The Blade Itself: A Bloody Good Read

Despite being one of the most over-saturated genres in fiction, fantasy action-adventure novels have always been my favorite kind of book. High or low, light or dark, familiar or wildly original, well-written fantasy stands to me as one of the most enjoyable things in any given bookstore.

Dark “low” fantasy novels have become fairly popular in response to the earlier preponderance of light, idealistic “high” fantasy novels, with the varying quality that is to be expected in such a broad, deep genre. Of these novels, however, I have recently found a new favorite with Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, starting with the first novel, The Blade Itself.

The Blade Itself is set in what seems like a fairly typical medieval fantasy world, with a grim, cold North, a european-modeled kingdom called The Union, and a powerful Middle-Eastern counterpart known as the Gurkish Empire, but the fairly typical setting follows the stories of a rather atypical cast of protagonists. Central to the story are the journeys of three particular characters; Logen Ninefingers, the most feared man in the North, a legendary warrior in his own time now past his prime and trying to leave his old life behind, Sand dan Glokta, a former golden boy of the Union’s army and darling of the nobility, now an embittered, crippled, and feared agent of the Union’s Inquisition, and Jezal dan Luthar, a spoiled, vain young nobleman who dreams of winning glory as a swordsman and a soldier to advance his easy life. Logen running away from his home and his past, leaving a lot of lost friends and vengeful enemies behind him, Glokta’s grim pursuit of treason and intrigue within the Union, and Jezal’s hedonistic lifestyle are all thrown massively out of alignment when Logen finds himself recruited by a mysterious, bad-tempered old man claiming to be Bayaz, the first and greatest of the legendary Magi, and kicking off a quest that could end up changing the world.

While The First Law has a large cast and a complicated plot that feels familiar in some places, I think what I ended up admiring most was the artistry of its presentation, particularly in its characterization. Logen is undoubtedly a badass with a long history of mighty accomplishments, but that’s not all there is to him; from his viewpoint, we see a nuanced, tired man who has grown sick of the senseless killing that forms his entire life story, and who has grown to be practical, down-to-earth, and thoughtful compared to “The Bloody-Nine” spoken of with fear up North. The hints of his backstory also deconstruct the romance of the barbarian hero archetype; powerful as Logen is, many of his memories are of the terrible decisions he’s made, actions he’s not proud of, and the distinctly non-glorious memories of the fear and embarrassing injuries he’s experienced over his legendary career. Glokta, meanwhile, becomes one of the most fascinating characters in the series; an ugly cripple, bitter as hell, and a remorseless torturer in pursuit of his duties, Glokta nevertheless manages to be oddly sympathetic as he contemplates the depths he has fallen to in the ruin of his life after returning home from being tortured and mutilated in the last war. The greatest swordsman in the Union now walks with a horrible, painful limp and finds going up and down the stairs a daily agonizing ordeal, and the man who could have whatever he wanted with a smile and a word to his many admirers now lives on soup and porridge because he doesn’t have the teeth left for most food and is shunned or talked about as if he were dead by the “friends” who abandoned him when he needed help. As a result, Glokta swings interestingly between a character who seems like an outright villain at times, even as he questions why he does what he does, and a bizarrely likable man whose quick intellect (his only remaining weapon) and bottomless pit of deadpan dark humor make for moments that made me laugh out loud reading the book, before wondering if I ought to be. Jezal manages to perform the same odd dance between someone easy to dislike and a character you might actually root for; his perspective chapters give us a great look at what an arrogant, selfish, elitist, inconsiderate young shithead he is at the outset, but Jezal’s romantic woes and Bayaz’s bull-headed disruption of his easy life gives glimpses at a better man lurking somewhere under a face badly in need of a punch or two. Just as one winces at Glokta’s ruthlessness but laughs at his brutally honest, sardonic inner commentary, the reader can go from wanting to strangle Jezal and laughing at every well-deserved kick in the pants he gets to wanting to see him seize the opportunity to be a better man he could be if he wasn’t so committed to being a jackass.

Beyond its characters (and there are still further characters that become more important as the book progresses, bringing their own interesting chapters to the story), The Blade Itself also does some brilliant descriptions and fight scenes, particularly when Logen or his friends up North get down to business. The book pulls no punches with its violence, from conveying the brutality of a fencing mismatch Jezal finds himself in against a much, much stronger swordsman, the wince-inducing torture scenes Glokta presides over or remembers being inflicted on himself, or the extremely bloody no-holds-barred brawls that seem to follow Northmen everywhere. The settings are also able to strongly convey a mood to the reader, from the cold, hard emptiness of the North to the corrupt, arrogant, and crowded Union, and the eerie and vaguely alien tower of the deceased Master Maker, where reality feels weakened and a much older, deeper story than the one we’re initially presented with is hinted at.

All in all, I found The Blade Itself a wonderful page-turner, and heartily recommend it and its two sequels in The First Law trilogy to any reader who enjoys low fantasy and doesn’t mind a bit of darkness along the way.

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