Love the book, hate the author: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

I’m going to be up front and confess to something before I get to this review: I did not expect to like The Blade Itself. Normally I believe in “un-biased” reviewing in the sense that everything should be given a fair shot and approached without preconceived expectations, but this books reputation preceded it to such a degree that I was pretty geared up to tear it to shreds.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ended up thoroughly enjoying The Blade Itself. I just kind of wish I hadn’t.

Okay, so let me describe the plot here real quick. The story takes place in a union of disparate kingdoms (funnily enough named “The Union”) in a low-magic, vaguely pre-industrial 18th century Europe type of setting. Once mighty and powerful, the Union BLOOD has been weakened by internal squabbling and years of poor leadership. Outside its borders TORTURE old and new enemies circle, waiting for their chance to strike. The book RAPE follows three character whose stories intertwine DECAPITATION as a major war begins in the North and PUS-ENCRUSTED WOUNDS WRITHING WITH MAGGOTS conspiracies within the Union’s borders are revealed.

Oh, I’m sorry, were those bolded words up there annoying? Did they affect your ability to enjoy the preceding paragraph? That’s a little sneak peek of what reading The Blade Itself  is like.

I mentioned in the introduction to this blog that the fantasy genre is currently going through a blood-and-tits obsessed adolescence and while A Song of Fire and Ice was the vanguard of the trend, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy is often held up as the worthy successor, building on what ASoFaI started. The Stalin to Martin’s Lenin, if you will.

I can say this for The Blade Itself, it certainly is gritty. Right from the very first page the book shoves the reader’s face in mud and sweat and blood. Did someone just fall into a river? Gotta mention the stew of slime and rotting branches they crawl through to get back out. Did a character trip down the stairs? Make sure to tell us about the gobs of mucous running down their face as they writhe in agony. Pile on the grittiness people, I can still see Tolkien in the rear-view mirror!

Which isn’t to say that The Blade Itself is an unrelenting pit of darkness and blood. In fact much of the book is surprisingly funny, with a playful Terry Pratchett-esque sense of humor, but that just makes the grimdark sections stand out all the more starkly. It’s as though Abercrombie is standing behind you poking you in the ribs. “This sure is dark and gritty, isn’t it? You’re not having fun, are you? Because this isn’t supposed to be fun. This isn’t your Daddy’s fantasy with its elves and princesses and likeable, sympathetic characters.”

Speaking of which, lets take a look at our three protagonists, because they represent the clearest way in which Abercrombie has shot his own story in the knees.First up is Jezal Dan Luthar, a captain in the army training for an upcoming fencing contest. Jezal at first seems like the proto-typical underdog hero- a bit of a fop, certainly, but the sort of guy you can root for as he struggles to win the contest. Unfortunately he quickly reveals himself to be a shallow, classist, misogynistic snob:

 “Jezal favoured him with a terse nod and turned away to look up the avenue. He could think of no possible reason why an officer would want to be familiar with the common soldiers. Furthermore, he was scarred and ugly. Jezal had no use whatever for ugly people.”

“Jezal had little enthusiasm for hearing about the Major’s sister. West might have pulled himself up, but the rest of his family were distinctly beneath Jezal’s notice. He was interested in meeting poor, common girls he could take advantage of and rich noble ones he might think about marrying. Anything in between was of no importance.”

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

Now it’s true that directly afterwards Jezal is humiliated by the Major’s sister, Ardee- the same woman he spends an entire page in fear of meeting in case she’s fat and ugly- but at the end of the day Jezal is still the protagonist while Ardee is a fleeting bit player. And no, I’m not cherry-picking my quotes here. He stays like that right up till the end of the book.

Next comes Inquisitor Glokta- whose name I’m assuming you pronounce by hocking phlegm to the back of your throat- a former soldier who was horribly tortured in the Union’s previous war only to become a torturer himself upon his return, rooting our traitors for an organization more interested in gaining political favour than securing the safety of the Union. Glokta more than anything else represents the problematic nature of Abercrombie’s writing. He’s by far the most interesting character in the book, with a delightfully cynical internal monologue and the potential for some real character depth as he struggles to move past the pain and suffering that’s been heaped onto him. Unfortunately he’s also an unrepentantly evil sociopath. The trilogy will probably go down the “broken character moves past their pain and learns to fly again” storyline, but I don’t particularly care what the outcome is. Glokta had already passed the Moral Event Horizon long before the story begins (and believe me, he’ll be looping back around and passing it again in the third book).

That just leaves Logen Ninefingers, who the back cover synopsis hilariously informs us is an “infamous barbarian”. Logen is probably the most sympathetic of the three, and his befuddled fish out of water nature provides most of the book’s best jokes, but he’s not a particularly interesting character. In fact he doesn’t really do much aside from the occasional fight scene, spending most of the book following other characters around without knowing why.

If this was The Blade Itself’s only major problem I still would have been able to give it a solid recommendation. It’s a fast paced, absorbing story that cuts out most of the waffle and faffing around that tends to plague fantasy novels. The book presents its story in multiple layers that blend and intertwine masterfully, with the political machinations of the Union backed by the looming threat of war which is in turn by the gathering of ancient supernatural forces, giving the events of the novel an almost mythic quality. This is clearly headed for something big, as demonstrated in an awe-inspiring scene late in the book where the three protagonists are brought together for the first time to uncover an ancient secret.

That’s what I would be saying if not for the fact that The Blade Itself is also misogynistic as hell. I can handle an over-reliance on juvenile grittiness as an unfortunate blemish, but this problem goes right to the book’s core.

Throughout the story women are presented as victims, simpering air-heads, cold ice-queen stereotypes or dangerous, tempting femme fatales. As far as they have a role in the plot at all it’s to either get in the way of the men or actively lead them astray. Ferro Maljinn, the only female POV character, spends the entire book being led around by a male protector. She has absolutely no agency herself and is essentially an annoyance the male cast puts up with because they need her for some as-yet unexplained reason.

I would have been willing to tolerate even this as a mild annoyance if not for something that happens late in the book, when The Blade Itself‘s grimdark grittiness and misogyny intertwine and reach their apex together.

Remember Ardee, the woman Jezal is humiliated by? Her brother, major West, is consistently portrayed as the most sympathetic and morally pure character in the story (and possibly in the entire Union), to the point where I wondered why he wasn’t the protagonist instead of Jezal. Then he walks in on her writing a note to Jezal- their illicit romance is forbidden and star-crossed because they’re from different backgrounds and bargleargleargle- and this happens (fairly graphic stuff coming up, be warned):

“‘And what happens if, as is far more likely, you can’t get him? What then? You’d be finished, have you thought on that? You’ve come close enough before! And you’re supposed to be the clever one! You’re making a laughing-stock of yourself!’ He almost choked on his rage. ‘Of both of us!’

Ardee gave a gasp. ‘Now we see it!’ she nearly screamed at him. ‘No one cares a bit for me, but if your reputation is in danger-‘

‘You stupid fucking bitch!’ […..] He was across the room in an instant. Ardee looked surprised, just for a moment, then there was a sharp click- his fist catching her in the face as she got up. She didn’t fall far. His hands caught her before she hit the ground, yanked her up and then flung her back aginst the wall.

‘You’ll be the end of us!’ Her head smacked against the plaster- once, twice, three times. One hand grabbed hold of her neck. Body crushed against the wall. A little snort in her throat as the fingers began to squeeze.

‘You selfish, useless… fucking….. whore!'”

No, fuck you, Joe Abercrombie. This isn’t gritty and it’s certainly not mature. It’s a little boy pulling the legs off a spider for the lulz.

Abercrombie can write. He can write well. And he’s got an interesting story to tell here. I just sort of wish he had left the telling of it to someone with a mental age higher than thirteen.

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20 thoughts on “Love the book, hate the author: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

  1. Quique

    I’m convinced you didn’t read the book through because had you you’d realize Glokta was not a evil sociopath & this book has strong, capable & independent female protagonists which every feminists claims do not exist in literature, specifically this genre. I guess this review proves the adage that you can’t please everybody but more importantly you can’t please Mcfeminists.

    Reply
  2. dotzyeh

    You seem to have missed the whole point. For starters… West wasn’t “morally pure”…Matter of fact he was later named “Fury” by Northmen because of his Fury… Ferro Maljinn turned out to be pretty useful in the grand “Bayaz” plan and she was always pretty much independent. But the point, and this is why I love Abercrombie, is he never poses a perfect protagonist… All his characters are humans with their guilts, their, weaknesses and their inner evil.
    By the way you said this “In fact he doesn’t really do much aside from the occasional fight scene” about Logen Ninefingers…That just sums up you didn’t read the book! Finish a trilogy before you start judging. Logen was a s far the main character as there could be…The series literally starts and ends with him. You can’t read an epic and start thinking about women rights…What would the LGBT peeps say???

    Reply
    1. Abercrombie Fan

      Most one sided, closed minded review I’ve ever read. The man is a golden god of fantasy authors and if you can’t open your eyes to see the larger picture, then your blinded by your own prejudices. Your a dwarf of a writer throwing stones at a giant, go hide back in your hole worm.

      Reply
  3. Dan

    I’m not a big fan of Abercrombie. Frankly the only books of his that are any good are The Heroes and Red Country. What’s incredibly childish is to cry about misogyny anytime a female character is mistreated. It happens, and there’s a difference between applauding it and showing it to be negative. That character dies of magic induced cancer by the way.
    I will grant that Abercrombie is pretty terrible at writing female characters. Best served cold has a female lead and is by far his worst book.

    Reply
  4. Iris

    Also I’ll never understand that argument (so popular in the comments here) that the female characters are treated terribly because “it’s realistic”. It’s a fantasy novel with wizards and shit, but a woman who’s not just there to be a sex object or a tragic death in the male protagonist’s backstory is too difficult to imagine? Come on.

    Reply
  5. Iris

    I’ve been slogging through this, and when I got to the scene where the previously-most-likeable character suddenly beats up his sister so that HE can have a character development moment, I wanted to throw the book across the room.

    The book is competently written but I hate it for exactly the reasons you’ve written here. Thank god I’m not alone in this!

    Reply
  6. Cobra

    This is why Social Justice Warriors should not be allowed to review things. You realize that it comes across as a toddler age temper tantrum over someone writing a realistic story rather than one that conforms to your twisted poltical agenda. I suppose reality is misogynist and you may complain all you like… but that won’t change it.

    Reply
  7. liliputian7

    Oh Lord in heaven
    “How dare a novel about a FANTASY TIME PERIOD in which women were, akin to history, LESSER THAN MEN, be MISOGYNISTIC.” “I can’t believe a woman who is COLD, ABRASIVE, and a MURDERER is being led around by MEN. WHY COULDN’T ALL THE CHARACTERS HAVE VAGINAS. *plaintive sob* THIS IS THE PROBLEM WITH SOCIETY.” “I CANNOT believe that a woman would USE HER BODY as a MEANS TO AN END. Surely that says more about the WOMAN than about the MAN.”
    Fucking stupid, that. Fucking asinine.

    Reply
    1. Eli

      The fantasy genre is one that encourages imagination and the construction of worlds that are completely different from the one we live in. Just because the setting of this story seems to be inspired by 18th century Europe doesn’t mean it has to include the gender roles of that era because again, it is FANTASY. I’m not saying that this is a terrible book just because it employs gender roles of our society. I actually like this book a lot as well as Best Served Cold because that book actually did go against the grain, and did so naturally, without making “all the characters have vaginas”, as you seem to think is what the poster wants for… no apparent reason

      Reply
  8. Venantius

    Major West is morally pure…? When did that happen? In the book I read, he was angry, insecure, bitter and barely in control of his emotions – and, to make matters worse, everyone around him seemed to recognise it except him.

    Unfortunately, it seems like the person who wrote this post has a very limited understanding of characterisation. Hard as you may find it to believe, protagonists need not be heroic warriors of light in shining armour who spend their days rescuing kittens from trees and returning lost balloons to children. To attack Abercrombie for being adolescent and “gritty” (as though that’s a bad thing) betrays intellectual and emotional immaturity on your part.

    West is an angry man who attacked his sister because he was terrified of scandal. Having been raised in an abusive family and spent his career as a commoner in an officer corps that is almost entirely noble, West has internalised a great deal of rage which he vents at the one person he actually cares about. This is what we call complex characterisation. And Ardee, for the record, is a bitter, self-pitying alcoholic. Shocking, eh? A female character who isn’t a completely pure and wonderful. Who woulda thunk it?

    Reply
  9. James

    Completely agree with Evie. The constant headaches suffered by West for me showed how tormented a soul he was. He had all the potential to be a good man but his temper and past conspired to make him a terrible one. A man who assaulted his sister and killed the king in waiting (though who could blame him for the latter).

    This is what I love about Joe Abercrombie, that I find something to like about most of the characters and something to dislike about them too. Even the ones that are bad through and through bring great humour to the story.

    Reply
  10. Evie

    I’m sorry, but I think you completely failed to ‘get’ this series. You seem to think that it is a bad thing that the main protagonists are not good and morally upright? I think we have had more than enough fantasy series that adhere to that model!
    I’m mystified why you think that the scene where West assaults Ardee is misogynistic and immature. How is dealing with the impact of child abuse and domestic violence immature exactly? You say that West is presented as pure and moral, but that is exactly the point. He is outwardly pure and moral, but he is also full of barely suppressed anger and lashes out violently. Abercrombie certainly doesn’t portray this as a good thing. His whole thing is that people are complex and no-one is 100% good or evil.
    You seem to have a very black and white view of things where only the ‘villains’ can do bad things or have undesirable character traits. In real life, do not ‘upstanding citizens’ go home and beat their wife and kids?
    Lastly, on the misogyny charge, despite you writing RAPE in your review, I invite you to consider how many rape scenes there are in the books. I can’t remember a single one, although I’m only 2/3 through book 3 so who knows, maybe there is a real spate of it in the last bit! Unlike many other male authors where female characters only seem to exist so they can get raped/nearly raped at some point.

    Reply
  11. Brittney

    Personally, I enjoyed the series. While Abercrombie might be a bit harsh with women, Martin kills every character you indulge in. That being said, I enjoy both their writing. It’s funny you should compare A. to Terry Pratchett’s humor as that sense of humor makes almost any book relatable.

    Reply
  12. Skyweir

    Abercrombie is actually an incredibly cool guy who have admitted to some of the problems you mentioned above in a discussion on another blog, especially the problem with female characters, and taken the criticism to heart. His apparent misogyny is more one of ignorance than malice, if you will.
    In his later books, he has taken steps to rectify this problem, and has succeeded to a degree, though I still think he is not a great writer of female characters even if he manages to make them a lot more active and more relatable.

    The specific examples you mention here are not my main problems with the books, mostly because they are included to show that these guys are not “heroes”. Even West, who has been showed to be a “good” guy until this point, is in fact a pretty horrible asshole to his family, though his sister is a problematic character in many ways. The First Law is a deconstruction of fantasy, taking stereotypes of fantasy writing and twisting them to show us what they could be if we are “realistic” about these things. The noble barbarian, the dashing young officer, the rebellious runaway slave, the wise old wizard, the witty outcast, these are all being deconstructed during the three books. West’s sister is a deconstruction as well, of the rebellious “noble” woman that fights her societies norm. It just goes badly for her, instead of how it normally goes in fantasy..

    However, I do agree that there is a distinct lack of female agency in the series, especially in the first book. It gets better, but mainly in his stand alone work. At least Abercrombie acknowledged the problem when it was pointed out to him and works to change it, which is more than can be said of most male fantasy authors.

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  13. Eric Griffith

    I think Abercrombie follows the quote he uses for Logan Ninefingers in his story: “You have to be realistic about these things.” This may be fantasy but he hits the dark side of politics, the selfish motivations of humans, how hard it is to change your course once you’ve chosen a dark path, all square on the head. These are real world issues, and I enjoyed seeing them illustrated so vividly in this trilogy.

    My beef with Abercrombie’s writing is far more basic. Too many F-bombs interrupting the otherwise fascinating story. It may be realistic (a lot of people talk like that) but it doesn’t add anything to the story and it’s downright annoying. Take a word with only one real definition and use it in hundreds of contexts that make no sense? He’s certainly got a big enough vocabulary and good enough writing skills that he doesn’t need to sound so ignorant. Because that’s what you sound like when you say “fuck” in every other sentence.

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  14. Andrew Casson

    You seem to mistake the “dark grittiness” of this novel as purely used for shock value and disgust. You also seem to think that the dark fantasy genre didn’t exist before Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. And while that series (coupled with the HBO show) has rekindled the genre, it has existed since the 1700’s; not as the post-Tolkien fantasy that you seem to use as a measuring stick by which to compare all other fantasy novels, but fantasy just the same.

    It is a sign that the author takes the drama within their novel seriously when no character is completely good or bad. Just as life is gray, rather than black and white, so are the moral compasses by which characters in compelling fiction carry themselves. If you want straight forward “good triumphs over evil,” battles where no one bleeds, and far weaker female characters than those present in The Blade Itself (you fail to mention Ardee’s fierce independence and proclivity towards all that is unladylike, as well as Farrah’s fierce strength, skill, and motivation) then stick to Forgotten Realms and Dragon Lance. There are more than enough to last you. Reading the confrontation scene between Ardee and Collem West more closely, you can infer that Collem was abused just as severely in his youth as Ardee was, and his temper and violence in that scene serve to reflect his harsh upbringing in the North, and the vicious circle of abused becoming abusers, mirroring Glokta’s circumstances which portray that theme (and harsh fact of life) far more directly. As for the pronunciation of his name, you’re being intentionally ridiculous.

    If you’ve read Martin’s series, which is fantastically written and immensely entertaining, though not for everyone due to the violence, as well as the level of intelligence necessary to keep up on the readers part, then you knew what you were getting into in reading The Blade Itself. A violent, mildly magical, intelligent dark fantasy that accurately portrays the gruesome nature of war waged by the sword, and the unfortunate but factual chauvinistic and patriarchal society inherent in any novel based on a pre-industrial (as you stated) society that attempts to be remotely true to the times it’s based on. The views expressed are the views of the characters, not of the author, and of course they’re not politically correct by today’s standards. If you want there to be a book that does things the way you want them, then to write it! I’ll be first in line to pick up a copy.

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      “If you’ve read Martin’s series, which is fantastically written and immensely entertaining”

      I tried reading the first one. I thought it was boring as fuck.

      Reply
      1. airjosh

        Anything good takes work. The story takes commitment, that is what makes it great. There’s a reason that it has captured many imaginations.

        Reply

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