Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The Crimes of Heaven and Hell is back in action. Find below an installment of the Is That an Old Book? review series. For more on that concept, the link is here. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that a health issue, combined with a rigorous writing and revising schedule with my publisher, has kept me more than occupied, and the blog has had to go on sabbatical. It’s back however, and I hope this fall will be a fruitful time for all forms of writing. As for an update on Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, I have been in recent communication with Charon Coin Press that we are still on track, yet do not yet have a release date. As soon as I know, it will certainly be announced here. In the meantime, enjoy the following review of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself:

A friend first handed me Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself because they knew I was a George R. R. Martin fan. Of course, the series A Song of Ice and Fire has gotten so popular its mere mention threatens the conversation with the juggernaut of its massive context rumbling over all else. This type of phenomena takes attention away from the aesthetic that made such stories popular in the first place. In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire, a significant part of its strength lies in its mercilessness. The story is merciless not only with its characters, but with any form of the comforting hope that usually accompanies fantasies and other stories that are considered to lend themselves well to escapism. With The Blade Itself, Abercrombie delivers a story that rekindles that sense of how extremely difficult it is to have a feeling of hope in the face of crushing odds and forces that leave a protagonist trapped and vulnerable to fate. An even more intriguing aspect of Abercrombie’s effort resides in the story’s lack of relying simply on whether a character lives or dies to create drama, but whether a character is able to reach their own realistically developed personal goals and desires. Survival of the soul becomes as important as the survival of the body beneath the looming specter of invasion and war.

The book draws an intriguing contrast between innovative characterization and common fantasy themes. Many of the scenes take place in a large city called the Agriont, a sort of late medieval fortress mixed with budding mercantilist berg. The ruling oligarchy and military vie for power while trying to simultaneously prepare for an invasion from the north. Jezal, a slacker of an army officer from a wealthy family, prepares for a fencing contest against a hardened champion while trying his best to ignore more serious political realities. Unsure of his odds, he detests his training and trainer, and remotely fears what an actual war will mean for his future. He develops some redeeming qualities when, against his better judgment, he finds himself falling in love with his commanding officer’s sister, Ardee West. Ardee is herself an exiled peasant who resents her dependence on her brother’s station for survival. Abused and powerless, she knows the limits of her option too well. Though a somewhat minor character effaced by most reviewers, she earns interest by well-sketched frustration and attempts to maintain her own a quiet yet gritty brand of bravery. Her self-destructive habits reflect an internal turmoil over how to confront her situation head-on without empowering her with some kind of ridiculous deus ex machina, oh-just-cast-a-spell or draw-a-sword solution. It is this type of real decision making set within a fantasy context that revives the aforementioned feeling of merciless fate one got in the early installments of A Song of Ice and Fire. The relationship between Ardee and Jezal, along with the build-up to the duel, becomes one of the book’s main story arcs and vehicles for developing the characters in the Agriont. Sand dan Glokta, another character who earns the reader’s sympathy very gradually, is a former POW turned torturer, who suffers constantly from his former wounds and present knowledge that helping the city’s ruling oligarchy is to paint oneself into a corner with a bucket of blood. Through these characters’ points of view we enjoy the unfolding tragedy of what amounts to a medieval dystopia about to devour itself.

As these events are taking place, another pair of story arcs, one in the frozen north, another in the desert south, begin to creep toward center stage. Logen Ninefingers, a reluctant northern warrior and former servant of a sadistic king, fights to survive as the leader of a troop of rogue bandits. A kind of Conan-meets-Robin-Hood figure, he regrets serving the cruel and instead enlists in the service of Bayaz, a merlin-like wizard who is returning to attempt to restore some balance to the lands. As close to ‘forces of good’ as the novel gets, Logen and Bayaz carry their rough ethics south to the Agriont and reveal a connection to the world’s rich history and mythology which allows them to make a bid to possibly thwart the dystopian oligarchy.

The novel contains many other worthy characters, as well as many other worthy subplots. Suffice it to say that the outcome of Jezal’s duel and love interest, as well as the outcomes of Logen’s and Bayaz’s quests, do not hinge simply on whether they live or die. Without spoiling the duel’s outcome entirely here, I will only say that the well-sketched resolution might have one reviewing the meaning of the word ‘Pyrrhic’. While I grant that the action sequences might be a little slow for some readers, overall, The Blade Itself offers enough originality and insight to make it a welcome addition to the ranks of high-quality ‘adult’ fantasy, with the especially impressive quality of not relying on simplistic kill-or-be-killed outcomes.

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