by Matthew Thompson
My journey into the fantasy genre continues with Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. It took me a bit to get used to the writing style in Abercrombie’s first novel The Blade Itself and I never came around to all aspects of it, but it was definitely an enjoyable read.
The Blade Itself focuses on three major point of view characters. Logen Ninefingers is by far my favorite. He is a barbarian from the untamed North. A warrior with a dark past known across the region for his killing prowess. It may seem like a fantasy stereotype and at times Logen’s actions and manner of talking back that up, but by getting in this character’s head we see he is more than meets the eye and it is fun to see some of the other characters come to this realization. While this adds an extra layer of intrigue to the character, his ability to fight is a big part of the appeal of his chapters too. One of the review quotes on the back cover of The Blade Itself said it was worth a read for the fight scenes alone and I can’t say I disagree. Logen isn’t the only one involved in memorable brawls, but he certainly is in many of the book’s best.
Another of the primary characters is an arrogant nobleman named Jezal dan Luthar, a Captain in the King’s army. He isn’t very likable. He looks down at those below his status, cares about superficial things and has an all-around shit attitude. But his chapters really managed to grow on me as the book went on. I think a large part of it was his involvement in the capitol city’s prestigious fencing contest. With some of the other things going on in The Blade Itself’s world, a fencing contest seems kind of trivial. And it is, but the build up to this event and the effects it has on Luthar make for compelling reading despite that. I’m also curious how his character will grow throughout the course of the series. He seems like a prime candidate for a hero’s turn, but it is tough to tell if that is Abercrombie’s intentions during this first book or not.
The final of the three main characters is Sand dan Glokta. He was once much like Luthar until time in enemy hands leaves him a cripple. After enduring torture, he ended up becoming a torturer himself as part of the Inquisition. It is certainly an interesting idea for a character, but his sections didn’t do a lot for me and were definitely my least favorite chapters to see pop up. For one, I didn’t love the writing style employed here. Glokta is constantly droning on about the pain he is in and while I do sympathise with him to an extent, it gets a little tiring. The dark sense of humor present in these chapters was hit or miss to me as well and I just didn’t find his plotlines quite as interesting as the others.
Some art from the series comic adaptation.
While these three characters make up the bulk of the novel’s POV’s, there are a few others like a former slave, Ferro Maljinn, who finds herself out in the desert looking for revenge while trying to survive and some of Logen’s former compatriots in the North. Legendary wizard Bayaz also factors into all the proceedings in a large way. He is a character whose motivations are tough to get a grasp on, but that is part of what makes him a fun character to see in action.
One of the best parts of the novel is seeing how these disparate storylines dovetail together. Of particular note are a few chapters that flip between some of its point of view characters experiencing the same event, like the aforementioned fencing competition and my personal favorite, the book’s penultimate chapter which features a thrilling fight and chase through the city. This is far from something unique to this book, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining seeing Abercrombie deftly employ the technique.
I haven’t really touched much on the overall plot of the novel because it is a little tough to describe. There is a war looming, but it is best to just dive in and see where these various characters end up. While I wrote this after completing The Blade Itself, I decided to hold off on posting it until I finished the entire trilogy. This first book definitely feels like part of a larger whole and I wanted to make sure it panned out before I came and recommended it. I think ultimately it does, but you definitely need your expectations in check. This is not a good triumphs over evil kind of fantasy. It is much less black and white and gets pretty dark. It seemed like Abercrombie was really trying to go against expectations in the genre. It definitely makes for some interesting reading, but it isn’t for everyone. I liked the overall ride, but even I had some reservations with some of the choices he made along the way. And for whatever it is worth, I’d also say I didn’t enjoy it as much as my other recent reads in the genre, A Song of Ice and Fire or The Black Company.
But if something darker doesn’t turn you off, there is a lot to like in The Blade Itself and the First Law Trilogy as a whole. For those that have read the series, I will be back with a blog talking the next two books where I dive into spoiler territory to talk about the good, the bad and the very surprising things I ran into as I worked my way through Joe Abercrombie’s first series.