The Blade Itself (2006): Joe Abercrombie

★★★★

The First Law: Book 1

I bought this book in 2013 and have started it several times over the years but, for some reason, kept getting distracted after a few chapters. Now, however, the stars have aligned, and I raced through from the first page to the last, happily captivated. In fact, it’s remarkable that it’s taken me this long. I’ve read and enjoyed other works by Joe Abercrombie, and his First Law trilogy seems to be widely regarded as a modern classic of fantasy. I should have come to it much earlier. It blends elements of sword-and-sorcery with court politics and, though it does little but lay the foundations of the plot for the rest of the series, it introduces us to a series of deliciously complex characters. This first instalment drops us into a world peopled by fantasy tropes, who gradually develop into rounded, complex individuals before our eyes, treated both with wit and compassion. For those who’ve read the series, I wonder: can you guess who my favourite character is?

Logen Ninefingers is a legend: the kind of legend told to naughty children to scare them into compliance, or to chill your companions’ bones around the campfire. But his days as the fearsome ‘Bloody Nine’ are over. Now he’s just an ageing warrior, separated from his band during a battle against the bloodthirsty Shanka. Stumbling down out of the wilderness, he hears that a great wizard is seeking him: none other than Bayaz, First of the Magi, who is even more of a legend than Logen himself. Bayaz has plans for the old mercenary, which will require Logen to confront his past, in the form of Bethod – the ruthlessly brilliant former warlord, turned self-proclaimed king, who first employed Logen and then betrayed him. Bethod’s hungry gaze has turned south, towards the wealthy and arrogant Union, and Bayaz decides that they must warn the court in Adua, the Union’s chief city. In theory, he should be welcomed there: he helped to found the city many centuries before, and a seat has always been kept for him on Adua’s Closed Council. But will the sophisticated city folk really believe that this innocuous fellow is the great Bayaz of myth? And, bolstered by false confidence in their security and preeminence over the boorish Northerners, will they actually listen to him?

Adua currently lies in blissful ignorance of the growing threat from Bethod and his Northmen. While King Gustav descends further and further into senescence, his advisers savour the power that they’ve managed to accumulate. The army has weakened, becoming little more than a finishing school for rich, idle young men. One of these is Jezal dan Luthar, who has never done much in his life except ruin women and cheat at cards (and sees no reason to do otherwise). He is currently in the final stages of training for the Contest, the great tournament whose winner can look forward to a career free of any further exertion. Not much breaks through to Jezal’s soul, but he fears disappointing his father if he doesn’t win it; and, besides, he feels he’s entitled to it. Or at least, he should be but, in order to get it, he has to endure being trained by the old martinet Lord Marshal Varuz. Oh, and just to complicate matters, Jezal has recently met Ardee West, sister of his colleague (and sparring partner) Major West. Wrongfooted by a woman who doesn’t seem to play by the rules, Jezal is dangerously fascinated. But what are Ardee’s real intentions? (And I ask that honestly, because I haven’t yet figured it out. I’m pretty sure she’s using Jezal, but I don’t yet understand why.)

My favourite character so far occupies a very different slice of Adua society. Sand dan Glokta was once a rising star: a former victor of the Contest; a dazzling success, feted by all. And then, during one nightmarish campaign, he was captured by the Gurkish, tortured and broken. Now, having made his way home, Glokta has found that the world isn’t so keen on ruined heroes. Twisted into bitterness, he has forged a new career as an Inquisitor, helping to root out the King’s enemies and reinforce the Inquisition’s own power – under the guidance of the suavely ambitious Arch Lector Sult. Glokta is, without a doubt, one of the most intriguing characters I’ve come across: his inner contrasts, his bitterness, his wit and his unexpected humanity come together to create a completely compelling figure – a man who is resigned to doing unethical things, but who hasn’t quite managed to entirely stop caring. Similarly, he takes a bitter pleasure in unsettling his former peers with his very presence – reminding them how transient success can be – and yet he, himself, is easily unsettled by a kind word. Glokta is someone who has been brutalised almost to the point of no return, and whose physical challenges are far beyond those faced by the protagonists we usually meet in books of this kind – and yet I think he might just come through. He’s certainly sharper, smarter and more driven than anyone around him. I’m not sure where his story will take him yet, but I’m pretty sure that he has a good chance of being one of the last characters left standing, if it comes to that.

Characterisation is key, here. Much of the pleasure lies in watching Abercrombie start with the bare bones of a sketch, a cliche of fantasy fiction – the barbarian; the smug nobleman; the wizard; the twisted henchman – and then fill in the outlines until you realise that the person in front of you is an individual, with their own hopes, fears and demons. Logen, for example, despite his reputation, is far from a brainless bonebreaker. He may be a simple man, but he’s wise enough to fear: ‘Everything frightens me, and it’s well that it does. Fear is a good friend to the hunted, it’s kept me alive this long. The dead are fearless, and I don’t care to join them.’ Major West, despite his high position, is dogged by a sense of inferiority thanks to his non-noble birth, and frustrated by constantly being underestimated by his aristocratic colleagues. Glokta, as I’ve said, has so much going on that he easily transcends the stereotype of ruthless torturer. Perhaps the only flaws so far are the women. There aren’t many female characters to start with, and the only significant women so far have been Ardee – an embittered woman seeking to drown her troubled past in wine and flirtation (though perhaps there’s more going on in the long run?) – and Ferro – a berserker who hasn’t really managed to break out of two-dimensionality so far. But there’s time, and she has potential. A third woman, Practical Vitari, seems to be making more of an impact by the end of the book, but the fact remains that this is testosterone-heavy stuff. I didn’t mind too much, though I feel there could have been scope for some more complex women at the court, at least.

But I’m fully aware that things have barely got started. I’ve really enjoyed my introduction to Abercrombie’s rich world and I hope that things will get going with a vengeance in the second book, taking all the characters firmly out of their comfort zones. I’m looking forward to starting on Before They Are Hanged quite soon, and I’m sure I’ll find plenty of evidence there to undermine – or counteract – assumptions I’ve made here. Will Ardee prove to be anything more than a troublesome flirt? Will Bayaz find what he seeks? Will Jezal actually develop a conscience and a dose of common sense? All will be revealed… But, in the meantime, I’m very happy to have come across another intelligent and richly-worked fantasy series – one which has elements of grimdark but, I think, just enough humour to buoy it up above other books I’ve read so far in that subgenre. (Perhaps I’m wrong. When we get to the end and all the characters are dead in a towering heap, you can remind me of my misplaced optimism.)

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2 thoughts on “The Blade Itself (2006): Joe Abercrombie

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    Looking forward to your take on the remainiing two volumes – especially the third one which really pulls out the rug from under just about everyEpic Fantasy cliché there is. that reversal of expectations maybe gets a bit too mechanical at times, but it is a lot of fun to read, and he has been getting even beetter with later novels.

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