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Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself the blade itself
Joe Abercrombie

Orbit/Gollancz, 2006
★★★★☆

The Blade Itself is a rather standard, basic high fantasy, which isn’t necessarily a criticism (I enjoy basic European-esque fantasy very much!), but I guess I just expected more from this series, since it’s often spoken of as one of the best in the genre. I enjoyed it, to be sure, but I wasn’t blown away. Much more classic fantasy than I was expecting, with some clear inspiration from A Song of Ice and Fire. Based on this book alone, I’d say this series is 1000% overrated and over-hyped, but I keep hearing that the sequels make up for it, so I’m withholding judgement.

Like many other reviewers have said, this book is mostly setup. Granted, I was never bored, and I had no issue with the pacing. I think that speaks to the strength of Abercrombie’s writing and characterization. There’s something about the writing here that is very accessible and readable, making this, if not quite a page-turner, then at least a book that is extremely compelling. It’s also weirdly funny? I love it when fantasy makes me laugh; there’s such a wry, dry humor to this writing.

Characters are another strength. There are approximately six POV characters here, and I say approximately because we’ve basically got three major POV characters – Logen, Glokta, and Jezal – and three minor POV characters who only feature occasionally – Ferro, Dogman, and Collem West. I can definitely see why Abercrombie is praised for the strength of his character work; characters here are vibrant and distinctive.

Logen, a Northman and a feared warrior, was kind of…boring? He was very likable, to be sure, but I just didn’t find his narrative interesting, as his motivations were pretty weak. Basically, in this book he meets up with the Wise Wizard character of Bayaz because…the spirits told him to, and he just kind of does it without really knowing why, so it’s hard to tell what’s driving him. Jezal is a nobleman and soldier, and he’s a fucking riot. He’s vain, narcissistic, haughty, self-centered, and petulant, but kind of…good-hearted? Maybe? He’s much more interesting because he’s so deeply flawed, but also because his motivations are very clear: fame, fortune, honor.

But it’s Glokta who absolutely steals the show. He’s often referenced as one of the best characters in grimdark fantasy, and I can definitely see why. A former soldier who was captured and horrendously tortured by the enemy, leaving him a cripple in constant pain, Glokta has now become a torturer himself. He’s snarky, resigned, and perhaps slightly unhinged, which made his chapters the most entertaining to read; in particular, the contrast between his thoughts and the things he says out loud are absolutely hilarious. He’s such a tragic character in so many ways, but the way he takes things in stride and makes fun of himself brings such a dark comedy to his narrative.

Unfortunately, female characters are sorely lacking. The gender politics of this world are roughly equivalent to that of 19th-century England – there’s even mentions of governesses and chaperones for young ladies – which means that positions of power and significance are all occupied by men, which means that 95% of named characters are all men. Amongst a rather huge cast of characters, there’s two women, Ardee and Ferro, both of whom have minor roles in the grand scheme of things.

Ardee is Collem West’s sister, new to the city, friendless and bored, and she spends her time entertaining herself with Jezal. Unfortunately we never get Ardee’s POV, so for much of the book her entire character seems to only exist to be the object of Jezal’s affections, which is a shame, because Ardee is a fascinating character in her own right. She’s bitter, sarcastic, ambitious, abrasive, and a mean drunk, all of which makes for pretty interesting characterization! But sadly Ardee exists only on the margins of the story; I can only hope that her role expands in later books.

The only other female character is Ferro, who does get her own POV later in the book, though only for a few chapters. I’m not quite sure how to feel about Ferro, who’s more a black hole of anger and bitterness than a fully realized character. She’s an escaped slave who wants vengeance on the people who enslaved her, but we don’t really get to learn much about her other than that. She’s a fierce fighter, and she’s almost always angry and violent.

I get that this book was written in 2006 (which shocked me, for some reason I was under the impression it was written in 2016), but there were plenty of opportunities to include more female characters here. It’s not that hard to do, even in a patriarchal, male-dominated world. GRRM does it spectacularly. Personally, I find this to be a major flaw in the book, and hopefully the following two books in the series do better.

Plot-wise, it’s true that this book is lots of setup, but it’s also frustrating because the plot seems to come together very haphazardly. For example, much time is spend on Bayaz gathering a group of people to go on what is looking like your classic Fantasy Quest, but there’s zero explanation for why he chose these specific people or how he’s been communicating with people (how does Yulwei find Ferro? How does Bayaz talk to Yulwei?) or what he needs these people for. It just feels like things are kind of falling into place magically and with no internal logic, which is never good. I know, I know – the sequels will explain. But I’m still within my rights to be frustrated that as a stand-alone novel, this isn’t very good.

Similarly, there’s only hints of worldbuilding and history. We learn a tiny, teensy bit about Bayaz and the legacy of the Magi and the history of magic, and we get hints about the other countries surrounding the Union, but it’s just…not very much? I would think that for a book so lacking in plot, at least the worldbuilding would be stronger, but it’s not. There’s so much time spent on things that don’t really matter, and so many scenes that just felt like filler – like the fencing contest Jezal participates in. Did we need like three chapters of him fighting?

Also, this is just a very personal thing, but there’s too much time spent on action and fighting in this book. I don’t need ten pages of characters being chased and fighting. It’s boring. Purely personal preference, but if you’re like me and prefer actual character work and dialogue to action, this will likely annoy you, as it did me. As it was, I found myself skimming over a lot of the very, very long fight scenes.

But hey, in the grand scheme of things, I did have a good time reading this book, and I liked it enough to want to pick up the sequel immediately, so that’s something.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

  1. I mean, I don’t judge books based on how many women are in them. I think it’s fine for a book to have mostly male characters. It’s not like there aren’t some books with mostly female characters :/

    But good review other than that Bechdel test silliness.

    You definitely made me want to check the book out.

    (To be honest, I actually kind of hope some of the male fantasy writers just fucking revolt against the SJW silliness and start writing books with no female characters to spite you guys. I’m a female writer and I’m thinking I might do it just for the lols)

    Like

    1. I mean, I don’t judge books based on how many women are in them. I think it’s fine for a book to have mostly male characters.

      Okay, good for you, I guess? I don’t.

      It’s not like there aren’t some books with mostly female characters

      Sure, but that’s a completely different context given that lots of SFF literature has been male-dominted and male-centered, and also, you know *gestures at patriarchal world* so a book with mainly female characters work to upend hegemony rather than reinforce it. The two aren’t comparable.

      But good review other than that Bechdel test silliness.

      I don’t appreciate the backhanded compliment.

      To be honest, I actually kind of hope some of the male fantasy writers just fucking revolt against the SJW silliness and start writing books with no female characters to spite you guys. I’m a female writer and I’m thinking I might do it just for the lols

      This is just rude.

      Also want to point out you used the word “female” which men are lambasted for doing on the regular…..yet feminists will use the word without even thinking about it

      Men are lambasted for using the word “female” or “females” as a noun, which is significantly different than using it as an adjective, as I’ve done in this review. Saying “female characters” is not the same as saying “those females.”

      Liked by 2 people

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