After reading a bunch of Max Gladstone novels, it was refreshing to read a fantasy novel that veered away from fluff. Joe Abercrombie‘s The Blade Itself is the cruelty of an uncaring universe. It is a piece of grizzle in the mouth. The Blade Itself is a novel of a characters doing the best they can to survive in a world they don’t really understand. The Blade Itself: gritty realism in fantasy.
Meet the Cast
The novel is told from six characters perspectives and in such a way that the reader is unsure how the perspectives will intersect. Do the individuals stories create the larger narrative? What is the larger narrative? Who are we supposed to root for?
One of the main protagonists is Logen (The Bloody-Nine). I imagine him to be sort of like a Viking. He’s a deadly fighter and leads a band of rogues, each of whom he defeated in one-to-one combat to the death. He spared their lives in demand for loyalty. Logen is adrift in a changing world. Weary and with a lack of direction, he pledges himself to a wizard with a cause.
Inquisitor Glokta is a torturer in the King’s Inquisition. He used to be a military officer; but, was captured during the Union’s last major war, held for two years, and tortured. Crippled, bitter, and plagued with chronic pain, he’s a cross between a detective and a foil for the more honorable characters in the novel.
The vain, pompous, arrogant Captain Luthar Jezal spends most of the novel gambling and training for The Contest, a grand fencing tournament, which can make or break a young officer’s career. As The Blade Itself is the first book in a trilogy, there’s a long story arc, and characters evolve slowly over time. Jezal provides a good perspective in how the nobility view everyone else. However, he’s not a total ass.
The Dogman was one of Logen’s old crew. He’s a scout, a fighter, and the entrypoint for the reader into those whom followed Logen.
A minor character with a larger role in the following book is Ferro. She’s a tenacious fighter. Some readers might even describe her as a murderer. Escaped slave from the Ghurkil Empire, Ferro, is out for vengeance.
The final point-of-view character, is Major West. He’s Jezal’s superior in the army, but also a commoner. He rounds out the the view of the Union and the relationship between commoner and nobility.
Greed, Power, Incompetence, and Evil
Going back to the question of what is the larger narrative, it seems to be about how power corrupts. Or perhaps, that good intentions twist and rot after years of meddling. Though not a point-of-view character, the wizard Bayaz, drives one area of the novel. War is coming from the north in the form of the Northmen who have a newly proclaimed King, Bethod. Bayaz seems indifferent to this war as it’s the empire to the south, which worships Bayaz’s true foe: Khalul. It’s hard to tell how old Bayaz is. 4,000 years-old? Maybe. He’s been guiding the Union for centuries on and off. Now, though, he is seen as an imposter when he visits the Union. Surely, the real Bayaz can no longer be alive can he?
Are the Union’s problems due to Bayaz’s arrogance or indifference? It’s hard to say. The Union is a bloated, classist bureaucracy with short-sighted power-players looking to enrich themselves over the good of the state. Are readers rooting for them or the Northmen? It’s hard to know as Abercrombie doesn’t make either one particularly likable.
War drums are also beating from the south and the Union’s lone outpost in the Ghurkil Empire is under threat. In this context, Bayaz recruits characters to his cause and a long journey to the edge of the Earth. The party resonates with that of the Lord of the Rings; but, without the grandeur or honor.
The Blade Itself Cuts the Competition
If you like heroics, this series isn’t for you. If you like characters who are clearly good or evil in fantasy, then skip this novel. However, if you want to read something that is captivating, has moral grey-zones like Game of Thrones, and entertains, then I highly recommend The Blade Itself. The novel is dark, twisted, and delightfully subverts fantasy tropes.