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Fantasy Challenge #3: The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie


Yes, I should have posted this last month. But with one thing and another, I didn’t actually get to the book until early April, and I only finished it a couple of days ago. And I still have April’s book for the fantasy challenge to read and review.

But, The Blade Itself… I had high expectations for this novel, as I’ve yet to see a bad review of it. Admittedly, most of those reviews are by people who are bigger fans of secondary-world fantasy than I am. I may have read my fair share, but it’s by no means my first choice of reading. Or second. Or even third or fourth. And for all that I’ve read many of the popular fantasy writers – Tolkien, Jordan, Erikson, Martin, Moorcock, Donaldson, etc. – I’ve never found them an especially satisfying read. The Blade Itself then, I hoped, given its reputation, might prove something different. After all, it was in part because of books such as The Blade Itself – and their reputations – that I chose to make this year’s reading challenge a fantasy challenge.

So if I’ve laden down Joe Abercrombie’s novel with great expectations, I’ve done no more than all those book bloggers and reviewers out there who praise it. And… you just know I’m going to bury it. Sort of.

As far as I can determine, The Blade Itself‘s reputation rests in part on its subverting of genre stereotypes. There’s no peasant hero, no hidden king, no dark lord, no plot coupons or quest. This is a book which rejects templates and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Mostly. The novel’s plot is a case in point. The barbarians in the north have finally organised under a king, Bethold, and are threatening to invade Angland, a northern territory belong to the Union (a united island kingdom). To the south, the city of Dagoska is about to be besieged by the Gurkish Empire, which occupies the continent from which it depends Gibraltar-like. This story is told through the viewpoints of a handful of disparate characters: Logen Ninefingers, an exiled northern barbarian; Inquisitor Glokta, a war hero who is now a despised cripple and torturer; and Captain Jezal dan Luthar, a lazy, arrogant, and not too intelligent officer in the King’s army.

Once upon a time, I thought writing a story featuring a cast of unlikeable characters would be an interesting exercise. Many novels, for example, have anti-heroes – indeed Moorcock created an entire canon of fantasy works featuring anti-heroes. But unlikeable characters and anti-heroes are not the same thing. Abercrombie’s characters are unlikeable – more than that, they’re often despicable. This may be bucking the stereotypes in secondary-world fantasy literature, but Warhammer and other RPGs have been doing it for years. And while it may be an interesting writing exercise, it’s a less interesting reading exercise. I didn’t like Luthar or Glokta; Ninefingers was Conan without the boasting. I didn’t understand why I should want to read their stories. I don’t want to read about prats and pillocks, I see enough of them in real life.

Having said that, the cast of The Blade Itself – and one or two of the secondary characters are actually quite sympathetic – wouldn’t have been so annoying if they had been properly characterised. But Abercrombie uses a technique common in secondary-world fantasy: characterisation by quirk. Each character has a distinctive speech pattern – and some are so distinctive they’re pretty much parodies. Or, in the case of Glokta, Abercrombie presents his thoughts italicised in the prose. And because only Glokta’s thoughts are presented to the reader, he often feels as though he escaped from another book.

The plot has in its favour that it’s not a quest. Having said that, the build up to a war on two fronts is not the most exciting of stories – especially given that The Blade Itself tells it only from the Union’s point of view, and we have only its upper echelons’ prejudiced view of the motives of the northern barbarians and the Gurkish Empire. And those upper echelons are even more of a parody than the central cast. Abercrombie adds to this meagre plot through the introduction of Bayaz, First of the Magi. Ages past, apparently – although exactly when is unclear; certainly several centuries ago – a group of wizards did something which entered legend. Bayaz was one of them, but now he has come back to the Union’s capital, Adua. Except they’re not convinced he is who he says he is…

The Blade Itself is a secondary-world fantasy, which means its world is important. I’m tempted to think a secondary world is more of a hygiene factor – a bad one won’t ruin a book, but a good one will improve it – but perhaps that’s because so many are based on the same models. The world of The Blade Itself is vaguer than most – there’s no map, for example – which actually works to its advantage. Nothing is especially original, and the various societies’ models are plain, but by refusing to treat his novel like a role-playing game supplement, Abercrombie has pushed his story onto his characters. Which would be both a clever move and admirable, if only the characters weren’t such caricatures. Nonetheless, it’s an improvement on many other secondary-world fantasies.

There are some interesting bits in there. But, as in other books of this type, they’re buried in the back-story and it’s only their effect on the narrative which is described. In The Blade Itself, it’s the story of the Maker, and the visit by Bayaz and a handful of others into the House of the Maker, a vast tower in the centre of Adua. That bit I did like.

If there’s a word I’ve heard most associated with The Blade Itself more than any other, it’s “gritty”. I’m not sure if this refers to the unlikeable characters or the level of violence. Because it is a violent book. The damage inflicted in each of the many fight scenes is very detailed. You’d expect a secondary-world fantasy to be violent – it’s in the nature of the genre, they have swords and battles and good versus evil – but none seem to revel in the blood and guts as much as The Blade Itself does. But violence, in fiction as in real life, should be used sparingly. Too much gore on the page, and the story turns into little more than a framing mechanism for one fight after another. A plot needs to be more than that. Thankfully, Abercrombie likes his fight scenes, but he doesn’t let them take over his story.

It occurred to me as I read The Blade Itself that one of the reasons I often find secondary-world fantasy so dissatisfying is because there’s little in it to impress me. In science fiction, you have “eyeball kicks”, or concepts which appeal directly to your sense of wonder; in literary fiction, you can find lovely prose, or an insight whose truth seems so self-evident you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself, or perhaps an artfully-turned plot that causes you to question everything that has gone before. Secondary-world fantasy offers none of these. It is world-building and story. And the world-building is so often built on historical, or earlier fictional, models that little of it comes as a surprise. The story likewise often follows a tried and tested formula. There’s nothing in them to impress me; I don’t find them satisfying reads.

The Blade Itself is a case in point. It’s undoubtedly better than Pawn of Prophecy (see here). Its prose is not as assured as Assassin’s Apprentice – it is, in fact, often clumsy, although it does improve as it progresses – but its world-building is not as dull as in Hobb’s novel (see here). Its plot is certainly less clichéd, and its cast of characters so much anti-stereotype they’ve turned into parodies.

I approached The Blade Itself with high expectations. For a secondary-world fantasy. Which was somewhat unfair. But then, if you approach a book with low expectations and it exceeds them, that doesn’t mean it’s a good book. When people say science fiction should not be held to the same standard as other branches of fiction, that cardboard characters and plonking prose are fine because it’s science fiction… they’re talking crap. The same holds true for secondary-world fantasy. A good secondary-world fantasy should still be a good book. There should be no caveats, no special generic dispensations.

Will I read the next book in The First Law trilogy? Given the size of the TBR pile – not to mention the two cardboard boxes of books I “quite fancy” reading I have in the other room – no, it’s not going to happen. I don’t especially care what happens to the characters, and if the trilogy’s story-arc is simply a war on two fronts, then I don’t especially care how the trilogy ends. The Blade Itself is the best of the three fantasy novels I’ve read for this challenge so far, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll be the best of the year…

16 thoughts on “Fantasy Challenge #3: The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie

  1. Fine review.

    My experience with the blade itself was a bit like yours… although shorter. Having long avoided fantasy like the plague I went through a sudden phase of rediscovering it largely as a result of reading The Solitudes.

    So I went from The Solitudes to The Blade Itself and my brain rebelled : “Why are you stabbing me with such terrible prose?” it asked on page one. I didn’t get much further.

    Also, how original is the idea of unpleasant characters? Vance, Lieber, Howard and Moorcock all made their names with characters who were usually complete pricks. And I disagree that they’re anti-heroes. Elric becomes one once the concept of the Balance takes root in the series but Conan? He kills people and robs temples in order to get money to spend on prostitutes, ale and fancy hats.

    • Conan was unpleasant, but he wasn’t a despicable prat. Which is what many of the characters in The Blade Itself are. They whinge, whine, bluster and rant, and you’d sooner they died horrible deaths. You can’t carry a story with characters like that.

  2. Dearie me. Gotta say that I disagree with you, there, matey boy. I mean, I`m sure I’ve read as much fantasy as yourself, and I came away from reading TBI witha completely different impression. You say that the characters whinge, whine, bluster and rant – I didnt get that at all (you can, however, find all those qualities in abundance in Tome of the Undergates, by god!). I thought that Mr A did a fine job of delineating characters in different ways – Logen grew steadily on me throughout the book, Glokta started off as a thoroughly repulsive character yet he gained a certain cracked nobility by the end, and Luthar’s character itself was changed by experience. Sorry, chum, I really liked it.

    • I knew plenty would – and will – disagree with me, but I still found the bulk of the book’s cast as unlikeable at the end as they were at the beginning – if a little more rounded. But that characterisation by quirks is certainly true – just think of Brother Longfoot. If you want to read a well-written fantasy, then I recommend Paul Park’s Princess of Romania. That tetralogy is something of a yardstick for secondary-world fantasies, as fas as I’m concerned.

  3. Return unto the science fictional midden from whence thou didst most unbiddenly spring, varlets!

    Cobley, you can stay.

    And I’ll have you know my mum thinks my characterisation is ACE, so there.

    • Oi. I trash science fiction novels as often as I trash fantasy novels.

      • My apologies, mr. sales, for my conversational tone, I realise now that I have mistaken you for Ian Whates. Had I known that I, in fact, have never met you I wouldn’t have been quite so forward. No offence meant, I was aiming at a joke. Especially about my mum, who actually thinks my books are rubbish.

    • I’m not sure how you could mistake me for Ian Whates – he’s considerably more unmistakeable than I am. No offence was taken – your comment was amusing.

  4. Start with the title, which is bad enough, then move on to the genre in question, which overflows with hacks and bubbleheads and hairy-toed fans with the aesthetic of 12 year olds, and we see what we’re up against.

    “Characterization by quirk”–a grand observation and all too true. If anything, I would say you were TOO scrupulously fair with this particular offering, which should be cast into the fires of Mount Doom with a certain fancy ring. The fantasy field is a wasteland and anyone still working its tired tropes is lazy, semi-talented and hoping to score some big bucks for a never-ending series, featuring prose that would make Tolkien weep in despair; shame on you…

  5. Thanks for the review Ian. Sounds interesting and I have heard much about this book. I have been deliberating whether to include it in this year’s quest to aquaint myself with recent offerings of SF and Fantasy.

    Also, Paul Park’s Princess of Roumania sounds interesting too. I may have to check that out.

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  7. Good Lord,

    I reckon this is probably the first time I’ve ever been confused with you, Mr Sales!

    For the record, my own experience with this trilogy is a lot closer to Mike’s than yours, Ian. I thought the characters distinctive, and much of the ‘whinging’ you refer to amusing, as I’m sure was intended. A great fun read, all in all. Certainly not without fault, but pure enjoyment more than compensated for my frustrations.

    All in all, I think Joe’s done a cracking job.

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