If you have any interest at all in modern fantasy novels then you’ve probably already heard of Joe Abercrombie, Britain’s answer to George RR Martin (the author of the Game of Thrones series.) Like Martin, he’s working in the field of ‘grimly realistic’ fantasy that’s a literal world away from the nice and safe realms of Tolkien, and you wont find a goblin, elf or dwarf anywhere in sight.
Abercrombie’s touchstone series of works is The First Law trilogy of which The Blade Itself is the first instalment. It is without doubt strongly written, convincing in its detail and events, with its main strength being an impressive realisation of its vivid cast of characters starting with ageing warrior Logen Ninefingers, crippled investigator (read: torturer) Sand dan Glokta and the vain, foppish Captain Jezal dan Luthar. Add to that a feral ex-slave Ferro Maljinn and the inscrutable Bayaz who may or may not be a famous wizard from the past and you have your core troupe of players.
All of these characters are memorable and rather wonderful in their own completely flawed manner, and they have credible motivations and interior monologues that makes even the superficially most loathsome of them into a sympathetic lead. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about their exploits and will happily read more of the series. And the ‘grim realism’ is impressively done (if perhaps a touch over-played) so that you can absolutely feel the soaking, rotten clothes stick to your back, the mud and dirt squeeze under your fingernails, and the shooting pains that the crippled Glokta is subjected to every waking moment while attempting even the simplest daily activities such as getting out of bed or walking up stairs.
The problem I have with The Blade Itself, however, is that it doesn’t really stand up as a work in its own right. To put it simply: not a huge amount happens. Characters are introduced, developed, moved from point A to point B, introduced to other characters, and put in place ready for … Well. That’s the problem. Just at the moment when you think all the set-up has been accomplished, the book abruptly ends on the cusp of everyone getting underway. If this were a prequel novel to an existing series or was a ‘free’ e-book taster to get you to buy the other books then that would be fine; as a not-inexpensive, lengthy book in its own right, ultimately this sense of incompleteness and lack of getting anything satisfyingly substantial for your money by the final page is really rather disconcerting.
Given that the lack of real events gives The Blade Itself so much time on its hands, I’m also slightly underwhelmed by the world-building on display in this first outing. In essence, the world of The First Law consists of a cold, brutal, barbarian north; a hot, exotic southern land bent on a crusade of retribution; and a centre in which all the ‘civilisation’ lives in lovely historic cities of great splendour albeit falling into decline with its rulers complacent and apathetic about the threats building around them. As worlds go, this is less genuine genre imagination and more a case of thinly veiled analogy to current real geopolitics. Overall Abercrombie’s mise-en-scène simply doesn’t have anything like the depth or complexity of Martin’s accomplishment in Game of Thrones or even Hilary Mantel’s accomplishment of bringing Tudor England to dizzyingly complex life in the non-fantasy but emphatically world-building Wolf Hall. But then perhaps such comparisons are unfair and disingenuous, and speak more to my own expectations than to the book under review.
Of course, more of this world may be revealed by the characters’ further travels and adventures in books two and three, and you may (with some justification, I agree) say that it’s unfair to criticise one book of a trilogy in isolation rather than in context of the series as a whole. I have some sympathy for this – and certainly, as and when I read the rest of the series I’ll come back with further reviews to update my thoughts accordingly.
But a book which is released and sold as a book in its own right must surely repay purchasers with something more than just a warm-up act even while it goes about its business of simultaneously playing its part in a bigger whole? To reluctantly invoke Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring still manages to succeed as a standalone read even though it’s clearly part of the larger story of The Lord of the Rings. For me at least The Blade Itself didn’t manage that difficult balancing act and left me somewhat unsatisfied; but at the same time, willing to read on to see what happens next.
Which after all is the first, best test of the true value of book, surely?
‘The Blade Itself’ is available in paperback and ebook from Waterstone’s, Amazon and all good bookshops. The sequels are ‘Before They Are Hanged’ and ‘Last Argument of Kings’. There are also three further novels set in the same world but not part of ‘The First Law’ trilogy: ‘Best Served Cold’, ‘The Heroes’ and ‘Red Country,’ which take their stylistic inspirations from Pulp Noir Thriller, World War 2 Adventure and Western genres respectively.