Book Review: The Blade Itself

the-blade-itselfBias disclosure:

I have no relationship with Joe Abercrombie or his publisher. Never met the guy and haven’t read any of his other work. I picked up this book in part on the recommendations of friends, but partly because Abercrombie is, in the vernacular of The Blade Itself, a Named Man. Online, his name is often invoked in sentences like, “I like Brett, but not as much as Abercrombie.” I don’t deny that such comparisons raise in me… let’s call it a competitive curiosity.

But at the end of the day, I decided to read the book because I hoped it would be good. My free time is too precious to me for me to read a novel for any other reason. I was careful to “go in cold” with this book, not having read any reviews or even the synopsis on the book jacket. I admit to reading with a predatory eye, but let’s face it, that’s how I read everything.


Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, and one thing only, say Joe Abercrombie knows character.

Abercrombie is said to be at the forefront of the new generation of “gritty” fantasy authors. This is something of a blessing and a curse, because for every author in this category with a tactile quality to their storytelling style that puts you right in the grit of things, there are five authors that just define “gritty” as having amoral main characters who say “fuck” a lot and oft engage in excessive plotless violence described in bloody detail.

With The Blade Itself, Abercrombie places himself firmly in the former camp, while still using all the tropes in the latter. He puts you in the heads of multiple POV characters, making each a unique and compelling experience, told in short bursts of perspective. Abercrombie pulls the curtain back fully, giving his readers an all-access pass into the bodies and minds of his protagonists, unapologetically exposing their most private thoughts and feelings, even when they paint his heroes in an unfavorable light.

But the trick is making the reader care about those selfish characters, something most “gritty” authors forget (if they ever understood it in the first place). It’s not every author that can make you feel more sympathy for the torturer than the tortured. That’s a gift, and Abercrombie clearly has it.

But with this strength come a few weaknesses. With an average chapter length of 11 or so pages, and a new POV and location shift with every chapter, the book often felt speedbumped, brought to a halt every few minutes as the reader has to shake off, say, Sand dan Glokta, and don Logen Ninefingers, two characters who couldn’t be more different.

This storytelling style, while powerful and heady, also gives the reader frequent breaking points to get up and go to the bathroom. Or for a snack, or to check on the baby. Or check your e-mail. Or go on twitter…

You get the idea. I found it very… putdownable. A book with less speedbumps is more likely to keep those of us with hectic multi-tasking lives reading for long periods of time, or late into the night. On the other hand, it makes the book great for traveling, where you frequently need to start and stop.

The other complaint I had was that while the characterization was stellar, I had no idea what the plot was. The book is obviously the first in a series, because the overall story is lost in the moment to moment events in the lives of the characters, each with their own very small piece to a very large puzzle. Hundreds of pages into the book I found myself wondering just what the book was about, even though I was enjoying it quite a bit. Right up to the end, I was kind of blasé about it, because I didn’t expect an ending with any satisfying sense of plot closure. And in that regard, I was kind of right. There are a lot of loose ends at the end of the story.

But that’s not to say the ending wasn’t awesome. Because it really, really was. While not every POV character had a smooth arc showing closure and growth by the last page, enough of them did to close the book with a bang .

Reading The Blade Itself was like having tapas for dinner. “Tapas” is a fancy Spanish word for appetizers, and while I don’t know what it’s like in Spain, in New York City there are designer restaurants that serve only tapas, which are usually prepared by a master chef and are friggin’ delicious. Your table is filled with a wide selection of choices, gobbled up with quick, delectable bites, savored for a moment and then gone the next, replaced with something equally delightful, all washed down with a dizzying sangria.

For the uninitiated, this can be a confusing meal. Those used to an appetizer followed by a plate of meat, starch and vegetable, and capped at the end with a chocolate treat can have trouble portioning their tapas dinner. Eat too few, and one feels satisfied briefly, and is then hungry again in an hour (and likely drunker than they should be). Too many, and you risk “the bite of regret”, which takes an increasing toll as the years go by.

But do it just right, and it’s a fully satisfying meal, even though there’s usually one dish you regret not having more of. Abercrombie does that with The Blade Itself, and I will be buying the next book presently, and likely bumping it to the top of my reading pile.

But Joe, would it kill you to give us a map?

In the linked article on his blog, Abercrombie makes a case against the knee-jerk inclusion of maps with fantasy books. I see his point, but will admit that I was totally confused at the halfway point of The Blade Itself without one, and ended up googling fan maps just to get the general sense of direction that most of the book’s protagonists already had. That’s how I found the post on his blog.

I can understand the concern that a map in front might lessen the impact of the early prose before the reader was ready for that metadata, but the problem could easily have been solved by inserting a B&W map into the text at the proper point. Books have been doing that forever. Of course, this is something that the author, especially a new one, seldom has any influence over, so I’m not pointing any fingers.

Posted on February 21, 2010 at 1:32 pm by PeatB
Filed under Craft, My Reviews, Writing

22 responses to “Book Review: The Blade Itself”

  1. The book’s characters sound appealing. I’ve read many stories that were supposed to be professional, but the characterization was extremely flat. I was thinking about buying the book until you said that you had no idea about what the plot was about. This could be the first book in a long long series, but that doesn’t mean you should discuss the plot in book 2 or 3! Hey, if the plot is weak now don’t count on it getting any better.

    By the way, you give great reviews. I liked your analogies.

    Posted by Andre Clayton, on February 21st, 2010 at 3:12 pm
  2. I’ve been unsure as to whether to pick this book up myself for some time now, and to be honest your review doesn’t really sell it for me. Which of course was never the point 🙂

    But I’m totally sold on tapas. I wonder if they have tapas restraunts in Sydney. I may just have to google it.

    Posted by DanielChuter, on February 21st, 2010 at 4:22 pm
  3. I received the first three in the series from Santa this year and I have to say on the whole; I couldn’t agree with you more! I had ummd an’ ahhd over buying this one for months, which I guess should’ve told me something….

    While I may disagree with your comment on maps [I usually quite like to fully imagine the worlds I’m in and find maps oft take rather than give in that respect] every other thing you’ve said could’ve come straight from the dimly-lit, moth-infested attic that is my mind.

    I can’t help but wish my ‘rents had read this in ’09, heh. I love your reviewing style, are we like to see more? It’s good to know someone who can tell folk “How It Is” other than Gordon.

    Posted by Elicius, on February 21st, 2010 at 4:46 pm
  4. Funny how when I was at the bookstore in June, I found your book and right before I was about to purchase it found that book and bought both unknowingly of what The Blade Itself was about.

    However I can say that reading The Warded Man for me at first started as something I wanted to really read slowly since I was so interested in it… than for almost a week I read a hundred pages a day.

    The main difference for me with booth books was how far my nose was into The Warded Man and how for lack of a better word ” Laid back” my reading was with The Blade Itself.

    Posted by Jeremy, on February 21st, 2010 at 7:41 pm
  5. It’s weird that my review seems to be talking some people out of the book, when I really enjoyed it a lot and would highly recommend it. There is a lot to admire in Abercrombie’s writing.

    Posted by Peat, on February 22nd, 2010 at 12:16 am
  6. “I found it very… putdownable”

    This. This exactly. I had a much better time with Best Served Cold, which I’m given to understand is not the usual takeaway from a journey through Joe’s back catalogue.

    In the end, I did put The Blade Itself down, and I haven’t yet picked it back up. Therein, I suppose, lies the danger of putdownable books.

    Posted by N. R. Alexander, on February 22nd, 2010 at 3:41 am
  7. I hadn’t read any fantasy in decades until for some reason I bought the Painted Man on Amazon. Loved that and it awakened a thirst for more good fantasy work. Joe Abercrombie was my next favourite discovery and I burned through all his books in a few weeks. My only complaint is that The First Law books are one big story and don’t work as stand alones but they are great reads. Wonder who would win in a fight between The Painted Man and the Bloody Nine?

    Posted by mikeS, on February 22nd, 2010 at 4:56 am
  8. Good review. I’ve read the trilogy and the stand alone follow up book. Joe becomes much more comfortable with his style in the second and third books and they do flow better.

    Hi is a very gritty writer and sometimes the swear words seem superfluous but the same could be said for real life.

    I would recommend everyone reads the series. Its well worth a look.

    Posted by Patrick, on February 22nd, 2010 at 8:12 am
  9. Not picking them back up is definitely a worry with putdownable books, but for me at least, that was never a worry with The Blade Itself. I always knew I was in for something good when I went back to it. I’ve read many less putdownable books that weren’t nearly so good.

    I’m a New Yorker, so swear words are like punctuation marks to me. I barely notice them in real life. In fantasy novels, though, they tend to stand out unless the author writes good dialogue, which authors like Lynch and Abercrombie do.

    Posted by Peat, on February 22nd, 2010 at 9:07 am
  10. A very good review.

    The ‘putdownable’ aspect you mention is intriguing to me. As I have ADD, I had little difficulty keeping up with the who and the where of his short sections and rapid shifts of locale. I think that Abercrombie’s style functions well in this age of immediate gratificiation.

    The theme is very tightly presented, something not often found in today’s books, let alone fantasy. Abercrombie tells you something.

    One nitpick: A number of anachronisms rear thier heads in the work: the ranks of the soldiers in particular stood out.

    All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not as much as TWM, but quite a bit.

    Posted by J. Griiffin Barber, on February 22nd, 2010 at 10:55 am
  11. Like you, Peat, I swerve away from reviewing other SFF authors (in public), so I admire your bravery. I enjoyed the First Law trilogy from start to finish. There were a few rough spots, but overall a very good debut for Joe.

    Posted by Jon Sprunk, on February 22nd, 2010 at 11:21 am
  12. Beware of spoilers!

    Good review. I read the trilogie last summer and liked the first two books very much. The grim and gritty world Abercrombie creates is a very appealing background for mature fantasy storys.

    My problem with the books is that they get to grim and dark in the end. Abercrombie shatters the sympathies the reader develops for many of the characters and leaves the reader with a bitter taste in his mouth at the end of book three.

    I realy don’t need happy happy endlings all the time and live shurely is no picnic, but during the last book of the trilogie there are so many WTF?-moments that I was sitting there, thinking “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have read 2530 pages just to feel bad”.

    As a result I am standing infront of his new book (Best Served Cold) every single time I’m in the bookstore, thinking “hell, if I buy it and that thing ends like the trilogie I will have wasted 15 bucks and a lot of my time”.

    Oh and on a sidenote: Pete have an eye on the translation of your books. They german translation of the book titles from the Abercrombie trilogie were totaly horrible and had nothing to do with the original titles.

    Posted by Oli, on February 22nd, 2010 at 3:47 pm
  13. I am having a very different experience. The POV shifts aren’t bugging me at all. The characterization and dialogue are in a league with Richard K. Morgan (who does gritty by graphically describing gay sex, vice violence).

    Unputdownable for me. So far. 3/4 of the way through.

    Posted by Myke, on February 22nd, 2010 at 4:20 pm
  14. Got it! Loved it. 🙂

    Posted by Lizette, on February 22nd, 2010 at 4:47 pm
  15. I’ve just read my comment again and realise how negative it sounds, so I just want to add that I loved /The Blade Itself/, read the second in the series and have the final part of my ‘rent’s gift lined up soonish in my reading pile, heh.

    Posted by Elicius, on February 22nd, 2010 at 6:58 pm
  16. Loved The First Law Series extremely (:
    And then i also enjoyed Best Served Cold which made me remember how much i loved the series with all the Cameos in it, which made me laugh at some points.
    Joe Abercrombie is one of my favourites, just like you Peat, aha, another adoring fan to your list. (:
    Anyway, to my point, i think you did a very good reveiw and….thats it really. ^_^

    Posted by Liam, on February 24th, 2010 at 7:26 pm
  17. […] Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie @Peter V Brett […]

    Posted by Fantasy Blogosphere: March 7, 2010 | Fantasy Book News, on March 7th, 2010 at 9:06 am
  18. Bit late for a comment, but I finished the book today. In german, where the cover looks like crap compared to the one you show and the “translated” (not translated, they used some new and unrelated) book titles of the series sucks. My english isn’t good enough to get all the phrases and different meanings of a word and stuff. Sucks. Sniff.

    But… about the book. Well, like you wrote, it feels like small fragment of a very, very big picture.

    “The Painted Man” is a novel with a open ending like “Hey it would be cool to hear more of them.”

    “The Blade Itself” feels like a start of something *very* big (I hope Joe Abercrombie finds a way to solve all this loose ends and is not finishing somewhere inbetween) – you just have to buy the other books 😉 (I hope there are not *that* many back references through all the 2400 pages – that’s the only part where I would love a ebook (search function))

    About the style: well, TBI feels a bit too dark, too harsh, too unfriendly to me. It says alot when the most violent characters are the ones I like the most because they are straightforward and honest in what they do. Glotka is a very interesting character but hardly getting any sympathies – as intended by the author? Jezal is a retard, at least he found his “master/mistress” – his parts were the ones where I really had to bite me through and made the reading a pain in the ass. Seriously, I hate this guy because I somewhat hate guys like him IRL. The guys I like the most are Logen and the guys up north (not to spoiler). Ferro seems very cool, too.

    What I really like about the book are some very humerous references (like Wests sister talking about the typical fantasy novel) and the way Abercrombie plays with the reader. Like West, the nice guy, the tournament winner, the war hero and later… Or Logen, where you think all the time you know why he got his nickname and very late in the book you realise you knew *nothing* *why* he got this name. Glotka is a outstanding character, the war hero and tournament winner with nothing left.

    Anyway, I bought all three parts of the trilogy and starting part two now (“Feuerklingen” in german… literally translated “Fire Blades” – WTF?). But as I said, I didn’t feel very good while reading part one. It’s very interesting (that’s why I keep on reading) but doesn’t make you feel comfortable – at least not me.

    Posted by cmi, on April 8th, 2010 at 9:08 am
  19. I’ve read the books in succession after reading great reviews about it. Maybe it’s not my type of book, but while fun, wasn’t as epic as reviewers said. Some characters just seem too secretive, you know they have an agenda, they just don’t show it. Character building, on the other hand, was great. Abercrombie paints an image of a character, then gladly smashes it without feeling forced.
    The grittiness didn’t bother me at all, it felt refreshing after reading books with almost saint-like characters. Like George R. R. Martin, the characters have shades of grey, which I like.
    But, like a person above me mentioned: the plot feels a bit nonexistent. People are doing things, but it’s never really explained why (referring back to the hidden agenda). In the third book, everything falls in place, but by then, I forgot a lot of things that happened in the first book.
    It’s a recommendation if you like a long-term investment, not looking for instant gratification. It’s not really my type of book, but I can appreciate it.

    Posted by Kwinten, on May 6th, 2010 at 9:59 pm
  20. Try Bakker for something bordering on inaccessible but worth reading…the first couple book anyway.

    Posted by Narayan, on December 14th, 2010 at 8:24 pm
  21. The Blade itself is the weakest Abercrombie book by far.

    Posted by Vanzer, on July 2nd, 2011 at 7:45 pm
  22. While The Blade Itself was okay, the overall series sucked. Personally, I like reading stories with a good plot, interesting characters who develop through a series and some sort of ending to the story. With Abercrombie, I got some interesting characters with zero character development and nothing else. The story takes mindless twists and turns and when it’s all done you’re left wondering why you bothered reading because nothing really happened. The Blade Itself sets you up to believe it will be a good story but fails to deliver.

    Posted by stryder, on September 7th, 2011 at 2:13 am