The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie / **** ½

uk-orig-the-blade-itselfThere’s little way to read The Blade Itself and not think of Game of Thrones. I hate to say that, but it’s true. Abercrombie’s rich fantasy world owes a lot of debt to Martin’s. After all, both series are ones in which magic is largely pushed to the background and minimized; both focus on anti-heroes (at best) and misfits; both juxtapose court intrigues and political scheming against much larger threats that could unravel the world as the characters know it. But more than anything else, there’s the sense of cynicism towards the genre that underlies both series. These are worlds in which traditional heroism barely matters, where old school honor and chivalry are a way to death – if you’re lucky.

And yet, to rely too heavily on that comparison is to miss out on all the ways in which The Blade Itself absolutely soars and stands on its own two feet. Over the course of this first novel of The First Law trilogy, Abercrombie sets up a fascinating world, but more than that, he dives deeply into their psyches, giving us a sense of these broken people. Our three main characters – Logen Ninefingers, Sand dan Glokta, Jezal dan Luthar – Abercrombie brings them to rich, detailed life, letting us see their scars, their psychic baggage, their complex motivations. But more than that, rather than embracing the nihilism and selfishness of the men, Abercrombie pushes them farther than that, finding an inner core of decency. It may be small, it may be only a piece of their cruelty or motivations, but it’s there. And that alone makes The First Law stand apart from Martin’s bleak, hopeless world where nothing – and no one – good can last.

More than that, though, Abercrombie brings a sometimes dry, sometimes dark, but sometimes genuinely funny sense of humor to the story, allowing his characters to be more than just another grim, broken-down soul. That’s maybe most true of Bayaz, the wizard figure around whom much of the book orbits. Bayaz is no one’s idea of a typical wizard, and that jarring inability to fit expectations pays off wonderfully again and again in the book, as Bayaz demonstrates both his ability and his willingness to use them as he sees fit. In other words, it’s all of Martin’s knack for turning the genre on its head, but done with a little more heart, a bit more humor, and every bit the imagination and talent.

If there’s a knock on The Blade Itself, it’s the sense that it’s an intentionally shapeless story at times, one where the lack of predictability makes it hard to make sense of at times. Is this the story of an impending war between the nations? Are the Flatheads a sort of White Walker analog – a monstrous “other” that lurks nearby? How does Ferro and her story tie in with everything going on around Adua? It’s hard to tell until near the end of the book, and even then, it’s a bit hard to get a sense of the bigger picture and how this will come together. But given how engaging, deep, and complex the characters are, how fascinating the world is, and how deep and layered the story is, I’m okay with that. I’m on board to see how this all fits together, and to see what else Abercrombie has going.


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