Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself is the first installment of The First Law trilogy. It is immediately apparent that this series is not for the squeamish. If you love tragic pasts, brutal revenge, and perilous intrigue, then The Blade Itself might be worth the read. Abercrombie’s world is dark and brutal, and he is not afraid of making that clear. The Blade Itself ’s macabre, gritty plot and plethora of points of view is reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. While I find that today’s trend of pointlessly brutal and bloody fantasy novels leaves a sour taste in my mouth, The Blade Itself ‘s character-driven plot supports some tearing flesh and crimson blood here and there. The first chapter doesn’t miss a beat as the novel throws the reader into a heated chase, featuring Logen (one of the book’s main characters) fleeing a mysterious enemy through a dense forest. We are left on the edge of our seat as Logen falls from a bridge into a churning river of freezing froth.
From there onwards, we are introduced to the novel’s cast one-by-one. Other characters include:
Inquisitor Glokta: Arguably the greatest character of the novel, a crippled war veteran who has gone from the tortured to the torturer.
Jezal dan Luthar: A vain and petty nobleman, aspiring fencer, and captain in the King’s army.
Ferro Maljinn: An escaped slave from the southern empire. A cold-blooded killer with one thing on her mind: revenge.
Collem West: A commoner-turned-war hero with a tragic past; he is forced to fight for his high-ranking position every day as jealous nobles refuse to accept a low-born among their ranks.
Without a doubt, The Blade Itself’s strongest elements are character and worldbuilding. Abercrombie does a stellar job at developing and examining a host of characters, young and old, and from across the world. Each character has carefully crafted goals that motivate them on their journey. The novel’s plot is nearly entirely character-driven, building up to the events of the later two installments. “Worldbuilding” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in fantasy and fiction novels. To some readers, it can be overwhelming to be thrown into an entirely fictional world that is crafted to fit a novel’s needs. However, Abercrombie’s slow introduction to his cast allows the readers to pick up small hints and tidbits about his world. One of the greatest aspects of The Blade Itself is that there is very little exposition that leaves the reader’s eyes heavy. We learn more and more about Abercrombie’s bloody world with each page of corrupt bureaucracy, sweaty torture, and dusty roads.
A common gripe with Book 1 is that very little actually happens in the novel’s short 500 pages. Abercrombie spends so much time building his characters and developing his world that there is little space left for plot progression. This continues to be a problem in the rest of the trilogy, although not nearly as severely so. As the novels are all rather short, some earlier plot development progression would have increased my investment in the story. My last major problem with The Blade Itself is the lack of female characters and the significant failing of the Bechdel test. The novel only has one female point of view and two major female characters. Every female in the book is either a crazy drunk or an ice queen with murderous eyes. These characters feel out of place and forced into the story for the sake of being women. These problems are mostly apparent in hindsight and reflection; The Blade Itself is still a great read.
The Blade Itself is classically grim and fantastically gripping. It will leave you thirsty for more mystery, more plots, and more murder. Luckily, the remaining novels in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy will quench your thirst.