Monday, April 9, 2012

The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie: A Book Review

The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
By now, it should be a widely accepted and acknowledged truth that I am a giggling, simpering Joe Abercrombie fanboy of the lowest order... borderline nauseating... but a man must be what he must be, and be proud. If consistency and general proof of maturity and improvement were the key factor in determining writer appeal, Joe would rank #1 on my list, easily (his books are all great, and only getting better, in other words). All factors considered, he is definitely in the top 3.

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.

The Characters:

Logen Nine-Fingers:

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.


As with many fantasy stories, there are several converging storylines, all factoring into an over-arching, pivotal, world-changing moment in history. The joy is in the journey in this case. But a fun journey is hardly uncommon in the Fantasy genre... what is uncommon is the style with which Abercrombie brings the world, the characters, the situations to life. His style is blunt, cynical, humorous (often uproariously so), and expertly crafted. The battles and action are great fun to read. The dialog and description rich and meaty, like a great meal that satisfies and leaves you hungry still, at the same time.

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.


Cursed Armada said...

Being a annoying Fanboy is a tough pill to swallow...*cough READ R. SCOTT BAKKER cough* lol I really enjoyed Abercrombie's first two novels but I never got around to read the third. The military got in the way... I do distinctly remember enjoying Logen and especially Glokta. I also remember Jezal having a relationship with a sexy wino, also enjoyable for me.

I think Abercrombie succeeded making Logen such a good character because he showed a "flawed" barbarian. In fantasy were used to the stoic invincible badass barbarians, so it was refreshing to see the human side of such a ruthless warrior. (Here comes the fanboy) R. Scott Bakker did this with his character of Cnaiur as well. He is a bisexual Conan the Barbarian with daddy issues and this vulnerability made his character very interesting. I think the more successful authors are doing this same thing. Giving us a stereotypical fantasy troupe, but throwing in their vulnerabilities and feelings. Good post man, I've never seen those illustrations but now I feel the need to re-read the series. Hearing talk about Logen being on the cover of "Red Country" might FORCE me to re-read this trilogy.

Anonymous said...

You were the one who encouraged me to dip my big toe into the strange waters of fantasy, which has been a pleasant surprise. This post is for the deep water swimmers, but I enjoyed your enthusiasm and character portrayals nonetheless.

In case you missed yesterday's comment, I thoroughly enjoyed your movie. I, too, always wondered what Lazarus did for four days - fun take. Abigail looked like a beautiful, and the other gentleman played his part impeccably. You, of course, were awesome. I loved the "special effects," too.

Bless you for the your ministry to our church.


logankstewart said...

You're really making me want to re-read Abercrombie's stuff now. The First Law is tough to beat.

Did Jezal remain hard for you to like throughout the series, or just at the beginning? His arrogance was loathsome, but for some reason I wound up liking the guy. Heck, I wound up liking pretty much every one of the terrible characters in the books, possibly excepting Bayaz. He was too... unrelatable? Nine-fingers is definitely my favorite, but Glokta ranks right up there with him.

Ever since you pointed out the info on A Red Country I've been itching to get my hands on it. I waited a while before picking up The Heroes and Best Served Cold, but I think I'll get this as soon as I can.

Great review, friend. Remember that time Joe stopped by here and commented on one of your fanboy raves? (Who am I kidding. Sure you remember.)

David Wagner said...

CA: I may try Bakker again someday...

Yeah, Jezal and Ardee West have a very interesting relationship. I like her character a lot, actually. Can't wait to get Red Country this fall... gonna gobble that one up, and no mistake.

Beth: Glad I could facilitate your dabbling in Fantasy... there's some good stuff floating around out there. And I'm glad you liked the movie. I think I was too close to the process to be objective - I was quite nervous about it, actually, both during filming and before it was shown the first time.

Logan: Jezal grew on me by the end, but he's still one of my least favorite major players. But I see that he needed to be that way, so I can't be too hard on him or JA.

And, oh yeah, I remember when Joe dropped in, back in the early days of the blog. That was surreal.

Abbie Josephsen said...

Dude, this totally makes me want to read it! Inquisitors remind me of Sanderson... your descriptions of the characters were awesome! Sounds like a bloody but great tale :) (Joe Abercrombie looks so young!?!?! what's up with all these young dudes writing geat books and gettin famous?!!? good for them :))

David Wagner said...

Abbie: We posted comments at the same moment! Twins!

Anonymous said...

You sir, have rekindled my interest this series. I've read the first book and loved it, but it was a long time ago and I never got around to the second. Now it sits on my bedside table, eagerly calling for me to read it, which indeed I shall.
Don't hate me for saying this, and I know it will surprise lots of you, but Jezal happened to be my favourite character within a few chapters of reading the book, along with Glokta that is. I found that 'his' chapters were most amusing for me, littered with funny interactions that play off of his arrogance and laziness. However, despite personal favouritism, I understand how you guys hate him. Hate is a strong word. It isn't possible to hate anything about this book.

Anonymous said...

I'm almost done with this book and I'm loving it! Just wondering why you didn't mention Ferro Maljinn?

Anonymous said...

I loved all of the characters especially Jezal because I feel like his arrogance,selfishness, feelings of entitlementand general disregard for anything besides himself allow us to truly identify with him. Althouh hopefully we don't share all his faults nor act on them his failings as a person, prejudices and general unwillingness to do anything without immediate and obvious gratification perfectly reflect our own ids and the struggle we individually fight within ourselves to work towards our goals honestly, treat others with respect and live our lives with others in mind. He acts like we would without empathy or shame. The best is that at the end after he felt he had overcome he was still a worthless shit