The First Law: Blade Itself v. 1 (Gollancz SF S.)
by Joe Abercrombie
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0575077867
Date: 04 May, 2006 List Price £9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
At the risk of starting a review by sounding like I'm writing my own version of So You Wanna be a Novelist, it occurs to me a little deconstruction will provide an appropriate angle for explaining why I enjoyed Joe Abercrombie's excellent debut novel The Blade Itself so much.
Such instruction manuals I'm sure have provided much sensible advice for new authors, largely by identifying the elements and ingredients that go to make up a successful story. (Even though I'm no fiction writer myself (and have no aspirations to become one) I recommend very much Orson Scott Card's How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy which takes an unpretentious, common sense approach to writing such as its nuts and bolts, pragmatic title implies.) Any such advisory book (worth its salt) tells us that inventive as writers can be with situation and scenario, or with period and plot, with twists and turns and tricks and toys, it is character that drives a story on. Stories are, after all, about people and the things that happen to them.
Actually, it could be pedantically argued that this is not the case in SF and Fantasy – the character might be a robot or a dragon or a monster or ... whatever. It could equally be argued that a story might be about a place or an idea rather than a being, but it cannot be denied that character is the medium through which everything in a story flows. Within the mechanics of a story, it is characters that provide the fuel on which the engine runs. They are the people (dragons, hobbits, robots, tentacled monsters from Zorbex 8) that the story is happening to.
So why is this my angle on The Blade Itself? Because, in short, it's a debut novel that has got the character side of things so bang on the money that it will forever be cited as a shining example to all that follow. Actually, I can shorten this sentiment even further – simply put, this is how its done!
Joe Abercrombie's novel is a fantasy populated by a collection of intrinsically interesting characters, all of them anti-heroes, the kind of folks who display ignorance rather than innocence, their acts mostly prompted by selfishness and gain. Every one of them wants for redeeming features and thus I warmed to them immediately! The star of the show is undoubtedly Inquisitor Glotka – a crippled ex-war hero whose bravery and self-sacrifice is now largely forgotten. Glotka is a state sanctioned torturer, paid to extract information from the criminal class, or from whomsoever his superiors decide deserves such treatment. Glotka is uniquely suited to this job, though not in the sense of him being a cruel man (though he's certainly capable of such) - but rather as one who has extensive experience of pain. He inhabits his own world of bitterness and bile, greeting each new day with a resigned self-loathing and inwardly directed sickle-sharp sense of irony at the sorry state of his life. He is an extraordinary character creation, defaced and ugly on the inside as well as the surface, yet somehow entirely sympathetic. Abercrombie uses the simple but so effective technique of revealing Glotka's innermost thoughts in italics, so that when we witness him saying "Yes Sir" we know he's thinking Never in a million years, Sir, and this allows the reader to share a sense of this character's considerable and relentless pain. Time spent in Glotka's company is excruciating, but his wit and guile, his bruising honesty (with us, if not with his fellow characters) and his surely award-winning cynicism make him one of the most entertaining characters I've met. A parallel may well be Tyrion Lannister, the ruthless, crookback dwarf in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels – utterly loathsome, but utterly compelling and we can't help but be on his side.
In The Blade Itself though, Glotka is far from the only interesting character. Abercrombie is far too talented to confine himself to a single protagonist. There's Logan Ninefingers, a hulking barbarian, constantly surprised by the fact that he's still alive after each violent encounter he stumbles into. Logan too exudes a heavy whiff of cynicism – this is clearly a character motif for Abercrombie, and a creditable one at that!. Separated from his band of squabbling mercenaries and presumed dead, Logan learns that he's being sought by one Bayaz, an old man with the intriguing title of "First of the Magi". When we meet Bayaz, Abercrombie provides us with an inverted version of a fantasy archetype. This is no Gandalf the Grey – sure, Bayaz has a beard and is doubtless wise, but he smells more of confidence trickster than a great wizard of legend. With his barbarian in tow, Bayaz journeys to the city, and we learn that it's just possible that this bad tempered, sharp tongued so-called mage may indeed really be the Bayaz of legend, the Bayaz whose enormous statue has stood in the centre of the city for some centuries. He certainly bears an uncanny resemblance to it, but that can only be coincidence, can't it?
Another point of view character is Captain Jezal dan Luthar – a pompous, up-his-own-arse nobleman, born into his commission and – true to type – far more interested in gambling, drinking and whoring than he is in soldiering. Jezal though is a reasonably good swordsman, and he's being groomed to compete in the annual fencing competition, which should he win, would provide him with enough kudos and admiration to last him a good few years. The trouble is Jezal is snob, and a lazy snob at that and Abercrombie sends him on journey through the novel that singles Jezal out as the only major character whom it would seem can possibly be redeemed. Jezal's colleague, Captain West, is low born, but has reached his rank through bravery and diligent hard work. When West's young sister Ardee turns up, Jezal finds himself in the awkward position of having unwisely fallen in love with her, but in keeping with the character traits on display in The Blade Itself, it turns out that Ardee, though doubtless attractive, is also a willful, irritating and often inebriated prick-tease.
What's so enjoyable in Abercrombie's work is the sense one gets that all these people have lived a life outside the confines of this story. They are all rounded, solid and beautifully rendered characters and they all interact with a chemistry that makes for great and highly entertaining reading. Abercrombie's skill in this extends to his minor characters too, and there are plenty of them, from Glotka's shadowy, hooded assistants - the huge, silent Practical Frost and his partner, Practical Severard, a man who takes a worrying pride in his work, to Bayaz's pale, sickly apprentice Malacus Quai, to Glotka's ruthless, proud and deaf-to-reason boss, Arch Lector Sult. And there are many more well worthy of mention. It is truly rare to come across a novel so richly populated with folks, all of whom could be successful protagonists in their own novels.
The Blade Itself is therefore an extremely impressive debut, the first in a series subtitled The First Law, and in Joe Abercrombie it brings us a writer who oozes promise. This is surely a novel as sharp as its title.