The Blade Itself

Sunday , 22, March 2015 9 Comments

abercrombie_bladeitselfI have mentioned in past book reviews that I have read three stories by Joe Abercrombie. None of which made me stand up and take notice. Abercrombie is one of the fairly new writers of fantasy fiction to emerge in the past decade. I had been hearing varying opinions for the past six or so years on him. I have one friend who hated The First Law trilogy while a sword and sorcery writer who greatly respect told me that he though Abercrombie was the heir to the Karl Edward Wagner tradition.

Abercrombie (b. 1974) is a documentary and live music film editor according to “About the Author.” The Blade Itself (2007) is his first novel. The book is 527 pages and therefore a trade paperback.

It turns out that the local library has The First Law trilogy, which is good as I did not want to buy the books. Out of curiosity, I checked out Abercrombie’s website to see if he mentions any literary influences. Here is what he has to say:

“Then someone prevailed upon me to give Game of Thrones a go. Yeah, yeah, I thought, whatever. It blew my doors off. A Game of Thrones, and its sequels, seemed to bring to epic fantasy a huge amount of what I felt it had been desperately missing. There was relatively little debt to Tolkein (not that there’s anything wrong with debt to Tolkein, it’s just there’s a shit-load of it around already). Martin’s world was low on magic, low on romanticism, high on realism, very high on ruthlessness. There was no lame-ass, two-dimensional battle of good and evil. There were no lame-ass, two-dimensional characters. It was an (more or less) entirely human world, with man-made evils, very much like ours.”

So, you can blame or praise George R. R. Martin for Joe Abercrombie. The Martin influence is on exhibit in the novel with the rotating chapters each covering one of four characters. Eventually, all character story lines are united towards the end. The story starts out with a hulking barbarian North Man getting ambushed by the orc stand ins- the Shanka. Abercrombie never describes the Shanka (or Flatheads as they are called). This is a recurring irritation. One could joke that never has one written so much about so little.

Abercrombie bogs downs describing minutia with a special fascination with dirt, grime, grease, feces, and urine. Meanwhile you have no idea of how the uniforms or armor are supposed to look in the civilized “Union.”

The overall story moves slowly with all the bits and pieces of the characters going on. The reader is not quite sure exactly what is going on at the end of the book. It appears there is some sort of evil dark lord/sorcerer stirring up trouble as one of the plot lines.

The word building is a juxtaposition of Dark Age barbarism, late Renaissance/early Enlightenment Europe, and a vaguely Moslem or Ottoman eastern despotate. It almost reads like Abercrombie wanted to write a Rafael Sabatini story but with barbarians in it. I guess one could make the case that the Balkans or even Russia were areas of barbarism next to the Europe of Louis XIV.

Abercrombie has some good snarky dialogue when the characters are not saying “Sh*t!” or “F#ck!” The best lines belong to San dan Glokta, a former soldier and fencer, now crippled inquisitor as he thinks what he should say during a conversation. Abercrombie’s characters are for the most part unlikable.

Action scenes- Abercrombie is quite good at this. That helps a lot if you are writing about swords. They are choreographed and with a nice array of weaponry.
It took me almost three weeks to read this book. Granted, I took this book out of the library right when I had a crush of paperwork including tax return forms to do so I did not have my usual allotted reading time. But, I often fell asleep while reading this book, especially the first half in the evening.

My big gripe is the novel clocks at 527 pages. My yardsticks for fantasy novels are The Broken Sword and Hour of the Dragon. If Anderson and Howard can tell those classics in 75,000-80,000 words, that is a target to aim for. Get the story moving in fewer pages. I think Abercrombie has some strong points. He also has some weak ones such as the scatology, emphasis on the wrong details, and overlong storytelling. I think with the right editor, this book could have been compressed without losing anything. And to think I used to complain about David Gemmell novels coming in over 300 pages in the 90s.

Gardner Fox would have told what went on in The First Blade in the first three chapters of a Kothar paperback. I would give this book a 3 to 3.5 out of 5 rating. As of right now, I don’t see Abercrombie as the second coming of Karl Edward Wagner.

  • Ostar says:

    Realism in Fantasy – yes, there would be a lot of dirty, grimy, nasty things in such a world. There’s still a lot in the modern world. But we don’t dwell on it, and focus on our responsibilities and enjoyments. What kind of writer makes the slime prominent? I, and most people, read for enjoyment and to escape the modern world for a time, not be reminded that life can be brutish and dirty at times.

  • Daniel says:

    The thing about filth is that you get pretty used to it when its real. It becomes background static. This is my problem with Abercrombie, too. It’s so dirty that it feels like a sales job.

    I mean, every character in every book ever written goes to the bathroom. Crapping habits, or, in Abercrombie’s case, crapping when you die does nothing to illuminate a character, and only rarely can it advance a plot (in an Elvis died on the toilet sort of way).

    May as well tell me about the number of points on the more prominent snowflakes on a sleigh runner. Abercrombie to me is the Neil Gaiman of epic fantasy. Too much content for what he wants to say, and yet decent enough of a writer that I tolerate the blather. But I sure as heck don’t rush out to pick up either one.

  • David says:

    Abercrombie’s stories don’t suffer from any “lame-ass, two-dimensional battle of good and evil”. They are all evil, all the time. I think he has talent, but it is only used to tell stories of unrelieved ugliness.

  • Stan Wagenaar says:

    If you write about people who chop at each other with edged weapons, someone better be spurting the red stuff. Just makes sense. And I suppose humans crap themselves when they die violently, so it would be a lie if we ignored that fact completely. But why wallow in it? In an effort to get away from rainbow puking cute elves, many writers have swung the pendulum too far into the “gritty” zone. Robert E Howard wrote some very bloody, violent scenes of action in many of his tales without getting covered in shit, as did Wagner. Howard still sets the gold standard for writing great action; violent yet beautiful to read. Just my two cents…

  • Andy says:

    The scatological stuff reminds me of Matt Stover, who wrote some books about a brute named Caine. Stover has some good ideas but while reading Heroes Die I couldn’t help noticing how often he was careful to mention the stench of urine and feces everywhere, and how guys getting beaten up always seemed to feel their bowels loosening at some point. That’s in addition to his books being quite long, with many chapters being based on a simple idea which got belabored over 20-30 pages.

  • When everything is gritty, there is nothing left to make a point with. If everyone is bleeding, crapping, and peeing, the impact of those moments is lost. If everyone is dying all of the time (*coughGRRMcough*) then you lose the impact when a character dies. Somewhere between Ned Stark’s death and the end of Dance of Dragons, I became totally jaded to protagonists biting the big one.

  • James Sullivan says:

    I tried to read Abercrombie once. “Best Served Cold” was a relentlessly dark and grim book. I stopped reading it because I think, and I kid you not, it was actually hurting my soul.

    Some people get a lot of enjoyment of that kind of thing. I certainly don’t. I know how dark the real world can get. I read to escape, not be transported to a place even darker and dirtier than the real one, where there are no Good Guys and everybody you might like will die horrifically.

  • Don says:

    Few of the modern writers can do heroes well. Victims and villains are their bread and butter.

    That’s why they dwell on the filth and suffering, they cannot imagine that real heroism exists so they cannot portray it.

  • Andy says:

    I got fairly far into The Blade Itself but didn’t finish it. The book totally lost me with the Inquisitor character. I pretty much put the book down after he was politically pushed into taking a dangerous investigation (that I am assuming advanced the plot). It made no sense to me that the character took this risky mission despite his noble family and hero status. I would have bought the character if he became an inquisitor because it allowed him, despite his broken body, to compete and match wits with an opponent. But the character just starts cutting on people when they don’t confess. It seemed like the character had no genuine motivations and just existed to advance the plot.

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