If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll have seen that my previous post was about Scott Lynch. In that post, I noted that Lynch’s debut, The Lies of Locke Lamora, rekindled my interest in the fantasy genre. Even before I’d finished reading that novel at the back end of 2006, I was looking for another in the same genre. Joes Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself popped up in one of Amazon’s recommendation features, so I promptly ordered. I received it through the mail and put it on the bookshelf, ready for me to read in the new year.
Now, in my previous post, I’ve already stated that The Lies of Locke Lamora is my favourite book. So, you might be able to appreciate the thoughts that I was experiencing every time I saw The Blade Itself sitting on the bookshelf; on the one hand, I was excited to discover new fantasy books, but at the same time, I was preparing for the inevitable let down that I felt would surely follow as I moved from a masterpiece to what was just the next book sitting patiently on my shelf. It is to Joe Abercombie’s immense credit, and testament to his exquisite writing, that not only was The Blade Itself not a disappointment, but he produced the first in a series of books that I consider the finest series of books that I have ever read. (See, I’m very careful how I categorise my favourites! I’m allowed a favourite book and then a favourite series.)
The Blade Itself is the first book in “The First Law” trilogy and tells the tale of a disparate group of characters, each of whom become involved in the political and military machinations sweeping their world. First up is Logen Ninefingers, also known as “The Bloody Nine”, a famed barbarian warrior from the north. He’s physically imposing and is certainly not a man that you’d want to cross. Yet Abercrombie writes his character as a man trying to mend his ways; Logen has seen so much violence that he comes to realise that there must be a better way to live. Next up is Sand dan Glokta, formerly a colonel in the army. But following his capture and subsequent torture by a brutal enemy, he has returned to the Union a broken man. Far from slinking into the shadows, Glokta has now assumed the role of torturer in the Union’s Inquisition. The main point-of-view characters are rounded out by Jezal dan Luthar, a shallow and selfish young noble, who’d rather be out drinking and gambling with his mates than training for the annual fencing contest.
What makes Abercrombie’s work so special is his characters; I’ve never read books where the characters leap from the page quite like they do in his stories. Each of the three main characters is markedly different; these are not just cardboard cut-outs that you could find wandering through any work of fantasy. They’re memorable; they have memorable traits, unique thoughts, different ways of talking, and there’s absolutely no danger of confusing one character with another. Given that Abercrombie is a Lancastrian, I’d like to think that Logen and his fellow Northmen speak with broad Lancashire or Yorkshire accents. I’ve read somewhere that they may represent the Scots in the real world, but either way, Logen and friends give the impression of hard men who don’t suffer fools gladly. Despite cutting his teeth in the wilds of the north, Logen is painted as a bit of a philosopher, regularly thinking things through and trying to break away from the violence of his past. Jezal’s self-centred approach to life is beautifully evoked and it makes his progression through the trilogy all the more enjoyable, including a surprising twist. It’s probably quite a surprise to Jezal as well.
Best of all is Inquisitor Glokta, perhaps the most cynical character ever committed to paper and absolute gold in terms of what the reader gets out of him. Bitter and crippled, he shuffles his way through the trilogy dispensing sarcastic gems aplenty as he carries out his grim duties, all the while battling everyday issues such as trying to eat with his ruined teeth or walking down a set of steps with a gammy leg and painful back.
“The First Law” is a proper trilogy; the first book followed by Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument Of Kings to complete a single epic story. These books were followed by another three standalone novels set in the same world. The beauty of Abercombie’s work is that he brings minor characters in one novel to the foreground in a later story. I’ve already commented on how good his characters are, and this praise is not limited to the A-listers. Even the members of his supporting cast are brilliantly observed; Friendly, an ex-convict who is obsessed with numbers, being a personal favourite.
In 2014 & 2015, Abercombie wrote a separate quickfire Young Adult fantasy trilogy before capping a productive decade by returning to the world of “The First Law” with a collection of excellent short stories in 2016. He is now writing a new trilogy set in the world of “The First Law”, and I for one can’t wait to see what he’s going to come up with. He’s said on his blog that he is aiming to draft out all three books before publishing the first; the logic being that the publication schedule for the entire series will be regular. In a genre where the wait between volumes can seem like an eternity, I think that this approach should be applauded. It would be nice to have our favourite writers delivering quality books every year, but as Logen Ninefingers would probably say, “You have to be realistic about these things.”