“Late to the party” doesn’t really cover it this time, does it? I remember when everybody was reading and recommending the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. I went out and got the first volume. Then it sat there, on my shelf, sad and forgotten. Until I kept coming across interviews with the author on Sword and Laser, Tea and Jeopardy, and other places on the internet – that gave me the necessary kick in the butt to do it. I finally read the infamous Lord Grimdark’s first novel.
Published by: Gollancz, 2006
Paperback: 517 pages
Series: The First Law #1
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: Logen plunged thorugh the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head.
“The blade itself incites to deeds of violence.” Homer
Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled and increasingly bitter relic of the last war, former fencing champion turned torturer extraordinaire, is trapped in a twisted and broken body – not that he allows it to distract him from his daily routine of torturing smugglers.
Nobleman, dashing officer and would-be fencing champion Captain Jezal dan Luthar is living a life of ease by cheating his friends at cards. Vain, shallow, selfish and self-obsessed, the biggest blot on his horizon is having to get out of bed in the morning to train with obsessive and boring old men.
And Logen Ninefingers, an infamous warrior with a bloody past, is about to wake up in a hole in the snow with plans to settle a blood feud with Bethod, the new King of the Northmen, once and for all – ideally by running away from it. But as he’s discovering, old habits die really, really hard indeed…
…especially when Bayaz gets involved. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he’s about to make the lives of Glotka, Jezal and Logen a whole lot more difficult…
His twitter handle is the name of an entire subgenre of fantasy: (Lord) grimdark! The definition, if I understand correctly, is dark fantasy where blood and violence are an everyday occurence, where things that can go wrong invariably will go wrong, where nobody is completely good but some people may indeed be completely evil. From what I have read on the internet, this seems to include a lot of female characters getting mistreated, assaulted, and raped. I expected gratuitous violence, just to show how few fucks the hero gives. But prejudice is a tricky thing. If your expectations can ruin a perfectly good book because it has been overly hyped, so can negative prejudice make you enjoy a book more – if only because it does not deliver all the bad things you came to expect. I believe this is what happened with The Blade Itself and me.
Someone described the characters to me in three (and-a-half) words: Everyone’s an asshole!
I was all the more surprised when I found myself caring for these people. Logen Ninefingers is obviously a brutal badass fighter who will kill you without so much as a shrug. But he has lost his wife and children, barely escaped death only to find out that his closest friends have also died. His resignation is understandable. It doesn’t exactly make him endearing but I was intrigued enough to want to see what he would do to pick himself up and create the semblance of a life.
The same goes for Inquisitor Glokta, an asshole by definition of his profession. He is a torturer who really, really doesn’t mind watching others suffer, even former friends. But he is also plagued by the pain in his crippled leg, and the fact that he can only eat broth due to an unfortunate loss of teeth made me at least pity him a little… Don’t get me wrong. I hated him. But I kind of loved to hate him, in a guilty pleasure kind of way.
Jezal, the third major character, is an arrogant, vain moron who only becomes a little likable when he falls in love with a girl. He’s still an asshole, though. Then there was this one character I suspected may be an actual good guy. Major West, Jezal’s friend and superior, has come to a small measure of glory from the lower classes. He does not look down upon those socially inferior to him (having been there himself), he respects other people and honestly wants to do good. But then I read on and… wait. Yes, yes. He is also an asshole.
It was all the more impressive how invested I became in these despicable people’s lives. The plot isn’t riveting and, for quite a while, I had no idea where it was going to go. Epic warfare? Magic wreaking havoc? A quest for vengeance? The Union has just come out of a war and already a new one is knocking on the door. Logen’s home in the Northlands is overrun with terrible creatures named Shanka who pose an additional threat to the people. Then the First of the Magi, Bayaz, shows up and he seems to have an agenda all his own. Between Jezal’s embarrassing attempts at romance, Glokta’s terrible job, and Logen’s resigned following-along-someone-else’s-quest, I couldn’t stop reading. And that’s what makes this a good book for me. Sure, there is violence and blood and not exactly a lot of female characters (all of whom are abused in one way or another, btw).
The world building isn’t groundbreaking, but at least it doesn’t get in the way of the story by use of info dumps and bad exposition. What we have here is our average Medieval Europe setting with a hint of magic, but mostly warfare and politics. That said, the style and themes change drastically with the setting of each particular character. While Logen’s meanderings often tread in the path of danger and, thus, violent fights, Jezal and West’s storylines almost read like a fantasy of manners at times. These two live in the capital city where the nobility will judge every wrong step you take and make you pay for it dearly. I loved the social aspects of the world building, in all their gritty splendor.
But with that stereotypical epic fantasy world come its many failures. This is only book one in a trilogy but I very mouch doubt I will get to see LGBTQ characters, women who haven’t been through terrible abuse, men who aren’t assholes, or POC characters in the next two volumes. I’m not saying every book should have “one of everything” just for the sake of it, but if you write in a subgenre where the characters and their actions are supposed to reflect the reality of our world, then failing to include a major part of the population is a big issue. I’ve been reading fairly diversely this year, so I felt the absence of multi-layered female characters even more crassly.
I have little to say about the writing style. It is neither adventurous nor experimental, simply a window through which we see the story unfold. The fight scenes could have been shorter, but Abercrombie’s characters spring to life off the page and make you care, despite being horrible people. Plus, anyone who can pull off snarky dialogue that doesn’t sound idiotic gets a couple of brownie points. All in all, I would say, this is a very well written debut novel that leaves me with high hopes for what comes after. Joe Abercrombie strikes me as the kind of author who visibly develops as a writer with every book he writes. I can’t wait to find out for myself.
Despite my caveats, I still enjoyed the book and want to find out what happens next. This was neither as dark as I had worried (after American Psycho, nothing really is…) nor was it as bad as I feared. The mood for epic adventures has definitely struck me; and despiting disliking every single one of them, I kind of look forward to seeing what these characters are up to in the next book.
MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good.
- The Blade Itself
- Before They Are Hanged
- Last Argument of Kings