Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Blade Itself

A few posts ago I gave a rave review to Joe Abercrombie's novel, Best Served Cold, calling it possibly the best fantasy novel of the decade. Best was his fourth book, following his First Law trilogy. So of course I had to get around to the First Law books. Last night I finished up the first volume in the trilogy, The Blade Itself.
I liked the book quite a bit, though not as much as Best Served Cold. Being the first of three, Blade has a lot of set up, and a lot of character development. Things are just getting started. However, at this point I'm not really sure where the series is going. There's no major plotline to speak of, just a group of developing subplots. Similarly there's no clear protagonist. It's an ensemble cast. I suppose if one had to pick a "hero" of the book it would be Logen Ninefingers, also known as The Bloody Nine. Logen, and his fellow Northmen barbarians are basically Vikings without ships. In fact, much like in Best Served Cold, Abercrombie's fantasy world has a very European feel to it. I like that. It reminds me of Robert E. Howard, who used a lot of names and cultures reminiscent of people and places from history. Anyway, Logen and the boys are barbarians, so you know I'm glad to have them around.
Oddly enough, the most fully realized character in the book is a crippled torturer named Glokta who works for the King's Inquisition. Glokta reminds me of the titular character in Sir Author Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Crooked Man. Glokta, a dashing handsome soldier, was captured by enemies and systematically tortured for two years, leaving him a crippled wreck of a man. Now he dishes out the one thing he is intimately familiar with, pain. He's understandably bitter. But over the course of the book, as the reader spends a lot of time in Glokta's point of view, he or she comes to see flashes of the man Glokta was. He's a brilliant character and Abercrombie uses him well.
Another thing that separates The Blade Itself from Best Served Cold is the use of magic. I mentioned that there was virtually no magic in Best, but in Blade we get several different wizards and some other examples of actual magic at work. Readers of more traditional fantasy will probably be more comfortable with The Blade Itself than with Best Served Cold. It's still a darker, edgier take on fantasy tropes but it's not quite as over the top as Best.
Abercrombie gets some comparisons to George R.R. Martin, mostly I think because his characters are very complex and because he's willing to kill off main characters without warning. I've never been able to read Martin, so I can't really comment on that. Anyway, I'll be very interested in seeing how Abercrombie's writing progresses over the next two volumes. I can tell this is his first book. His voice isn't as assured as it is in the fourth novel. But you can see him finding his way. Next up is Before They Are Hanged. The man has some great titles, eh? I had planned to read something different before starting in on book two of the trilogy, but I was taken enough with The Blade Itself to make me want to jump right into the second volume. I'll let you know what I think.


STAG said...

About magic in modern fantasy fiction. Hmmm.

Magic is so rarely done well...too often it is used for the "gee whiz...loookit that" effect. I always feel that if the story is a good one, then you don't really need the special effects. Like a church bell in a might have its place, but lets not over use it!

Fafyrd and the Grey Mouser got by almost totally without magic...and in the small doses it came in, it was great. Prince Valiant ran weekly for more than 25 years (a solid endorsement of popularity IMHO) magic at all.

Even LOTR, which reeked of magic, was consistent within itself, and one got the impression that much of the magic was really technology of some sort that we didn't really understand. yet.

I am really looking forward to your novel. See how it all shakes out.


Charles R. Rutledge said...

Yep, I agree. A little magic goes a long way. Best to keep it subtle. Fritz Leiber's work is indeed a good example. He's probably my favorite fantasy author.