I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, May 08, 2023

The Blade Itself (book review)

Part of a book review effort with my friend Jens. This time, we are reviewing The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercombie. Read his take here


"Why do I do this? Inquisitor Glokta asked himself for the thousandth time".

The question in the first sentence of the book haunts the entire book. The characters do not have clear motivations, and it's often difficult to understand what they're after.

The plot is... hard to summarize. The book is basically about the characters, some who will join to create a "group of heroes" (a la Fellowship of  The Ring) that will have to face some (still unclear) threat. All heroes are either living or traveling to the "central kingdom" ("Midderland", with "Angland" as the northernmost province... sigh), which has a weak king, corrupt priests and merchants, and the constant menace of war in the North (the barbarians from the cold) and South (the barbarians from the desert). There are also some orc creatures of unknown origin (later we will find they were created by some ancient dark lord) and lots of intrigue to gain power within the kingdom. But as the book goes, we see no war, the conspiracy is not fully explained, nor any mastermind revealed. There is a (sport) fighting contest but it has no importance in the grand scheme of things. 

So, the focus in on the characters and their personal issues. In addition to the inquisitor*, we have a Norseman barbarian who seems content with just surviving, and a soldier from the central kingdom who is not very motivated to win a fencing championship, but who, eventually, can be convinced by a little reverse psychology. There is also the magician who is thousands of years old and has his own mysterious motives. Much later, we meet Ferro, a brave southern warrior who acts as a wild animal at all times and has many remarkable abilities. For example, she is colorblind and still manages to be annoyingly racist.
(* Here, the Inquisition is a Soviet-style police. Unlike the medieval inquisition, there are no lawyers, process, prosecution, witnesses, publicity, etc., but a lot more victims per year, apparently. “Show me the man and I'll show you the crime”, as Beria said.)

However, there is something artificial about all of them. They fulfill their roles in the plot, but do not feel like real people. Rather than invoking archetypes, they look more like caricatures: the pompous nobleman, the Norse warrior, the wise and powerful mage, the very smart cripple with questionable morals, the wild Southerner. Their characteristics are exaggerated: the nobleman is extremely arrogant, the southerner is too aggressive, and the Norseman is completely stoic – until we find that he is also (surprise, surprise!) some kind of berserker. They do not seem to change in the book except in the most obvious ways.
The exception is perhaps Major West, a minor character who has a sister with an important role in the plot and even some nuance, almost (almost!) doing a 180-degree turn at one point. The main characters have almost no meaningful relationships with their families and friends – if they even have families and friends. The villains are not much better: we have scheming priests, greedy merchants, and very orc-like creatures making random attacks, in addition to one mighty villain that stabs his own arm to show how strong he is. There is a band of rogue Norseman that manage to be somewhat more interesting than the protagonists, and even face real danger and change.

The setting, in this first book, also has little to offer: ice and warriors to the north, sand and warriors to the south, ancient empires, old secretive wizards, "orcs", and so on. The monstrous "eaters" are a little more interesting, but so far, they just seem like evil creatures with no purpose - "ghouls" renamed to sound more obvious (they are eaters, because they eat people).
The story does not hold any big surprises either. This is the first book in a trilogy, and it becomes increasingly apparent that he is preparing, not telling, a saga. Little happens in this first book, probably to justify the grandiose events planned for the future. If you told me that the next books are more interesting, I would probably believe you. I briefly read a few summaries and the story seems to get better with time. Unfortunately, I am unlikely to look for these books - perhaps I should give a chance to some other work by the author.
I was interested in this book because I thought I saw it mentioned as an example of "dark fantasy". There has certainly been some mistake. The first book is not the greatest example of the fantasy genre, but it is not exactly "dark" either. There is no sense of tragedy, or downfall of the main characters. On the contrary, the characters undergo a slight rise: the arrogant becomes less arrogant, the defeated and unarmed warrior gains strength and a magic sword, the torturer comes to value human contact. There is plenty of dark humor and nihilism, but the tone is more epic than "dark".
On the other hand, the book has a collection of what has come to be called "adult themes": profanity, torture, severed limbs, a certain pessimism about institutions, and frequent comparisons of things to "shit". Sexual content, on the other hand, is very limited. Again, the later books seem to add twists, moral dilemmas and shades of grey, but there are few here.
However, there is also a bright side to this not-so-dark-fantasy. The book is certainly a page-turner, for one. I was often anxious to know what would happen next (unfortunately, not much happens in this book) and, at times, I could not stop reading. The characters, although stereotyped, have some flaws and color. In addition, the society presents some complexity with its guilds, orders, and banks (although having a store where you can buy theater costumes readily available was a bit too modern for me).
The story is told from several points of view – mostly form the “heroes”. Characters' thoughts are often described in detail. Landscapes also receive elaborate descriptions. Combat and action scenes are frequent, but not especially interesting or realistic. The heroes are all badasses (former badass, badass in training, badass until five minutes ago, centenarian badass, savage badass), but “modern” ones, so they get beaten, tortured, maimed and disarmed before they can win the day in the next scene. Unlikely pulp heroes - who can always throw a punch that is faster and stronger then their foes - they win for being able to take endless punches and still stand, never quite making you feel they could actually lose. If this piques your interest, you might enjoy the book.
The story of the trilogy as a whole seems compelling enough for me to consider reading other books by the author or at least a comic book adaptation. The book has a cinematographic “feel”, which makes me think that a TV adaptation could also be interesting.
Maybe I'm asking too much of the author's first book - or judging as a self-contained book something that is simply an introduction to a larger story. Still, even in a trilogy one book should suffice on its own.
Or maybe I'm unfairly comparing the book to great classics such as Tolkien, Moorcock, Anderson, or even George R.R. Martin, who recommends it. The Blade Itself is definitely not on that level. It is a bit below Glenn Cook or Nicholas Eames, a little less fun than the first Witcher books, but still has a few ideas you can use in your D&Dish games.
Well, it is definitely better than the last Eddings I have reviewed, and it is well written enough (if uninteresting) for a first novel. It is not much, but maybe it is something.


To end on a positive note, Jens recommended I try David Gemmel (which I did), and I've been reading ERB too. They are much better. So you'll probably read some positive book reviews soon!


  1. So, yeah. Abercrombie is a different beast than the authors you mention, and I'm sorry you didn't like him. He develops characters over several books, not just in the first paragraph. Logen Ninefingers is hands-down one of the most enjoyable characters I've read in a while, in no small part because he's a tragic character (not "he comes to a bad end"; his character is tragic.) The whole conceit of Named Men translates amazingly well to D&D, or is lifted from it.

    Anyway...that's how tastes work though. Better luck next time!

    1. Thank you! Yeah, next one will be more positive. The series certainly has its fans (and Logen too). Several people have told me the trilogy as a whole is more interesting than the first part, probably true. But I agree, in the end it is a matter of taste. Even the ones in appendix N have their fans and detractors.

    2. I know Jens put Steven Erikson on his list, and I had the same reaction to him that you guys did to Abercrombie. Didn't care for it at all, and people telling me "it gets better after 3-4 books" doesn't inspire me to keep going when the books are 800+ pages each.

    3. Now we agree! I was not a fan of Erikson either. Couldn't finish Gardens of the Moon, found it too slow.

      I'll try to put together my own list of favorites, should include the obvious suspects (Tolkien, Moorcock, Anderson, HPL, CAS, ERB, REH, LeGuin, Borges) plus Gemmel, Poe, Susanna Clarke.. And hopefully something more obscure to spice things up!

    4. You guys, Erikson is GOD! :D That said, I'd concede that Erikson's "too much" can have the same effect as Abercrombie's "not enough by a long shot" ... Not sure you guys are aware of how Erikson wrote those books: he and a pal went into world building for six years before writing their stories, establishing thousands and thousands of years history for a complete planet. It's been the setting for their GURPS campaign. No paragraph is wasted in those books, it's all building towards something, and it is very, very complex ... which I like a lot, but I know it is not for everyone. If you'd b interested to try something else by him, I'd recommend The Forge of Darkness (same world, very different in style and tone) or the first part of the Willful Child trilogy (if a Star Trek romp sounds like something you'd enjoy). Or take another route and look into the work Erikson's buddy published about that setting: Ian C. Esslemont. Very solid dark fantasy, far more conventional writer than Erikson, fascinating and deep setting.

    5. That could be a good idea. I doubt I'd have the stamina to read a dozen Malazan books, but maybe I should try some of the shorter stories.

  2. Not gonna lie, I physically threw the book after the big "gotcha!" reveal at the end of book 2. Glen Cook did grimdark better and earlier.

    1. Yup, I found the first Glen Cook more authentic. The characters are not as colorful but they feel like people, not caricatures.