Review: THE BLADE ITSELF by Joe Abercrombie

I’m fairly certain at this point I’m the only person left who hadn’t already read it, but if THE BLADE ITSELF is still on your reading list, don’t put it off another darn day! Crack that bad lad open right now and lose yourself in Joe Abercrombie’s meticulously-crafted world and the shady, scheming, often despicable characters who inhabit it.

The Blade Itself is told from the perspective of three main POV characters (and later three other secondary POV characters as the story develops). We follow Logen Ninefingers, a Northman with a bloody past and a fearsome reputation, as he accompanies the wizard Bayaz to the capital city of The Union; Sand dan Glokta, a crippled war veteran-turned professional Inquisition torturer, tasked with investigating the allegedly corrupt Guild of Mercers; and Jezal dan Luthar, an arrogant young nobleman currently training for a prestigious fencing contest, but who cares more about drinking, gambling and pursuing the women Adua.

None of these characters are even nice people, but Abercrombie injects them with so much life that they brim with energy and vitality and their stories wash over you in vivid technicolor. Their hopes and fears, their doubts and their dreams. We get to see what makes these people tick, warts and all. And there are lots of warts. I wouldn’t want to go for a drink with any of them, but I was quickly invested in their lives and the events swirling around them.

There’s just so many great scenes and character moments that I can’t really talk about without getting too spoilery. Suffice to say that reading The Blade Itself was almost a cinematic experience.

There’s no lengthy exposition or info-dumping. The lore and unfolding politics of Joe’s world are slowly drip fed throughout the book and it’s expertly weaved into the narrative only when it becomes relevant to the story. Too often in fantasy and science fiction I see authors try to do this, only to fail when they have characters over-explain something to another character for the benefit of the reader. Joe Abercrombie doesn’t do that and honestly, it makes for seriously compelling storytelling when a character casually drops some new teasing piece of information or world building into conversation, with little to no explanation, and have it’s meaning become apparent later.

I’m a sucker for political intrigue, backstabbing and social upheaval and The Blade Itself serves a deliciously Machiavellian cocktail of all three in perfect measure. I was heavily invested in Glokta’s story line because as an Inquisitor he’s at the centre of this grimy, duplicitous, underhanded world. He was just the perfect character to do it; a bitter, cynical, amoral man with nothing in the world left to care for.

I was reliably informed that The First Law trilogy is some of the best grimdark fantasy out there, and while The Blade Itself does feature a lot of the tropes and themes that have come to define grimdark as a genre (deeply flawed, morally ambiguous protagonists and scheming nobles embedded in conflict-ridden kingdom politics) the tone of the book didn’t weigh as heavily on me as other giants of the genre such as A Song of Ice and Fire or The Witcher books. It made for easier reading, but possibly came at the expense of a greater degree of atmosphere and gritty tension. This isn’t necessarily meant as a criticism – after all YMMV and it’s very subjective, though I did have one fairly major issue with the book.

***Very minor spoiler alert for something that happens early on – it’s literally part of the introductory set up but skip ahead if you want to discover it in the reading***

I was never convinced by Logen’s motivation for joining up with Bayaz. We get a fairly odd scene at the beginning of the book where Logen speaks to three spirits, who tell him Bayaz is looking for him. Having just been separated from his band of warrior friends and assuming them dead, we’re expected to believe this gives Logen purpose again. Bayaz briefly mentions this to Logen later in the book when he says “You have never once asked me why I sent for you, or why we are wandering through the North in peril of our lives. That strikes me as odd.” (Yes Bayaz, it does). Logen replies simply “Not really. I don’t want to know”.

I mean, okay, I guess?

Is there something I’m missing about Logen’s character here? Some aspect of his personality that I’ve failed to grasp?

In any case, I thought the whole thing with Logen talking to spirits was jarring. I think it’s maybe mentioned once more that Logen is possibly the only person who can communicate with them anymore so I’m giving this the benefit of the doubt for now, as it perhaps gives Bayaz a reason for needing Logen beyond him just being good at killing people. Unless this is developed further in the next book it felt like a convenient plot device designed to give Logen an excuse to meet Bayaz; I just never fully bought into the fact Logen considered it reason enough to join up with him and fundamentally change the course of his own life.

***End of spoilers***

When I told Petrik from Novel Notions I was about to start reading The Blade Itself, he told me that the trilogy is really one long book, with this first instalment basically acting as a long set up to introduce the characters, bring them together and draw us into the world.

It is exactly that. And it’s done very well.

Just don’t go into this expecting a kind of self-contained story that wraps up neatly at the end. Because it doesn’t do that. At all. Instead I felt like I spent this book growing accustomed to the status quo of life in a dysfunctional kingdom seen through the eyes of some of its most interesting citizens and, as I turned the last page, I got the sense that things ended just at the moment that status quo was about to be shattered forever.

All told, this is a great book. If you need me I’ll be out back kicking myself for not reading it sooner.

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6 thoughts on “Review: THE BLADE ITSELF by Joe Abercrombie

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  1. I remember really enjoying this series when I read it. Being spoiled by it. Glotka is a freakin’ incredible character. and yes, it isn’t a series with 3 books that are each self contained, it is one long story that takes three books to tell.

    I’ve kind of moved away from grimdark in the last few years. i still read plenty of dark stuff, just not as much this particular flavor.


  2. You’ve definitely made me interested in trying this one again! I tried reading this one YEARS ago and I remember loving the way it was written–I’ve never forgotten Glokta, and I’ve always been interested in trying this series again just to see what he gets up to–but I wasn’t much of a high fantasy reader at the time so I ended up putting it aside and eventually unhauling it because I don’t usually reach for grimdark. If I can find this in my library, though, I’ll be giving it another try! I’m glad to hear Glokta’s storyline held your interest!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah Glokta is a great character. Dunno if you’ve read my reviews of the next two books in the series but I didn’t care for book two and book three I found just ok. If you’re interested in dipping your toes into grimdark I think there’s better books tbh, though I really am the outlier here – everyone else thinks these books are incredible so don’t necessarily listen to me 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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