Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (2007)

Let me get the ball rolling on Blade Itself by pointing out a shockingly dumb quote from John Enzinas of SF Site that is featured on the back cover: "I could happily recommend The Blade Itself for the fight scenes alone." Okay. Just to be clear, this is a book. It's a bunch of pages between two covers. It's not a Jackie Chan movie, it's a damn book! Why on earth would you ever recommend a book to someone on the basis of its fight scenes!

Maybe this sort of thing is just symptomatic of how pervasive the influence of video games has been on the fantasy and sci-fi communities throughout the last decade or so. On that point, maybe Enzinas' quote is insightful in some regard. No, I take that back. But moving forward, maybe this is weird but The Blade Itself has a distinct video game feel to it. Now, that isn't really a good thing or a bad thing in itself, and fortunately Joe Abercrombie makes it work. Here's what I mean: there are four or five major characters, and this is more or less a getting-a-team-together story (this is the first in Abercrombie's First Law series). The major characters feel a bit like character classes in an RPG game: a swordsman, a wizard, a barbarian, an archer. Thankfully, they are all well written and Abercrombie gives each of them a unique voice.

Speaking of which, the book is similar in structure to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, with the story being told from the third-person point of view of several characters. Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view, on a rotating basis. Their stories weave into and out of one another, but not in the dizzyingly complex way of Martin's books. Like I said before, this is mostly a book about a team getting together, so the individual stories head toward one another, inevitably.

The world the action takes place in feels a bit Plain Jane, but in the end that isn't a handicap because this isn't the kind of story that calls attention to its surroundings. The action is centered around The Union, which is a familiar-feeling stand in for Western Europe, or close enough. To the north, there is the expected frozen wasteland filled with warring tribes, and to the south there are various other kingdoms, deserts, and so on. Maybe my main gripe with this book is that, at least in the edition I have, there is no map! There is quite a bit of travel in this book and I felt that it could definitely, definitely have benefitted from one.

Abercrombie has a good writing style. It gets the job done. He's no Patrick Rothfuss, but fortunately for him he's no George Martin, either. He's pretty spare on description, which I found pleasant, but your results may vary. The Blade Itself is nothing if not a page-turner, and Abercrombie's no-frills approach keeps things moving along at a pretty rapid clip. It took me less than four days to get through all 527 pages (that is 131.75 pages a day), and I had work a couple of those days, so obviously Abercrombie has a gift for holding the attention of his readers. And it's not like every single chapter ends with a Martin-style cliffhanger either; this is simply well-written fantasy.

One thing that is weird about this book, though, is the insane amount of characters described as being uncommonly huge. That may strike you as a weird thing to notice but it seems like every other character that is introduced is strikingly large and strong. No exaggeration, there must be more than ten such characters in this novel. Very strange and a little distracting.

Up to this point, I haven't mentioned a character that is simultaneously the best and worst part of the book: Sand dan Glokta, the only POV character that doesn't feel at all like a unit in a Squaresoft SNES RPG. Glokta is an ex fencing champion and war hero who was captured by the enemy on a campaign. He was tortured and disfigured in the enemy's dungeons, and returns to his homeland ruined and disgraced. His friends abandon him and he finds himself in the office of Inquisitor (torturer) for his government. Glokta's chapters mainly focus on the political sphere of the Union, with him and his Practicals (assistants) capturing people and torturing them for information. Crippled and disfigured, Glokta's entire life revolves around pain, both the pain he endures from his old injuries and the pain he dishes out to his captives. Pretty interesting stuff, but Abercrombie wrings the whole thing dry a bit. Glokta has a constant internal monologue, which can get pretty annoying. It's like, yeah, we get that Glokta is cynical and sniffs out people's ulterior motives, but I found myself just wishing he would shut up sometimes. This made the Glokta chapters frustrating to read; he is easily the most interesting character but his little italicized monologue bits really strained my patience.

That's not to say, of course, that it ruined the book, and on the whole it's a pretty minor gripe. I liked the characters, even if they were a little too close to archetypes. Abercrombie does a great job at making their perspectives distinct from one another. If you are curious, the much-lauded fight scenes live up to their reputation, I guess, but don't get the impression that this book is just a bunch of battles. There is plenty of violence, but for me the most exciting part of the fight scenes was just seeing who would come out of them alive, because I actually ended up caring about most of the major characters, which is the most important thing for this kind of fantasy. I have the next installment in the mail and I'm looking forward to reading it.

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