First Published: 2006
Pages: 517 (Paperback)
Series: The First Law #1
Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught in one feud too many, he’s about to become a dead barbarian, eaving nothing behind him but bad songs, dead friends.
Jezal dan Luthar, paragon of selfishness, has nothing more dangerous in mind than winning glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules.
Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then Glokta hates everyone. Cutting treason out of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendships – and his latest trail of corpses could lead straight to the rotten heart of government. . . if he can stay alive long enough to follow it. . .
If I’m honest I’m still not sure what to make of this book yet. It was a fun enough diversion, exactly the sort of thing I needed when I went into the bookshop and asked for ‘something enjoyable I don’t have to think about too hard’ (it’s all I can manage these days now I’m back at uni). But, given the praise for Abercrombie that I’ve been hearing from various people who’s taste I normally trust, I have to admit I do feel a little disappointed and underwhelmed. Where were these clever subversions of fantasy tropes? The decent female characters? And where, dear god where, was the fucking plot?
The answers, apparently, are in the second and third books (I hope!), because there wasn’t really any of that stuff in this one. The Blade Itself is a pure set-up book, introducing the cast of characters and the basic set up. Logen Ninefingers is a barbarian who’s given up barbarianing, Jezal is a self absorbed fencer, Bayaz is a powerful old magician, Glokta is a torturer for the inquisition, etc. etc. And this is the book about how they meet. Imagine The Lord of the Rings, if the Fellowship ended at the council of Elrond after having followed not just Frodo’s, but each of the nine walkers individual journey’s and trials to get there – and if Gandalf then never got around to telling them about the One Ring but started leading them into Mordor without any explanation of what they were doing. That’s kind of what this book felt like.
Which isn’t to say it’s bad. As I said, it was just the sort of stop-thinking-and-read book that I sometimes need and there was stuff that I enjoyed about it, but it could perhaps have done with less random things happening and more actual plot.
And yes, I understand the need to avoid info-dumping in fantasy, really I do. But the opposite, not explaining anything, is almost as bad. On the very first page of the book we get introduced to something called a ‘Shanka’. And if you don’t know what that is, well, you’re in the same boat as me. Is Shanka a tribe of people? The hold weapons and wear fur. Are they creatures? They are only ever referred to as ‘Shanka’, ‘Flathead’ or ‘it’ and can take a chunk out of a man’s leg in a single bite. Even when it’s revealed how they were created (400 or so pages in) I still have no fucking clue what they are or what they look like. From what I gather though they’re basically playing the role of The Others/White Walkers from A Song of Fire and Ice – creepy unnatural creatures who people think are a myth but actually live in the far North and are gathering in number ready to fuck everyone over when they head south – except they aren’t at all menacing or scary because I literally know nothing about them.
The Shanka are only a minor part in the story so far (presumably they play a bigger role in later books) but they’re the most obvious example of Abercrombie’s frustrating failure to explain things adequately. I don’t want a massive info dump, but I need to know enough so that I can understand and, perhaps more crucially, care about what’s happening. As a result, I felt that things that should be grand epic events like the visit to the House of the Maker just kind of fizzled because, unlike the characters, I didn’t have the context to understand what the significance was.
This sounds like I didn’t like the book at all. I did. Although it’s just setting up characters and gathering them together I really enjoyed some of those characters. Glokta as the embittered torture victim turned torturer is, quite clearly, the best. Logen Ninefingers is fun too, even if his plot line took forever to converge with the other two main strands. And Jezal…well he’s very believable as a completely shallow, self absorbed prat who’s had everything handed to him on a plate and as such is the least likeable of the main cast.
Women characters, however, fare less well. There’s really only two of any importance in this book. One is a badass runaway slave bent on vengeance and killing everybody. She’s only introduced halfway through and I haven’t managed to form much of an opinion on her beyond ‘I think I like her’. The other is a common born love interest who is just so clever and funny and pretty in a non-fashionable way and is so not-like-other-girls’™ that I want to vomit. Why do writers do this, seriously? Is it only possible to praise a female character by pissing on absolutely all of the other ones? Fuck you (and yes I know this is all coming from Jezal’s hugely sexist unreliable thoughts but it’s still vomit inducing and makes me want to punch both of them in the face). Anyway, yeah, we know she’s clever and funny because Jezal says so, though we never actually see any proof of either. And we know she’s tough and not-like-other-girls™ because she drinks alcohol and says ‘fuck’ a lot.
And that’s the other thing about this book. There’s a lot of swearing. Which normally doesn’t bother me at all (being that I’m a huge swearer myself), except that it serves to make every character’s dialogue, from the head of the inquisition down to the exiled barbarian warrior sound pretty much the same. Everyone says ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ all the time, even when the swearword doesn’t really fit with the tone of what they’re saying. It feels shoehorned in for ‘realism’ rather than actually reflecting how real people talk.
So yeah… an enjoyable read, really. It’s just easier to write about things that bug you than things that don’t. At this stage in the series though I don’t quite understand why everyone loves Abercrombie so much*. It was a fun book in a generic ‘low fantasy’ political intrigue-y kind of way and I’m expecting the next couple of books to get better as more stuff about the setting, characters, and plot is finally revealed. But, if I had got this out of the library rather than purchased the first two books on special offer, it would probably be one of those series where I never find the motivation to go looking for the sequel (much like Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb…I think I can admit now that I’m probably never reading the rest of that trilogy).
So three and a half stars. I enjoyed it, I really did, it made for a very fun, action-packed read and a great break from university work and I will be reading the sequels. But, as a standalone book, it’s really nothing all that special.
*Though I am prepared to revise my opinion of Abercrombrie with books two and three.