[Subterranean Press's version has a lovely cover and interior illustrations by Alexander Preuss. You can view those here.]
I started reading Joe Abercrombie’s debut novel immediately after finishing a very popular old 1970s classic post-Tolkien fantasy that had left me — quite frankly — bored. I had the flu, my body ached, and I was feeling sorry for myself. But by the end of the first chapter of The Blade Itself, I was feeling much better. First, Mr. Abercrombie’s writing was vivid, tense, action-packed, and droll — just the way I like it. Second, I found myself thankful that I was merely bed-ridden with the flu, rather than in the situation that Logen Ninefingers was in.
The story is told from several character’s points of view — the bloody barbarian who’s lost everything and just wants the fighting to end, the former champion turned crippled torturer who considers himself an artist, the lazy self-absorbed wastrel who wants to be a swordmaster, but didn’t realize he had to work for it. I would not like any of these people if I knew them personally, but after being in their heads, learning their fears, histories, and motivations, and even sharing a few enlightening moments with them, I realized that I actually care what happens to them!
Mr. Abercrombie unfolded his story gradually — the reader is not told everything at once or given pages of backstory and explanation of this world’s history, culture, and geography. The plot just keeps moving and the reader picks up the details as he goes along. For example, we meet the Shanka on the first page of the novel, but we don’t find out what they really are until hundreds of pages later. There’s plenty more we’re not told, even by the end of the book. This mostly works because it keeps the pace quick and leaves a little mystery.
There was plenty of action in The Blade Itself. All of it was realistic, most of it was scary, and some of it was downright hilarious. Frequent doses of droll humor was a nice counterpoint to all of the violence. A few scenes read like a Monty Python skit and I found myself laughing often. For the most part, the writing was excellent. Tone changed between characters’ point of view, and the use of characters’ internal thoughts was effective. More than a few times, however, I was confused about the object of a pronoun and the profanity was a little excessive.
This book does not stand alone. The ending is not exactly a cliff-hanger, but it’s not an ending. I’m glad I’ve already purchased Before They Are Hanged and I hope it’s just as refreshing and fun as The Blade Itself.