Thursday, April 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

Hold the blade, Inquisitor! I will tell the truth! I have found a new favorite author. His name be Abercrombie.

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(Originally posted on SFSignal, reposted here for posterity)
Print Length: 560 pages
Original Publisher: Pyr (2007)
Republished: Orbit (September 8, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0316387312
ISBN-13: 978-0316387316

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Danger brews in the violent North. Dive into a bloodbath of fully realized characters, see a figure of the past stomp into the political arena and hold the flickering candle high to a cast of characters with dark shadows clinging close.

PROS: Wit; unique character voices; a different spin on the typical epic fantasy; lively pacing;
CONS: Agh! Knife in the eye! I can’t see the plot. Where’d it go? Oh, wait. Eye is fine, the plot is hiding behind Glokta’s darkly tormented soul. Hiding right next to a cast of secondary characters overshadowed by Jezal’s ego and cowering from Logen’s dark past.
BOTTOM LINE: Exquisitely realized characters dominate this violent epic that shakes its steels at convention and will have you immersed.

In the Union city of Adua, where the Master Maker’s house towers above like an ominous dark cloud, all is fine and all is as it should be. The populace is kept in line by the ruthless Inquisition, the king is a slothly dullard, and the nobles flit about in their finery, finding purpose in a society of refinement as shallow as a pool of blood, while others mix intrigue and play at the games of power. But there is a danger brewing and a threat to the North, and the First of the Magi must come back into the world to set things right.

Meet a cast of characters with blood on their hands, but deep of thought. Meet a noble of breeding and refinement as shallow and proud as they come. And walk in the shoes of a military hero of common birth that must prove himself to his peers at every turn.

There is no map and there is no glossary in The Blade Itself and, frankly, I didn’t find the absence lacking. Character is the focus here. Abercrombie attacks the pages of The Blade Itself with character. And what beautifully interesting characters they are. Logen is a man of scarred practicality, Glokta is a man of mutilated sensibility, Jezal has never had cause to look further to the future than his mirror, and Bayaz is a man of mystery and wisdom we can only hope to understand. Even the everyman, Major West, is captivating as we see his own struggles.

Character is so much the focus that the plot takes a back seat. There is a greater conflict, a greater battle brewing, but with each character they are so strongly realized that, like life, each are their own worst enemies. In a way this is brilliant and I find it hard to point to a book that does character better. But we can all grow fond and comfortable with form and it is hard to see the plot.

Blood and gore spatter the page, much like the cover. If the gritty realism threatens your stomach, be warned. Abercrombie didn’t earn his nickname of Lord Grimdark for nothing. But it is not senseless. The author puts purpose into every page.

The setting of the story is beautifully realized through the unique eyes of each character. Captured with a modern sensibility, the world is thriving with detail. But if you cringe at the word “pants” or “shirt” in your medieval fantasy, you might want to proceed with caution, or maybe (instead) it is high time to deliberate whether it really matters for a book written for a modern reader. It’s not like anyone in the book is standing in line for an iPhone 6.

For the exquisite characters, for the clever wit and the surprise twist that suddenly made sense out of a major plotline, I give 4 very bloody swords out of 5 and if you didn’t already know: Abercrombie is certainly a dangerous new(ish) threat in publishing.

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