The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

It’s tricky to know just how to review The Blade Itself, because, I must confess, I didn’t exactly come to it expecting just a novel. I came to it expecting what’s widely considered a foundational text for the (relatively) new subgenre of Grimdark. I have read the occasional book that might be considered to be within that area (like Hurley’s God’s War, though that’s science fantasy rather than straight fantasy), but the big names of the movement – Abercrombie, Lynch, Lawrence and company – I’ve never gotten around to. So in reading this… yes, of course I wanted an enjoyable experience, and to see what this popular author was like, but I also wanted to see what grimdark was really like in the flesh, outside of the polemica and caricature for and against. What is grimdark? What makes it different from non-grimdark?

And, to be honest, I come away a little puzzled.

Perhaps the next couple of books in the series are very different. Perhaps this isn’t representative. But as it stands, I’m not really seeing anything… different… about The Blade Itself. It feels like a very traditional, conventional fantasy novel. And that’s not a criticism per se – I’m a fantasy fan, after all – but it leaves me a little confused as to why so many intelligent people have seen this book as the start of something new, and why they’ve developed strong opinions on ‘grimdark’, whether for or against. Indeed, given the author’s stated purpose in writing the novel – “to single-handedly revolutionise the fantasy genre”, I’m just surprised to find something so intensely old-fashioned.

To be fair, if my only previous exposure to fantasy were The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and then (skipping a long way forward) The Wheel of Time then yes, I’d probably find this a bit of shock. But instead, I grew up with the fantasy of the 80’s and ‘90s, and there there’s a lot more similarity.

Inevitably, we begin to look at new things through the lens of what is familiar to us. My immediate thought when reading The Blade Itself was how much it reminded me of David Eddings. Certainly there are connexions in the plot to the Belgariad – like the idea of a small brotherhood of long-lived disciples-turned-mages, or the idea of a wizard seemingly-randomly (but with hidden motivations) assembling a party (each from a different nation) for a quest (into an old empire across the sea) for a mysterious magical artifact of immense power for reasons that are not explained (though its a Seed rather than an Orb this time). The closer similarity in tone, however, is with his later Elenium (something that, when rereading it recently, I described as perhaps “proto-grimdark”). And, surprisingly, the difference between Abercrombie and Eddings is not that the former is darker in content, or grimmer in tone. Quite the contrary! Some people may be pursued by evil magicians here, but that’s nothing for someone who grew up with protagonists being pursued by the Seeker*. There are some references to cannibalism, but there’s nothing like that lesbian sado-erotic snuff-cannibalism scene from Eddings; there’s some delicate mention of bodies torn apart, but we don’t get the sort of sustained discussions of how hilarious it is when your disembowled victims can’t escape burning to death because the ropes of their scattered intestines keep tripping them up that Eddings likes to give us. The heroes here, even the allegedly unpleasant ones, at least think twice about murdering people, whereas Edding’s knights in shining armour, even the most puritanical, don’t hesitate before casually decapitating people who have mildly inconvenienced them (and then joking about it). And while Abercrombie’s novel largely lacks the sociopathically light-hearted banter of Edding’s band of noble killers, it also lacks the dourness of the Elenium, its rain, its nostalgia, its depressed bickering. Instead, it’s tonally a pretty light and bouncy piece throughout.

*the Seeker, for people who haven’t read Eddings, is a insectoid-larval hunter in (cloaked) human form, which does something undescribed to the brains of humans it meets and assembles entire villages into silent mobs of helplessly enslaved marionnettes, before it eventually hatches into giant moth with no mouth and no instinct other than to breed. It’s creepy.

There is, however, a rougher edge to it than Eddings has. Even when he goes dark, Eddings always feels, as it were, like it’s made of smooth white plastic – the author has packaged everything up neatly for us. Abercrombie’s novel is more pitted and irregular, messier, more human. In this, it reminds me of TSR’s novels – not the central heroic sagas like Dragonlance: Chronicles, but the stuff around the edges, what I call the ‘neopulp’ works, which show us more of a worm’s-eye view of the settings. It reminded me a lot of parts of Salvatore’s work, for example, or the Harper novels of Elaine Cunningham.

Again, though, those novels were often just as dark and as grim as this, if not more so. TSR, of course, devoted entire novels to outright villains, while some of their books, particularly in Ravenloft, approached guignol levels of pain and bloodshed (in Dance of the Dead, which I read and reviewed not that long ago, for example, I seem to remember there’s a named character death about every four pages on average, and an unredeemably evil sadistic zombie lord is one of the relative good guys).

From the reactions of others, I gather that one particular innovation is that Abercrombie’s characters swear in modern English, rather than with euphemisms. But if you replace every “fuck!” with a “Moroddin’s Beard!” (and added a lot of dialogue that went “aargh!”) would you really be able to tell that this wasn’t a D&D novel written in 1987?

On the other hand, while the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ occur more than they did in the previous generation of writers, The Blade Itself is surprisingly prudish when it comes to actual sex and violence. This was most obvious to me in its descriptions of gore, where it relies on comic aversion of the camera, rather than explicit content. At one point, for instance, a body has been torn apart and partially eaten, but there’s no actual description of this – instead, the camera focuses on the protagonists, who observe this and say things like “yes, that’s definitely a foot!” and so on, leaving the actual horror to the imagination – whereas pre-grimdark writers would likely just have plotted out where exactly each organ was. It’s less immediately noticeable but more pervasive in the handling of torture – which, since one character is an inquisitor, is in theory quite common in the book. But I say ‘in theory’, because in practice the torture scenes are something out of a high school drama club’s impression of what interrogation looks like*, full of looming and vague threats and allusions to dentistry. The worst that actually happens on page is the odd slap. And because of the prudishness and the very arch, teenage-giggles tone around these subjects, it actually feels less menacing than in some even less explicit authors. I couldn’t help but compare, for instance, to the use of torture in Pratchett’s Night Watch – an overtly tragicomedic novel in which the torture is not described and some of the threats are intended to be taken by the reader as nonsensical bluffs, and yet where the greater, as it were, emotional honesty of the author’s approach rendered the result darker and more intimidating, even if in a fashion tinted with the tragically absurd. [This giggly tone, incidentally, and how it meshes with the sometimes moderately gritty subject matter, is probably what initially most called to mind Eddings, in which pseudo-witty banter goes hand-in-hand with brutal killings and even pogroms].

*This may sound harsh but in this case is very literal – it gave me flashbacks to the terrible, terrible “interogation scenes” that my secondary school drama class had to write and perform one week.

[needless to say, many torture scenes involve a freakish albino with a comedic lisp, because nothing says terrifying like the cliché fetishisation of disability and visual oddity. There’s a lot of that, by the way.]

Actually, though, it’s not Eddings, Salvatore or Cunningham that this reminds me of the most. This is really, really reminiscent of David Gemmell, an author who pursued a similarly rough and ‘gritty’ approach, but with (sometimes) darker antiheroes and (so far) more of a propensity for horror. It feels of a piece with the work of the creator of Waylander, the Jerusalem Man, and the Knights of Dark Renown (albeit that Gemmell’s use of humour and absurdity is much more restrained than Abercrombie’s; Gemmell’s work is only a little darker, but it’s much grimmer).

Perhaps the most obvious development in Abercrombie is a much greater focus on internal life. This certainly wasn’t an innovation (it’s not more extreme than in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire), and its hard to precisely quantify – it’s all still in the third person, and it follows particular viewpoint characters one at a time, so it’s a familiar approach in the genre  – but compared to the work of Eddings or the TSR era, there’s more of a sense here of a camera not just over the character’s shoulder but actively shoved up their nostril. There’s more of a sense of overt lampshading of the limitations of a character’s perspctive, and there’s vastly more time spent in internal monologue, particularly in internal monologue devoted to the POV character’s personal feelings. This is something Gemmell does too, compared to his contemporaries, but it’s much more marked here. The result is a greater feeling of immediacy, of intimacy with the characters, and of, to use a problematic word, “realism”.

At the same time, we shouldn’t equate this immediacy with genuine depth. None of Abercrombie’s characters, even his POV characters, appear particularly deep or complex, as yet. The internal perspective is often used to repeat the same thoughts, or the same sort of thoughts, over and over again, and to give the impression of openness while at the same time avoiding genuine revelation.

Indeed, it occurs to me that clarity and depth are often at odds in terms of characters. Approaching a character with a more delicate touch allows an author to exploit creative ambiguity in characterisation; throwing us their every thought tends to work (if the author isn’t interested in a genuine, novel-dominating psychological excavation) to caricature them through repetition, and to strip out their beguiling shadows. It’s probably not a coincidence that the most intriguing major character by far of the novel, Bayaz, is the one whose character is shown most indirectly and inconsistently. If we saw his actions developing from the repetition of some particular neurotic obsession, as we do with the POV characters, much of the mystery and appeal of the character would be lost. This approach also, of course, runs the risk of bogging the novel down, with large chapters devoted to ‘characterisation’ that establishes surprisingly little character. [I’m perhaps over-sensitive to this, because my own attempts at writing longer works have often been hamstrung by this exact problem. My instinct is toward the psychological, internal style, but that so easily derails the forward motion of the plot. I suspect it is not a coincidence that many fantasy authors who work with this style also work with multiple POVs – being able to break from one mind to another allows a sort of harmonic progression in the plot, without getting entangled in too long a stay in any one psychology.]

It should also be said that not all of the problems of this approach are unavoidable. In particular, reading this alongside the latest Robin Hobb, an intensely psychological author, it becomes clear just how relatively inefficient Abercrombie’s characterisation really is. Hobb spins deeply complex and painfully human characters with similar levels of wordcount to Abercrombie, while the later builds, to be honest, broad-stroke caricatures that fit very neatly, if with more detail, into established genre tropes. This, of course, is not just a matter of ability, but also a matter of choice, I would assume. Abercrombie is intentionally building something much closer to a conventional fantasy romp, shallow but appealing.

To return to the comparison with Gemmell, however: the greatest difference isn’t on the small-scale, but the large. It’s the structure of the storytelling itself. Abercrombie adopts a semi-polyphonic texture, in which multiple POV characters follow intersecting but underlyingly independent lines. Of course, multiple plotlines isn’t an innovation either. Following the example of The Lord of the Rings, it has long been conventional for fantasy epics to divide their characters in the middle portion before uniting them at the end: most of the Dragonlance Chronicles are spent with the ‘fellowship’ widely scattered, and The Wheel of Time spent decades with its core protagonists in entirely different storylines. But that’s something more akin to counterpoint: the voices temporarily diverge, but complement one another and eventually unify in the conclusion. In later works like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, however, or Hobb’s The Liveship Traders, the voices do not merely diverge, but are divided right from the start. Abercrombie’s method is, so far, somewhere between these two models: superficially, the characters seem independent, but they mostly converge quite rapidly into a single master-plot. More importantly, there is as yet no real sense of contrary motion – the characters all seem capable of serving a single resolution, a single story, whereas the characters of ASOIAF or Liveships move on at least potentially contradictory paths. It is hard, for example, at least at first, to envisage a resolution that would be a happy ending for both Jaime and Arya, for instance, or both Kennit and Althea (or even, after a certain point, for both Wintrow and Althea, for all that they are both ‘good guys’ who are closely related and share many of the same concerns). I think much of the drama of these works comes from wondering how the author is going to pull off an ending that manages to satisfy the character arcs of all the characters at once.

[Hobb’s later Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool trilogies are interesting case studies too, because they feature polyphonic casts without massively-multi-POV narration. Much of the pain in those series comes from the fact that different sympathetic characters all seem to think they’re the protagonist of their own novel, and hence put themselves at odds with the storyline that we know is “meant” to revolve around the POV character]

Anyway. While Abercrombie’s character lines don’t look to be going to end up with the genuine polyphony of Martin or (at times) Hobb, they certainly at least at first have a pseudo-polyphony that makes them quite distinct from those we find in Gemmell, who tends to tell straightforward stories from beginning to end (though there are sometimes just as many POVs, in raw numbers, as in Abercrombie). This inherently invests the novel with drama and intrigue. Whereas in a novel like Legend, the arc of the plot rapidly becomes apparent simply by observing the commonalities in the direction of travel of the POV characters, all of whom are in, or heading directly toward, The Main Story, a novel like The Blade Itself tantalises and taunts by offering us what at first appear to be entirely unrelated stories. More, I think, than the more intimate narration style, I think that this shift from a straight tale to an interwoven one changes the whole reading experience. (I worry a little that with most threads coming together by the end of the volume, the sequels may follow a more straightforward Gemmellian track).

[Perhaps textiles offer a better analogy than music. A perfectly simple monophonic story is like a thread. Works like Gemmell’s are like multiple threads woven together into yarn – at times the threads may part, at times they may twist, but as a whole they form a single yarn. Works like Martin’s are a web – different lines of thread may intersect at times, but as a whole they follow their own lines and the overall shape of the work is not taken from any one line, but from the pattern as a whole. Works like The Blade Itself are something in-between: the threads join and part enough that they don’t seem to form a single yarn, but the ‘web’ they form is long enough, and thin enough, and possessed enough of a single direction that the threads do approximate to a common pattern.]

 

But none of this really addresses the question of how good the novel is, does it?

Well, let’s start with the prose. My concerns were raised on the first page, with the following sparkling demonstration of sophisticated syntax:

The Flathead stood there, blinking at him. Then it started to sway from side to side, blood dribbling down its face. Then it dropped like a stone, dragging the axe from Logen’s fingers, thrashing around on the ground at his feet.

Well… well done, I say! I know that when I was six, I’d have written “The Flathead stood there blinking at him, and then it started to sway from side to side blood dribbling down its face, and then it dropped…” and so on. Abercrombie’s managed to drop the “and”, and he’s used a big-boy full stop rather than a comma, so really that’s quite promi… wait, sorry, you’re saying he’s not six? Ah. Well then maybe my reaction might be different.

To be fair, it isn’t all that bad. It’s mostly fluent, and certainly better than some of the really terrible prose that you find in old ‘80s fantasy novels [although partly this is its relative avoidance of anachronistic turns of phrase from 1980s America; I wonder whether in a few decades, however, its own ‘modern’ style will be just as dated]. But it’s pretty basic. And at time he pushes it into places he can’t really deliver: there’s sections where he seems to want to have the narrator’s voice mimick the dialect of the POV character, for instance, but instead falls between the two stools, with a narrative voice that’s essentially exactly the same as in the other chapters but with the occasional inconsistent faux-dialectical cliché thrown in for “colour”: “Carleon weren’t at all how ___ remembered it” in one paragraph, for instance, but “it was twice as big now as it used to be” in the next*, or “too tight for them to turn around” in one sentence and “it didn’t take him long to pick ‘em off” in the next, and so forth.

*OK, so technically there are some contemporary urban dialects in the UK where were-levelling is still retained in the negative, even though was-levelling has spread through the positive, so technically I suppose that might not be an ‘inconsistency’ per se. But there’s very little use of other syntactic features of these dialects. There’s no double negation, for instance, so that POV gives us “there was no X”, rather than “there weren’t no X”, which we’d expect.

If the prose is less than remarkable, the dialogue is often eyeball-rolling. For one thing, Abercrombie loves grunting. Here are the first five lines of speech:

‘”Shit,” said Logen’
‘”Gah!” squawked Logen’
‘”Hah!” he shouted. “Hah!”‘
‘”Shit,” muttered Logen’
‘”Aaaargh!” Logen grunted’

There are more substantive lines of dialogue too, but these illustrate one of the biggest problems Abercrombie has: a mysterious aversion to the word “said” (again, a common trait among children trying to write). People don’t just say things. They squawk, they mutter, they scream, they spit, they snap, they yell, they murmur, they thunder, they hiss (specifically, opening to a random page, they hiss tradition 80s fantasy things like “And more besides, say I!”); they howl. Nobody’s ejaculated or expostulated yet, but it may be only a matter of time. He does seem to improve over the course of the novel, so maybe this is just a bit of first-novel over-enthusiasm, but it’s an irritating twitch, and it in turn represents a more general issue: the fact that the novel, and all its inhabitants, are massively high on concentrated caffeine tablets. I just opened to a random page, and found 15 exclamation marks. Another page: 11. Another page: OK, only 3, but on the page facing it there are 16. Now, obviously, I don’t go through books charting punctuation use! But it’s hard to miss the excitement in this one! Everyone is shouting at each other, all the time! And we know that because of the exclamation marks, and because of those speech-descriptors! For instance, we know that people get very excited about the tax system! ‘“The king’s taxes!” screamed ___’; ‘“The king’s taxes?” he screamed, spraying ___ with spit’; ‘ “…the king’s taxes!” he screamed.” Those are three quotations from three entirely different conversations throughout the book!

[It’s not dialogue that’s exclamatory either! Even the internal monologuing is filled with exclamations! I’m surprised they haven’t all had heart attacks by now!]

That’s part of what I think may be a debut novelist’s insecurity, a desparation to get a point across even if he has to thwack the reader all about the head with every tool at his disposal. To take just one instance, that struck me near the beginning of the book: there is a minor character called “Sepp dan Teufel” (because yes, this is from the ‘use real names but change one letter’ school of worldbuilding, because ‘dan’ and ‘van’ are totally different), and he is the master of the mints. How do I know that? Well, on p.23 someone says his name and then someone say “the Master of the Mints?”. OK. And later on p.23 he’s called “our friend the Master of the Mints”. And on the next page, again someone says his name and someone else replies “The Master of the Mints?” And on the page after that, someone says his name and someone else replies “not the Master of the Mints?” He isn’t mentioned for a while after that, but the next time his name appears, the very next words are “the Master of the Mints”. On the same page, someone else refers to him as “the Master of the Mints”, and the Master of the Mints himself shouts “I am the Master of the Royal Mints!” (see? worldbuilding! before we just knew that they were mints, now we know they’re royal). The next time he’s described as doing or saying anything, it’s not by name but as “the Master of the Mints”. It actually takes us 78 pages before we find even one instance of his name being used without “the Master of the Mints” being found within the same or the following line. And sure enough, in case that confused anyone, he’s then next referred to as “Master of the Mints, Sepp dan Teufel”.

It’s like he expects his readers to have the same hypercaffeinated attention spans as his characters, and he’s so desparate for us to know what the guy’s job is that he has to bash us over the head with it about two dozen times where once or twice might have done (even those his job isn’t even all that important – it’s not like it’s a key plot point for the novel or anything, he’s basically just some ‘vaguely important guy’).

Right. OK, we’re not dealing with a deft and subtle hand here. But let’s not be too harsh on the guy – the odd miscalibration is probably to be expected in a first novel. It’s a petty example, though, of what I found tiring about his general approach: the thumping obviousness, that never says something once if it can say it twice, and doesn’t say it with a full stop if it can add an exclamation mark. It’s not always a flaw: it does give parts of the book an admirable energy. But it’s… not deft.

That bull-in-a-china-shop feel becomes more difficult when it lumbers into delicate areas, where perhaps a lighter touch might have been more appropriate. To give an example: there is a common trope in fantasy of the female abuse victim who because of her trauma becomes a hardened badass. This can be done well. It can be done subtly; or, it can be done directly, confronting the psychology of the character directly (as in Mary Gentle’s Ash, which even begins with the line “it was her scars that made her beautiful”). But it can also distress and irritate readers. Why do women have to have been raped (or otherwise abused) in order to be interesting characters? Why is any historic abuse always the most important aspect of any and every female character’s psychology, no matter what else they’ve seen and done since? And while it’s certainly optimistic, isn’t the “oh good, she’s been abused, so she must going to be a badass!” rule kind of insultingly dismissive of trauma? I’m always slow to condemn authors on account of this sort of ‘misogyny’, as I don’t like to second-guess what stories an author feels they need to tell, or how they feel they need to tell them. But even I recognise that there are good and bad ways to do something like this.

So, is it a good idea to introduce an abuse victim (strongly implied to specifically be a rape victim), show them to be filled with violent anger, and then have a man appear out of nowhere out of the desert to lecture her about how her feelings of anger are inappropriate? To have her have a moment of clarity where she realises that, as he’s told her, she’s behaving and feeling inappropriately, and then to have the helpful man reassure her that, despite her having been abused, despite her being angry about it, he at least thinks there’s something “worth saving” in her? Is it a good idea to do that all in one chapter?

Does it become a good idea when the helpful guy is a Magic Black Man?

Does it become an even better idea when the only other female with hints of a personality in the novel is also the victim of some sort of abuse? That seems like something that makes sense if you’re writing a novel about the abuse of women, but when you’re writing a light-hearted fantasy adventure romp it feel… odd. [to be fair, there’s another woman who seems like she’s being set up to be interesting in future. We don’t know yet whether she’s been abused, but she is in a forced marriage, so… Oh, and another woman might be important too – we don’t know yet whether she’s been abused, but she is very violent, her portrayal is sexualised, she wears some sort of fetish mask all the time (a lot of people do, to be fair) and despite being young she’s spent a long time working for torturers, so I’m not holding out much hope…]

Or how about this one: we all know fantasy has some of its roots in the tradition of orientalism. And that can be one of its virtues: it’s a genre that’s passionate about exploring the other, and exploring our reactions, good and bad, to that other. Culture clash – whether played as comedy, as horror, as tragedy or as drama – is a common theme of fantasy. And that means that fantasy worlds are often filled with far-off lands, mysterious and oriental (in reputation if not in geography). Since European culture’s closest neighbour – sometimes lover, sometimes rival – has always been, broadly, of the “middle-east” (Egypt, Persia, the Caliphate, the Arab dynasties, the Ottomans), it’s inevitable that fantasy will often include places that seem to echo elements of those cultures. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, in my view. But, handled maladroitly, it may again be a source of distress and irritation. Unless an author is really willing to interrogate a particular real-world culture in depth, with honesty and extensive (ideally first-hand) knowledge, it is probably best she avoid too closely identifying her fantasy culture with any specific real-world culture, nation or religion; and, of course, to avoid anything that seems too much like ignorantly demonising another culture. I think we can all largely agree on that!

So, is it a good idea to have a decadent evil empire in a desert area? Is it a good idea to call this the “Gurkish” empire? [remember our author’s fondness for making new names by changing one letter…] Is it a good idea to have the Gurkish follow a false religious leader called The Prophet, whose priests promote human cannibalism? If you’re going to have a decadent evil desert empire of Gurkish people who follow the Prophet, is it a good idea to name their emperor “Uthman”, after the third Caliph? Or is that after Saladin’s son, the second sultan of the Ayyubids? Or, since “Uthman” is the Arabic equivalent to “Osman”, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, is he trying to be clever? Oh, and if you have Uthman/Osman ruling your ‘Gurkish’ empire of desert Prophet-worshippers, does it help to disguise their inspiration if you make the naming element ‘ul’, instead of ‘al’?

Yeah, he’s a subtle guy. To be clear, I don’t get the impression that he’s personally Islamophobic. It’s just… he doesn’t seem interested in subtlety. C.S. Lewis would read this and go “why didn’t he make his contempt for Islamic culture more subtle, like I did with Calormen! I bet nobody ever worked out who the Calormenes were meant to be!” – well, if you wanted some crass orientalism and you did think Calormen was too subtle, this is the author for you!

 

So, as you can see, I had some issues with the book. And yet… I’ve just ordered the sequel. Hmm.

It’s obviously not because of the author’s subtlety or originality, both of which are limited, to say the least. It’s not because of prose, or the startling insights or analogies (there aren’t any). But that doesn’t mean that the novel is entirely without virtues. It is a conventional, comfortable fantasy adventure of the kind I grew up with, with a little of the period rust filed off – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! And, it’s worth repeating, some genuine advances have been made. The greater interiorisation and the more complex use of multiple points of view and protagonists may have been developed in works like A Song of Ice and Fire, but what Abercrombie does is return those techniques back to the less sprawling, more dynamic side of the genre, effectively marrying some of the sophistication of the dynastic saga with the more direct and energetic charms of the adventure novel. In particular, as the first novel of a trilogy, these techniques allow Abercrombie to build up much more tension, and plant more hooks of intrigue, than his predecessors were capable of. I suspect this trilogy will be much more satisfying as a trilogy than those of Eddings, Salvatore, Gemmell or the various TSR authors, almost all of whom tended in their larger structures to end up repeating themselves rather than genuinely building on what had gone before. At the same time, his more conventional aesthetics result in something with a lot more pace, a lot more fun, than, say, a Martin or a Hobb.

There’s a particularly clear distinction to be made here, I think, between The Blade Itself and Daniel Abraham’s A Shadow in Summer (published only two months earlier), both of which stand as the opening volumes in series that attempt to deal with the question of what fantasy can be in the wake of A Song of Ice and Fire*. But where A Shadow in Summer, while backing down from some of the specific tropes (it’s less MMRPG in its POVs, and it’s less overtly ‘shit-stained medieval Europe’ in setting), seemed to grab the spirit of its predecessor and march on with it, into even more morally conflicted, personally unlikeable, strategically complex, narratively unpredictable territory, The Blade Itself runs with the superficial elements while returning spiritually to something much less threatening. And yet, to be honest, something more readable – I’m almost certain to read Before They Are Hanged before I get around to A Betrayal in Winter, in large part because of the way The Blade Itself ramps up its action toward the end, but also more generally because it’s easier to imagine situations where I might feel like reading it for pleasure.

*I’m reminded of how The Sword of Shannara and Lord Foul’s Bane, both published in 1977, can both be seen as responses to to Tolkien – each sharing a lot with their predecessor, but, side-by-side, moving in totally different directions. Of course, as happened thirty years earlier, despite some initial popularity for both contenders, it seems to have been the lighter vision that has won out in the end. If there’s one consolation here, it may be that both The Blade Itself and A Shadow in Summer are much better-written than either The Sword of Shannara or even (the ambitious and intriguing but at times frankly amateurish) Lord Foul’s Bane. Taking the less challenging path isn’t the same as not moving forward…

Turning to some of the elements that are more commonly discussed in reviews (rather than rambling about other books from twenty or thirty years ago…): well, there’s not really that much to say about plot, worldbuilding or characterisation. By the end of the book there has been, in essence, no plot at all, but only a series of introductions and first moves that could conceivably relate to one another in future installments. That, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the entire novel is effectively a giant tease, but it’s a tease that still holds the plausible intimation of some actual gratification being provided at some point down the line. There’s certainly plenty of groundwork been laid, and while that sometimes strains the patience, it also intrigues. The worldbuilding is probably best passed over in silence – if you’ve read a fantasy novel, you know where this is set, and indeed the author himself at times seems to be speaking in shorthand. There are, however, the occasional superior moments – for once, the barbarian first arriving in a metropolis actually gets to be convincingly astonished, for example. Similarly, the characterisation is painfully conventional, and lacking in depth, but it is given a fresh taste (at least at first lick) by its focus on their interior lives – which may, as said, not really elucidate too much of significance, but does give them a significantly more lived-in, more persuasive reality, and does allow for the occasional moment of freshness. One of the novel’s best decision, for example, is to give a leading POV a disability – though it’s not handled particularly well, or seemingly with too much thought*, it does constantly invite the reader to come to situations from a slightly different angle (such as reconsidering how inconvenient the fantasy trend toward soaring towers must be for those who struggle with stairs).

*pedantic complaints here might include: he holds his cane in the wrong hand (because he’s trying too hard to be House), and despite lacking his front teeth he does not lisp, which ought to be a physiological impossibility (and is highlighted by having his friend lisp continually).

 

In the final analysis then, perhaps it is true that not too much good can be said about the book – but perhaps it is unfair even to ask for anything remarkable from it. Taken as something revolutionary and new it is indeed underwhelming… but taken as an old-school fantasy adventure, it’s much better than average. If not much specifically good can be said about it, just consider how much actively bad can often be said about other books of this subgenre!

So if you enjoy these old-school romps, if you want some new Gemmell or Salvatore or the like, The Blade Itself is worth a look – not only is it much greater in ambition than those books, it’s also markedly more solid in execution.

Just… don’t expect it to single-handedly revolutionise the fantasy genre, OK?

 

Adrenaline: 3/5. For something this fundamentally light, too much of the novel is far too slow. I was getting really impatient through probably more than half the book. However, it does gradually pick up steam toward the end (becoming engaging just in time to run out of pages), and Abercrombie does deliver a handful of effective set pieces.

Emotion: 2/5. There are an array of Tragic Backstories on offer and a bit of casual violence (directed toward people who don’t matter), but it’s a largely cold and professional tale.

Thought: 3/5. It’s not stupid. If nothing else, having a large cast of characters and as as-yet-occulted plot does force the brain to keep a little active. But there’s no attempt at anything more challenging yet, and indeed any elements that might hint at something more sophisticated are quickly dumbed down – the Homer quote that inspires the title, for instance (“the blade itself incites to violence”), a meditation on the nature of power itself, is sadly repurposed in the most literal form possible as a comment on the particular attraction of swords, vis a vis axes, knives, maces, etc.

Beauty: 3/5. Blah. Neither the prose nor its contents are particularly aesthetically striking, one way or the other.

Craft: 2/5. While nothing’s a disaster, I think there are definite weaknesses throughout, typically relating to heavy-handedness and cliché; I’m willing, however, to imagine that this may be largely first-novel insecurity, and that it may be shaken off in later volumes. I hope.

Endearingness: 2/5. So far, very little to love. At times the author seems to be actively trying to irritate the reader with his annoying characters and wearisome plot diversions.

Originality: 2/5. It’s not a copy of anything, and indeed, as noted above, it does seem to make some progress in the genre, if only by combining elements of other works. However, there’s pretty much nothing – in the writing, the plotting, the characters, the worldbuilding, anything – that so far seems detectably new and individual.

OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. Well, that’s not bad. Particularly for a first attempt. For the record, this got pretty much the same score as A Game of Thrones did, and I really liked the second and third novels in that series. There was probably more promise in A Game of Thrones, but The Blade Itself doesn’t look too bad beside it. This puts it in the same grade as (but a little worse than) things like Lord Foul’s Bane, some of the better Simon Green novels, Legend, and some of the better TSR novels, some Feist… and marginally ahead of things like Eddings, and the less-good-but-not-awful TSR novels. Thinking of it as conventional, pulp fantasy… that’s not too surprising, and indeed there is more promise here than in most of those comparisons (because The Blade Itself reaches that level without yet having engaged its main plot, and without having put its characters through most of their arcs). It’s just… well, if you’re looking for something radically different, or even something that (so far) lives up to its own potential and its more ambitious scope, then it’s perhaps a bit of a disappointment.

[But I will say: having struggled through the latest Hobb novel, An Unending Inescapable Nightmare of Torment, Abuse, the Butchery of the Innocent and Agonised Despair in Which All Innocence is Poisoned and All Hope is Exposed as Delusional (I think that was the title? something like that?), reading some “grimdark” was a pleasant ray of sunshine by comparison!]

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2 thoughts on “The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

  1. @lynnsbooks says:

    I haven\t read the Abercrombie books – I have bought copies but just not picked them up yet so with your thoughts in mind I’d like to get to the first one soon.
    Lynn 😀

  2. If you do, I’d be interested to see your review. You’re vastly better-read than I am in contemporary fantasy, so you’ll have a better idea of how it ‘fits in’ in terms of style and quality.

    [What someone should do is give you an e-book version with a different title and a fake author and pretend it’s one of your self-publishing competition novels. Without the hype, would you tell the difference, I wonder? And how/why?]

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