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Book review: The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

Back in 2007, when I was starting to revise what would become The Alchemist of Souls, I picked up a couple of books that sounded from reviews like they were in a similar vein. One of these (The Lies of Locke Lamora) I read straight away, the other – The Blade Itself – sat neglected on my shelf until a few weeks ago. I am now regretting that delay.

The thing that put me off for a long time was that one of the viewpoint characters, Glokta, is an inquisitor. A torturer, not to put too fine a point on it. And having been so grossed out by a torture scene in The Lies of Locke Lamora that I had nightmares, I wasn’t about to launch into another book that might do the same. Thankfully Abercrombie has a much lighter touch than Lynch, and it’s a credit to his writing ability that Glokta is one of my favourite characters in the book.

Spoiler note: I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers, but it’s proved impossible to explain why I like this book without at least a little detail!

The Blade Itself is in some respects a typical first volume of an epic fantasy. It introduces a cast of colourful characters, including the obligatory white-bearded wizard, a huge “barbarian” and a handsome, sword-wielding nobleman, and ends by sending them off on a quest – but none of these characters is much like the clichés you’re familiar with. Also, the wizard and his quest are practically a subplot in this first volume, most of which is taken up with the political machinations in the city of Adua, as the Union (a large kingdom somewhat resembling Georgian England) teeters on the brink of war.

To be honest, it was the main plot that really caught my interest and attention; it’s a dark fantasy-of-manners – think Jane Austen meets The Borgias – packed with intrigue and humour. This part of the story rests on the shoulders of two very different characters: the aforementioned Glokta, and Jezal dan Luthar, the self-centred young nobleman who is destined to be dragged into the magus Bayaz’s quest.

Sand dan Glokta is a lonely, broken man, a former fencing champion who, during the last war against the Ghurkul Empire, was captured and tortured beyond the endurance of most men. Faced with a choice between going home to his doting mother’s country estate, or working for the Inquisition using the skills he learnt from his tormenters, Glokta chooses the latter. He is set by his superior to root out corruption amongst the merchant class, and uncovers a conspiracy that could threaten the fragile peace with the Ghurkul Empire to the south, even as the Union is about to go to war with the northern barbarians.

Jezal dan Luthar is one of the latest hopefuls entered into the same fencing contest that Glokta won in his youth. Unfortunately Jezal would rather drink and play cards with his fellow officers, to the despair of his trainers. However when Jezal falls in love with the sister of his friend Major West, he discovers new motivation…

Abercrombie’s strength is most definitely in his characters, all of whom are complex and, in their own way, sympathetic, despite some pretty deep flaws. I particularly liked Jezal’s objet d’amour, Ardee West, who starts out as a vivacious cross between Lizzie Bennett and Mary Crawford, but is revealed to be a much more complex (and, somewhat inevitably, tragic) character. And then of course there’s Glokta, whose dry humour and stoicism in the face of constant pain (both physical, from his war wounds, and the emotional impact of the contempt of others) makes him totally sympathetic despite the horrible things he has to do for his job. Thankfully Abercrombie skips over the gruesome details, knowing how to give you just enough information to be creeped out rather than nauseated – something I wish Lynch was better at!

If anything, the Adua sections were so enjoyable that I found the more traditional epic fantasy parts rather dull in comparison. Maybe I’m just jaded by a lifetime of reading such things and, more recently, seeing amazing CGI in movies, but for me the Big Magic felt at odds with the gritty realism of the rest of the story. I suspect I’m out of tune with the majority of the fantasy audience, however, who seem to demand this kind of thing, since practically every epic fantasy has this kind of buildup from the mundane to the ZOMG SFX’n'dragons!!1! (Not that there are any dragons in The Blade Itself, thank the gods.)

Some readers may find the complex, multi-threaded narrative hard to follow, and I confess I found the conspiracy plot particularly hard to keep a handle on because of all the switching back and forth, but on the other hand the writing was so assured, it was that rare kind of book where I could just sit back and enjoy the ride, without worrying where the author was heading.

In conclusion: excellent stuff, and I’ll definitely be picking up the second volume – whilst hoping the epic doesn’t overwhelm the intrigue!