The Blade Itself will undoubtedly become classic fantasy. I found it engrossing, and one of the best examples of the “darker” epic fantasies, with protagonists lacking in traditional heroic qualities and quests that are less than selfless. I liked the way the story was constructed, primarily following three main characters, with a fourth was added partway through the book. I was fairly certain they would intersect at some point, so part of the interest in the story is seeing how their individual tales will intertwine. The stories of each are mostly linear, with some appropriate flashbacks, but never done so choppy that one can’t tell primary time frame. I can’t tell you what a relief this is; I’ve been reading too many deconstructionist sort of fantasies lately where narrative skill is dropped for the ease of disjointed four-page scenes. Does everyone have narrative ADD? However, I digress.
Abercrombie has a gift for clear storytelling without simplicity. While I had heard this was a “dark fantasy,” with unlikable characters, I would wholeheartedly disagree, at least within the confines of this book. Perhaps on the surface our three main characters are unlikable–one a ‘barbarian’ with a very bloody past, Logen Ninefingers; one a vain and talented peacock, Captain Jezel; and the last a maimed and internally tortured torturer, Inquisitor Glokta–but they are imbued with a humanity that makes them likeable despite themselves. Frequently we are privy to their decision-making process, and it becomes evident that their motives are more complex than simple bloodthirst, vanity or hate. Ninefingers is undergoing a shift in his feelings on fighting and war, after losing everything he has loved. It’s lovely seeing how the entitled noble Jezel finds himself attracted to someone very different than he, and the stages he goes through as he realizes his love. Glokta’s interactions with the Arch Lector are stunning; we quickly develop the sense of the long term and unethical mechanizations of the Arch Lector and develop further sympathy for the poor torturer. It was a brilliant way to help readers understand the political ramifications of the actions we’ve been witnessing without a lot of dreary exposition or monologues.
A portentous and sinister air develops through the book. There is the larger issue of the Union and it’s surrounding countries preparing for war, and the local issue of a power vacuum around king’s throne, and competing interests. The evil characters are frightening-the Northmen have a sorceress working with them, and the Emperor of Gurkhul uses monsters called “Eaters” as enforcers. Nonetheless, there are light moments, and moments of redemption, even in beginning chapters, such as when Logen decides to rescue someone, even if it should mean his death. It’s an astonishing level of complexity, but Abercrombie handles it well.
I’ve already got the second book on my shelf waiting to be read.