Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself is the fist book in his acclaimed series The First Law. Tree main point of view characters stand out from the impressive cast: Logen Ninefingers,
infamous warrior from the North, Sand dan Glotka, prodigy swordsman turned crippled torturer and Jezal dan Luthar, complacent army officer training for the yearly fencing contest.
Logen barely survives a vicious attack by a pack of Shanka, barely sentient and ever hungry creatures from another age. Certain that his mates are dead he moves south. He gets tangled in the schemes of ancient First Magus Bayaz who has special plans for the barbarian, including using his muscle and special fighting talents on their trip south to the city of Adua, capital of the Union.
Glotka used to be the army’s rising star in his time. Then he was captured by the Gurkish Emperor and broken during two years of brutal torture. When he returned home both his spirit and his body are disfigured beyond repair. His friends have abandoned him since so he has joined the Inquisition where he can put his cruel experience to use. His superior Arch Lector Sult uses the bitter cripple to advance his very own schemes for power, all too sure that Glotka will always get the desired answers out of prisoners unlucky enough to end up in his chair.
Noble son Jezal dan Luthar spends his time drinking, gambling and admiring himself. He regards his training with legendary swordsman Varuz as general nuisance if not torture and wonders whether the prospect of the honors he can achieve by winning the Contest is really worth the trouble. Only when he meets his friend’s unconventional sister does he start reflecting what he does and thinks and applying himself.
Unlikely as it seems, these diverse characters converge in Adua and influence each others lives. How this is going to pan out eventually is left for the sequels.
Books I enjoy do usually have heroes with interesting quirks. Abercrombie takes this to the extreme; his characters are embodied quirks with some heroism in them. Logen, for all his combat and survival skills, is hopeless around civilised people and becomes a shivering husk in a city, Jezal is a spoiled, arrogant pain in the ass and Glotka is so bitter even he himself jokes about it. Abercrombie manages to make me laugh with about his refreshingly cruel humor and never gets even close to being sappy. His characters kill, cheat, lie and mess up on a regular basis; although clearly exaggerated, they seem more real than many “real” heroes in fantasy literature. There is a lot of swearing, political incorrectness and mention of body fluids. All characters have clearly distinctive narrative voices; a great example is what and how they think about the city of Adua, its inhabitants and everyday life. Abercrombie even sacrifices literary style for message: grammar and punctuation—so many exclamation marks!—are adjusted liberally to fit the talking character.
The Blade Itself is a great book. Many critics mention its distinctiveness in the genre and its gritty tone; I have enjoyed it for more than that. Note that this book focuses heavily on characters and their relationships as well as world-building; the series’ story has yet to take off. That’s what the sequels are for, I guess.