The Blade Itself – Book One
“Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes the more touching the story must be.”
After experiencing the amazing début series of Game of Thrones I found myself wanting another hit of that dense, dark fantasy fare and the New York Times Bestsellers list shows that I am not alone in such urges as the sale of Martin’s books has spiked drastically over recent months. Both A Game of Thrones (The first book in the synonymously named series) and A Clash of Kings (The Second, which picks up right where the shows first season finished) are the two most obvious choices of hit but as something of a purist – you could say that I’m literately straight edge – these two were unfortunately off the table for me from the beginning; I have evolved a resistance to Thrones’ tale since seeing it all the way through on screen – re-reading as it were simply isn’t going to be potent enough to saté my new found thirst – and I don’t want to spoil the second season of the show by reading the second book first – I also know that were I to start reading Thrones I wouldn’t be able to stop at that amazing cliff-hanger, I certainly couldn’t have with the show were there simply no other choice. So it is that I was forced to look elsewhere and I am so glad I did because it lead me to find what I view as the successor to Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series and that is the already finished First Law trilogy.
Much like Martin’s novels the First Law trilogy is a series of ‘Fantasy’ books but they really only belong to the genre in the loosest of senses. The worlds that they depict are much closer to our own than they are Middle-Earth or Hogwarts; they are worlds without any of the fauna one would expect to find in fantasy (there are no goblins, elves or dwarves here), worlds almost entirely free of magic and spells but mostly they are worlds free from the most obvious of Fantasy’s tropes: the heroes, the villains and the quests that the former enact against the latter. Like in life the people of their worlds are simply people and they simply act as people do act – which is in most cases not very good at all, but more on this later – and in lives without any greater meaning or structure than your own. It seems antithetical that such a bland and vacant approach could actually be the most imaginative and yet the success of both series prove this to be the current truth.
As is always the case with these things, Abercrombie has been forced to further the subversion in his books because Martin got there first; and matching the established is no longer shocking. So it is that those traits more distinctive of Game of Thrones – its dark world, despairing characters and the undemocratic system of government that dictates both – are taken here to their most extreme, though admittedly not their deepest. The Blade Itself is written from the perspectives of three separate protagonists and each is more miserable, monstrous and unheroic than the last; though each is in their own way a twisted mirror of those tropic archetypes of the ‘Hero’.
Logen Ninefingers is the world’s most feared warrior and the chosen one of the first magus, but despite its almost magnetic attraction towards him he loathes killing and he is torn up internally by every drop of blood that splashes on his face. Glotka was handsome, charismatic and chosen to lead the forces of freedom into battle, only to find himself broken and beaten in the enemies dungeon. This torture then inspires him to become an Inquisitor, a man with free reign to do anything to anyone in the name of information and he revels in it, now a sadist who’s own pain is numbed when he enacts it in others; a Harvey Dent, an anti-House. Jezal dan Luthar is still handsome, charismatic and is soon to be chosen, as Glotka was, to be the Union’s champion. What is the twist you ask? Well have you ever met someone who is perfectly handsome and talented yet still humble, yet still likeable deep down? The chances are against it. In reality the ‘chosen ones’ are simply the cockiest of the lot.
While the characters are instantly rendered in depressing detail the world in which they find themselves (which unfortunately has no known name as far as I am aware, so I cannot use it for brevity) is not so quickly or so deeply formed. Whereas Westeros quickly became its own unique place – thanks a lot to those amazing opening titles – it is hard, even two hundred pages into The Blade Itself, to distinguish this place from all those other fantasy realms and in many ways our own. Abercrombie either takes the places connection to our world too far or has a very limited imagination – though the rest of the novel suggest that the latter cannot be true – as a lot of the jargon and geography have been bluntly borrowed from his surroundings: For example the central city of Adua is bordered by both ‘Angland’ and ‘Styria’, a mountainous, middle-ages set minor member of ‘The Union’ and a middle-eastern desert respectively. This is such a shame because the places that we are actually shown, predominantly Adua, do exist as strongly as King’s Landing, The Wall or The Eyrie, but because of this drop-off in secondary semiotics – Gurhkul is apparently this world’s Afghanistan – the universe as a whole comes across as both lacking and forced.
Though the land itself may be uneven – and in fantasy such an occurrence is a major flaw – what Abercrombie has built upon it is solid. Given that it was being broadcast not on television but on HBO, the première of Game of Thrones was a heavily hyped event and the one catchphrase that was constantly repeated during all this build up was this: It does for the fantasy genre what The Wire did to cop shows. Though I can see why this was the chosen comparison – everyone loves The Wire, after all – I’m not sure that it was truly reflected in the show’s content; I can, however, say that those words do ring true when spoken about this novel.
The city of Adua is centered even more strongly around politics than our own and its system of government is perhaps the stories biggest exaggeration; merging as it does contemporary partisan politics and an antiquated nobility system to scathingly sardonic effect. Though this may not seem the most exciting element for a novel to nail, anyone who has seen The Wire will know that there is something inherently fascinating about seeing both these investigations into corruption and subsequent attempts to clean up the political system become forcibly stalled or mis-directed by those simply seeking to move up the board rather than change the rules; though instead of statistics, legal arrests and bureaucratic promotions these moves are made through swords, medieval tortures and forced coronations, all approaches more befitting the book’s genre.
All of these places, characters and events are delivered to us in a remarkably neat way. There is much the same style to its exposition as in Game of Thrones; with many old battles, friends and momentous events first referred to in passing, then discussed in some detail before finally being explained in full. Whereas this method sometimes felt a little forced in Thrones it is infinitely subtle here. That Abercrombie has weaved together this many narrative strands without a single loose thread in sight is rather astounding to me as a fellow writer, the technique is flawless. Admittedly though the histories here are much simpler and shorter than in Martin’s series and so Joe had an easier task ahead of him; whether this makes the feat less impressive or simply proves his cleverness is simply up to the reader.
Abercrombie also delivers his details with a very deft touch and has here chosen never to really tell us anything of this world – it’s borders, cultures, rules, races, autonomy or the meaning of his many made up words – instead we learn about the place through what we are shown and in this way the world is built up in ever single scene. If there is something that we don’t yet know or understand than we need simply store it away until the author deems the knowledge necessary. It’s really a rare treat to see so little in your face exposition but this approach is the obvious cause of that aforementioned simplicity; doling out details in this way takes a lot longer than simply having a character say it out aloud. So if this anonymous world does seems slight to me, it is really only because we are very much still in the process of discovering it. There are of course other books yet to and I have faith that these will deliver that depth that I am craving…craving, I’m feeling the urges again, I think I best stop writing, bite my lip to get the taste of blood in my mouth and get back to reading some of this magnificent series.