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.