Written by Joe Abercrombie
Published March 8th 2007 by Gollancz (first published May 4th 2006)
The Blade Itself was an interesting read for me. It was both simultaneously one of the most difficult books for me to finish, and one of the most difficult books for me to put down. This doesn’t make any damn sense, I know. Nevertheless, this is how I felt almost every time I picked it up. Let me explain.
I first heard about this book back in 2007 as it seemed to quickly pick up steam in the grimdark fantasy genre. Here it is, 2020, and I’m finally getting to it. I think it can go without saying that The Blade Itself, and the First Law Trilogy as a whole, are very well received amongst fans of fantasy writing. I read several reviews before taking the plunge into this series, noting that most reviews gushed on the characterization. The entire trilogy has pretty much received universal acclaim. So, I was quite hyped for this one, and was very excited to finally get to dive in and see what all the fuss was about.
Let’s begin with the strongest feature of The Blade Itself; the characters! Damn, Abercrombie can write the hell out of a character. The Blade Itself follows several different characters. I’d say the three main protagonists of this tale are Logen Ninefingers, Sand dan Glokta, and Jezal dan Luthar. There are several other important characters as well, however. Ferro Maljinn, Collem West, The Dogman, and the mysterious magi Bayaz, just to name a few. Each of these characters is written with a great amount of detail, and they are written in such a way that the book, while absolutely dark and violent, feels quite humorous.
I especially loved chapters from the point-of-view of Sand dan Glokta. Glokta is an inquisitor, and basically interrogates and tortures criminals and traitors to The Union. Glokta is a rough individual. He is smart, witty and skilled at manipulating others. He is also absolutely cutthroat and downright sick in the head at times. But as you learn more about Glokta, you begin to sympathize with him, and understand why he is the way he is. This is a result of just damn good writing.
Logen Ninefingers is likely to be considered the main protagonist of the story as a whole, at least up to this point. He is a Northman, and is depicted as a barbaric man who is trying to calm himself of his murderous ways as he ages.
Jezal dan Luthar is a nobleman, and a skilled swordsman. He is a pompous ass at times, but I think he means well.
We follow these three characters for most of the book, with the others I mentioned being thrown into the mix every now and then as the plot chugs forward.
Now for the plot, oh the plot. Here’s where we get into that portion of the book that made this hard for me to finish at times. The Blade Itself is very character driven, rather than plot driven. Now these characters Abercrombie has crafted are arguably second to none in their depth and complexity, but I felt that the plot often moved forward at a snail’s pace because of it. Likely, this was Abercrombie’s intention. In fact, I’d wager that it was his intention now that I’ve completed the book. I have read other reviews noting the same pacing issues, calling the book a slow burn, so I know there are others how there who agree with me on this, but as I sit here writing this (at work, don’t tell anyone 😊) I cant help but feel that the problem was not necessarily the pacing of the book, but my expectations of what the book should be. I expected a good amount of adrenaline pumping action and a fast-paced plot! There is adrenaline pumping action in The Blade Itself, but there is far less than I would have ever expected based on the minimal knowledge I had of this book prior to picking it up. Instead, I found that this book really took its time, slowly setting us down within this brutal world Abercrombie has crafted. The entire book kind of felt like one giant prologue.
The issue for me was not the lack of action, but the lack of progression. Initially, I couldn’t tell where the plot was going simply because it felt like it wasn’t moving at all. The only thing that held me was Abercrombie’s incredible writing. I found myself, for much of the book, enjoying all of the characters, but not necessarily caring about any of them. In one of my reading updates I compared reading The Blade Itself to a scene in the book when Jezal is fighting in the arena. The onlookers are absolutely rooting for him, but at the end of the day they don’t necessarily care about what happens to Jezal or the other guy. They enjoy being entertained. This is exactly how I felt for much of this book.
Little by little though, something changed. The deeper I traveled into this book and just let it take me away, the more I realized just how masterful the whole damned thing was. I found myself setting my stupid expectations aside, and then I absolutely fell in love with this book. And it all comes down to the characters. Especially you, Glokta.
This might be the harshest 5-star review Abercrombie has ever received for The Blade Itself, and I don’t mean for it to sound harsh. The point I want to reflect on is what unrealistic or inaccurate expectations of a book can do to the reading experience. The plot felt slow because I was failing to look at the big picture. Once I let Abercrombie take the reins I was swept away into this incredible world of violence, war, and magic. The characters feel so incredibly real, and they are the reason to keep turning the page. Wonderful book, Joe.
5 out of 5.