Abercrombie has written 6 books so far, within the Fantasy genre: a trilogy, and 3 stand-alone titles, all taking place in the same world. The Blade Itself is the first of these books (book one in the First Law Series), and it is here we meet some of Abercrombie's most vivid and awesome characters.
Logen Nine-Fingers (aka The Bloody Nine) is an infamous Northern warrior -- a Named Man -- whose exploits have earned him an image he'd just as soon not have. But you can't escape what you are, and Logen is a man made for black work. He is a killer. I believe Logen himself can best sum himself up...
"I've fought in three campaigns," he began. "In seven pitched battles. In countless raids and skirmishes and desperate defences, and bloody actions of every kind. I've fought in the driving snow, the blasting wind, the middle of the night. I've been fighting all my life, one enemy or another, one friend or another. I've known little else. I've seen men killed for a word, for a look, for nothing at all. A woman tried to stab me once for killing her husband, and I threw her down a well. And that's far from the worst of it. Life used to be cheap as dirt to me. Cheaper.
"I've fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I've been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I've stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I've run away myself more than once. I've pissed myself with fear. I've begged for my life. I've been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I've no doubt the world would be a better place if I'd been killed years ago, but I haven't been, and I don't know why."
He looked down at his hands, pink and clean on the stone. "There are few men with more blood on their hands than me. None, that I know of. The Bloody-Nine they call me, my enemies, and there's lots of 'em. Always more enemies, and fewer friends. Blood gets you nothing but more blood. It follows me now, always, like my shadow, and like my shadow I can never be free of it. I should never be free of it. I've earned it. I've deserved it. I've sought it out. Such is my punishment."
And that was all. Logen breathed a deep, ragged sigh and stared out at the lake. He couldn't bring himself to look at the man beside him, didn't want to see the expression on his face. Who wants to learn he's keeping company with the Bloody-Nine? A man who's wrought more death than the plague, and with less regret.
Logen is truly a fascinating character -- a man full of regrets for who he is and what he's done, but unable to escape it. Violence and bloodshed seek him out wherever he is, and he keeps surviving, and his legend grows. But it isn't until near the end of the first volume, when he finds himself in truly inescapable peril, that we (the readers) find out a key piece of the puzzle, in a scene that is at once fascinating and horrifying.
Bayaz, the First of the Magi:
Somewhat short, bald, stocky, and usually in a bad mood, Bayaz has returned, with an agenda. He was around for the forming of the Union, many centuries ago, and has made periodic appearances throughout the Union's history, at key points, to help it survive and thrive. He created the structure, the laws, the guidelines, by which the Union - and civilization itself - are run. People believe him to be a mythical figure, a legend. If he ever existed, he is long-dead, living now only in fairy tales and in statues. But dire threats from both the Frozen North and the Sweltering South have brought him out of hiding... and deeper still, an age-old conflict among peers has reached a head as well, requiring his action on top of it all. Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is ready to move again. Part of his strategy will involve assembling a small group of key players for a journey to the Edge of the World.
Bayaz is that rare character that you start out liking a lot... and his long, slow, surprise-filled arc will not lead where you think it will...
Jezal dan Luther:
Jezal is a spoiled, arrogant ass, who has had the world handed to him, and doesn't want it. He is handsome, without doubt, and has much raw talent at swordsmanship, but would much prefer to avoid the discipline and dedication it would require to truly excel -- and to compete in the yearly Contest to determine the greatest swordsman in the Union -- and would rather devote himself to gambling, drinking, courting the ladies and complaining. But his father's expectations drive him to train for the Contest, since he lacks the backbone to stand up for himself.
Jezal is a hard character to like.
Sand dan Glokta:
Former Contest Champion and war hero, Sand was captured during a war in the south almost a decade earlier, and spent two long years in the Ghurkish Emperor's dungeons, being tortured in every imaginable way. When he was released and returned home after the war, he was a crippled, broken mess -- and still is. Pain is Glokta's constant companion. Walking with a cane, gaunt, missing teeth, toes and bodily control, he is a humbled, bitter, intelligent, ghoulish, cynical, yet amazing character. He was every bit as skilled and arrogant as Jezal is, back before his capture. Now every day is a painful challenge, every meal a near impossibility. In a crazy stroke of irony, he is employed by the King's Office of Inquisition, and is tasked with extracting information from people using the very intimate knowledge of torture that he experienced firsthand.
Glokta is very good at his job.
Despised and shunned by the cityfolk that used to worship him as a hero, Glokta now lurks in the shadows, with his two henchmen, Practical Frost (A massive, partially-mute albino) and Practical Severard (a skilled, ninja-like former street urchin). He begins to unravel a plot that might very well extend into the highest levels of government.
As far as characters, these are major players, but hardly a complete list. There are several other major players, as well as a long list of minor ones, each one well-thought-out and enjoyable. My favorite, of course, are the rest of Logen's Dozen...
Logen, in his monologue above, mentioned ten bouts of single combat he fought. Under the rules of combat in the North, the winner of single combat can kill his opponent outright, or allow him to live and become a part of his crew (his "Dozen"). Several of the above-mentioned victories resulted in the Bloody-Nine ending the lives of his opponents, but those he let live have formed the toughest, meanest, most skilled and respected crew that walk the North - each legendary in his own right, and all calling Logen their Chief.
Rudd Threetrees: The oldest and most respected of the crew. Giant like a grizzley, slow to anger, always thoughtful in his decision-making, serves as Logen's "second" in command.
Dogman: The scout of the crew. Scraggly, yellow-toothed, lithe, practical... a very capable killer, with both a bow and a blade - but soft of heart enough to want to avoid killing if at all possible.
Tul Duru Thunderhead: A massive, fierce, bellowing, quick-tempered warrior, unbelievably strong.
Black Dow: By far the meanest, most evil and vicious bastard, contentious, barely in control, quick with his ax, giving little thought to his actions. Forever squabbling with Thunderhead.
Harding Grim: Master bowman, never smiles/laughs, known to go days without uttering a word, and when he finally speaks, it is usually a syllable or two at the most. Grim (hence the name), efficient, without conscience.
Forley the Weakest: More of a mascot than anything. In one of Logen's single combats, the village he was to fight before sent out Forley as their way of surrendering, hoping that such a pathetic creature would bring mercy to the village. Instead of killing Forley, Logen made him part of his crew. Forever afraid, but trying hard to find the bones to stand shoulder to shoulder with his crew, he has slowly earned the respect and fondness of the whole Dozen.
Having read this book the first time in 2009, I wondered if I would enjoy it as much in this, my second reading. Well, let it be known that, as much as I loved it the first time, I enjoyed it still more this time. The unpredictability of the first reading set aside, the details and craftsmanship could really shine for me this time, as I both enjoyed and studied the way Abercrombie set up the tale, watching how skillfully and wonderfully the tale unfolds. This series will be a permanent fixture in my library, and no mistake.
Summary: 5/5 Gritty, violent, brutal, wonderfully amusing and satisfying.