The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie

The_Blade_Itself_-_Joe_Abercrombie_cover
The First Law #1

As war threatens on every side, the members of a quest slowly gather from their disparate circumstances, under the leadership of the myterious Bayaz, First of the Magi.

I picked this up because I’ve been seeing Abercrombie’s name all over the place, including via reviews at Goodreads. Word was that his work was bloody but realistic, and well done. I found that to be true, but with some caveats.

The writing itself was good, but not entirely confident. There were a modest number of grammatical and tense errors – few enough that I would normally ignore them, but persistent enough that it was clear they were not simple typos or edit remains. It’s possible that the book just needed cleanup, but the impression I had was more of a manuscript that had needed grammatical editing, and didn’t get quite enough. Perhaps that’s simply the result of it being a debut novel.

In terms of pacing and plot, Abercrombie was on firmer ground. The book moves reasonably fast, and held my interest throughout. I didn’t really know where it was going at first, but it eventually became clear that this was the ‘fellowship formation’ book of an epic quest story. Here, I give Abercrombie credit for giving the process the time it deserved. If some aspects feel forced or a little mechanistic, he also doesn’t rush the process, and we get time to know many of the characters (though the women get shorter shrift – literally). Most quest narratives skip through this process, and it’s a shame.

Abercrombie is careful not to make value judgments about his characters, and thus presents a fuller, more realistic range than do most authors. It still feels like most of them are on the side of good, but not all of them are good; in fact, many are clearly not. On the down side, there’s a lot of torture in the book. I’m not necessarily against that – a lot of writers have used the idea, and I’ve written one pretty vivid torture story myself. Abercrombie does throw in some hints that torture is ineffective, but I did find it disturbing that it was used so often, so freely, and without much in-story comment. At most it seems to be regarded as something distasteful but in one way or another useful. If it didn’t seem there might be less of it in the following volumes, this value-neutral torture element would cause me to think twice about reading them.

The whole length of the book is spent gathering (at times literally) the quest participants, and when the work is done, the book stops. It’s not exactly a cliffhanger, but there’s no pretense of a standalone novel, either. There are a few characters outside the quest group, but not many, so I presume the next volume will be about the quest itself. In this volume, Abercrombie has thrown out a handful of hints about the world’s mythology, and it’s interesting, but the hints are dissatisfyingly sparse.

All in all, a good book, if not quite the revelation many reviewers claim. (I was much more struck, for example, by Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn or Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy). But if you don’t mind a certain passivity towards torture, this is a book (and perhaps trilogy) worth picking up.

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