting very realistic representations of depressingly real human problems and conditions, and inserting them into a fantasy setting. One of the most powerful moments in this book to me, was the very vivid description of a put-upon brother losing his temper with his sister for basically drinking too much and illicitly rendezvousing with his best friend. It gets bad enough he strikes and chokes his sister against a wall, all told from his point of view. He stops abruptly as the anger recedes Afterward is a surprisingly moving revelation that the pair’s father abused them both, particularly the sister after the older brother went off to join the army. She accuses him of being just like him, and leaves. It was unexpected, bleak, and painfully genuine.
If you like your dungeons and dragons served with a side of wit, sans the whimsy, and don’t mind getting a little muddy and bloody along the way, this book, and any other by Joe Abercrombie is definitely for you. Before They Are Hanged is next in line, and if history is any judge, I’ll dive into that one and finish in less than a week (Yes, he’s that good of a writer).
The Blade Itself gets 9 out of 10 bloody fingers, which is the highest I can go (once you read it, you’ll get it)