I saw the works of Joe Abercrombie on the shelves of my local Borders years ago but never picked them up. I’m always dubious of dipping my toes into the water of trying fantasy fiction from authors I haven’t heard anything about, Stephen Erikson’s Books of the Mazalan Fallen series was definitely a rare success for me, and so I’m ashamed to say I passed him by. That changed after I went to the Patrick Rothfuss/Gail Carriger reading up at SF in SF a few weeks back.
It was during the Q&A session that someone asked about if they (“they” being Pat and Gail) thought fantasy was getting “too dark”, since it is apparently a criticism of some of the works that have been coming out lately. Joe’s stories were used as an example by Pat of some works that people have stated as being too grim. Curious, I did some looking and apparently there was some big TL;DR post on BigHollywood.com about Joe’s series that basically boiled down to “These depressing liberals are tainting the epic/mythic fantasy fiction roots with their post-humanism BS and isn’t that bad?” Joe had a pretty good response to the piece that I thought was well-written and thought out so I decided to check out his work. Long story short, I’m glad I did.
The Blade Itself, The First Law Book One is the first novel in a fantasy series. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of three circles representing High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, and Dark Fantasy, I think this would fit somewhere in the middle as it shares aspects of all three, although slightly leaning more toward Low Fantasy than High.
TBI starts off with several character-driven plot threads (where each chapter is told from the PoV of a different character) that slowly work toward joining together to form the main thrust of the story with much of the focus revolving around three particular characters to start. There’s Logen Nine-Fingers, known as The Bloody Nine, a Viking-esque character who comes from the North and who narrowly avoids death time and time again; Sand dan Glokta, a former rising star in the gentry and military who was captured and tortured by the enemy for two years during a recent-ish war and is now a crippled, expert torturer working with the Inquisition, rooting out criminals and threats to the kingdom; finally, there’s Jezal dan Luthar, a spoiled brat of an military officer with slight aspirations of becoming a fencing master if he could only do it by being as lazy as possible.
While the various plot threads, and most of the point of view, are focused on these characters, there are others that are involved with their own threads. There’s Bayaz, First of the Magi, who fills in the stereotypical Old Man in the Corner and Gandalf-esque role (albeit a crankier Gandalf). The Dogman and a group of other “Named Men” who were following Logen; they think he’s dead so they decide to continue doing the work they figure he was going to do anyway. Finally, there is Ferro, who is more or less an escaped slave and terrorist.
I will say this: TBI is not a happy-go-lucky story.
The world of TBI is not a fun place to be. You have the North, which is pretty much a harsher version of what people imagine Norway to be when the Norse were around. The North is currently wrapping up a war of consolidation as a guy named Bethod has finished taking over everything. Additionally, the North is otherwise populated with a race of feral, murderous, cannibalistic savages called the Shanka or Flat-heads. Sounds like a fun vacation spot.You have the Union, ruled over by a king and sort of like a cross between England and Europe (think English government style, ruling over a variety of distinct country/territories) where commoners are lower than dirt and everyone seems to be a right, selfish bastard. Finally, you have the Empire, which is easily described by asking someone to take every stereotype they’ve heard of regarding a predominantly Islamic country, set it back in the Middle Ages, and have it ruled by a leader who is not afraid to do whatever it takes, lose however many people is necessary, to accomplish his goals.
The North is boiling over with war as Bethod is fixing his sights on the Union’s north-most territory, Angland. The South is also beginning to go, well, south as the Emperor, finally done with his consolidation of the lands on the southern continent, fixes his sites on Dagoska, the Union’s only city on the southern continent and the prize they wrested from the Empire during the war that crippled Glokta. Beyond that, life in the Union isn’t all roses and peaches either; the commoners are heavily taxed by a capricious and uncaring merchant and noble class who care nothing for anything that won’t in some way benefit themselves and revolts are starting to foment there as well. The issues in the Union are further compounded by the fact that the current king is nearly lost in dementia, his heir is a lackwit completely out of touch with anything resembling reality, and the Closed Council, the true rulers of the city, care for nothing other than maintaining their own power. When war comes to the Union from both the North and, shortly thereafter, the South, the issues with the city and its rulers make life even more miserable for the common people.
Taken as a whole TBI can be described as three different stories. There’s the political mystery story of Glokta’s plot line, the interpersonal character sketch of West and Jezal which morphs into a military/war story, and the stereotypical fantasy story of the group of intrepid heroes who come together to go off on a quest with Logen, Ferro, Bayaz, and (later) Luthar. All of these come together in a way that serves to mesh them together in such a way as none of them detract from the rest, or the story as a whole. The story Abercrombie weaves in TBI is a good one and, IMO, doesn’t really waste much time with everyone but Jezal, who seems to spend a lot of time doing very little for much of the book. There’s some movement forward in his plot in regards to him preparing for The Contest, a tournament of rapier fighters, and in his growing relationship with Ardee, the sister of his best “friend” Captain West, but his parts simply felt slow compared to Glokta’s and Logen’s (who, unsurprisingly, were my favorite characters). While not as bleak feeling as God’s War, TBI definitely has a grittier feel to it than other epic fantasy (like anything by Mercedes Lackey) and I can understand how this might end up not being someone’s cup of tea.
Abercrombie has a very good way with fight scenes, describing them well in a fashion that almost reminds me of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories (although, thankfully, with little to no purple prose) so that you’re easily able to imagine what’s going on without being bored. As I said before, I enjoyed his characters, both in the way they interact with each other as well as their internal consistency.
TBI doesn’t really bring anything outstandingly new to the fantasy genre but it is a book I enjoyed. If you’re into fantasy and characters who are gritty, have sharp edges, or tired of Dragonlance or Tolkein knock-offs, this may be the story for you.