Review: The Blade Itself

By Joe Abercrombie
Narrated by Steven Pacey on Audible

This book was recommended to me by someone whose opinions I have profound respect for, so I leapt into the novel with much anticipation.

The Blade Itself is the first in the “First Law Series.” There is much to love in this book and I’ll be starting the next one in the series in the next day or so.

I’m told that, when providing constructive criticism, it’s actually best to give the positive first so that it doesn’t sound insincere following the criticism. Let’s try that.

There are a few things I loved about this book. First, Logan Nine-Fingers, known as the “Bloody-Nine,” rough and tumble barbarian from the north. The character could have fallen easily into that of the trite trope—he’s a man who has lived by the sword his whole life but who now wants to lay that sword down and never pick it up again. A man whose most profitable skill is his ability to kill others who doesn’t want to kill anymore, and yet he still keeps finding himself in situations where he must kill or be killed. That’s the plot of many terrible action movies (and a few that have done very well in the box office); it’s been done to death.

Logan pulls himself out of his stereotype and becomes a character with whom one can connect and empathize. Instead of the “badass with a heart of gold” action hero (though perhaps he is that), his dilemma makes us question what a person raised to be ready to violence can do to escape that life. That’s a story we can believe in and become immersed in—that’s a story that isn’t simply a power fantasy for adolescents or men with a Fight Club-esque existential crisis.

But I shouldn’t wax too philosophical about Logan as simply an analogy for the person who knows only violence. He’s a character who is fun. And this leads me to the second thing I love about this novel—the author’s voice, or perhaps voices. Though narrated from the third-person, the very voice of the narrator of the story (here I mean the fictional person telling the story, not the reader for the audiobook) shifts from character to character. This is most notable with Logan, where the voice is matter-of-fact, reserving or eschewing entirely moral judgment in favor of practicality. Many times, we hear the narrator say, “You have to be realistic about these things,” when describing Logan’s portions of the story. This further divorces Logan from stereotype: he’s not trying to get away from killing out of some pretense at found morality or piety; he’s just tired of killing people and seeing so much death.

The last thing I really loved about this novel was the author’s style. He writes beautiful sentences, entertaining sentences, sentences that utilize grammar and syntax to amuse and delight. A writer skilled in the style and rhetoric of writing can conceal many other narrative faults.

This book is not without its faults. Here are my complaints:

The setting is not terribly interesting, partially because it just doesn’t do anything for the story. The cultures of the setting are shorthand references to historical earthly cultures or blends thereof without significant differences. Therefore, I don’t care about the world or what happens to it. I can forgive much of this because of the fascinating descriptions of the small events that happen to the characters across the story, and I don’t expect every fantasy story to be set in a world with Martin- or Tolkien-levels of detail, but the blandness of this world (so far, at least) still leaves an itch unscratched.

I have a similar complaint about many of the characters other than Logan; they’re just not that interesting. Sand dan Glokta, the young hero of the union turned crippled inquisitor, held my interest as Logan did, and the cast of motley characters with whom Logan ran before the start of the book are quite amusing. They remind me of Shakespeare’s mechanicals—if they’d been written by G.R.R. Martin. The rest of the cast, Bayaz the magus, Collem West and his sister, and particularly Jezal dan Luthar, come across as two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs of particular “types” in fiction. If there were some other element of Commedia to this story, I could perhaps forgive that. There is not.

My last complaint is a trifling one. The narrator for Audible is actually quite good, but he pronounces a few words in ways that distract me from the flow of the narrative. Nitpicky, I know, but important when listening to a story. On the other hand, the author is British and the narrator might be too, so this may be a dialect issue and not worth starting another contest over proper pronunciation. We all have schedules to keep, after all.

Criticisms aside, did I enjoy this book? Yes, very much so. Will I read the next one? I’ve already said so. Will I get to the third in the trilogy. Let’s not rush to any conclusions. But, if Logan Nine-fingers is in it, I probably will.

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