The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is a gritty, in-your-face, rollicking good time of a story. The depth of the various characters is quite well done as they each come alive in their own way and the story, while long (527 pages; this is only the first book of a three part series), is intriguing and suspenseful enough that I had more than a few long reading nights with this one. Abercrombie successfully navigates away from many of the fantasy tropes we all know so well, yet utterly fails to avoid others. Still, The Blade Itself is full of compelling storytelling.
Abercrombie has assembled quite a cast of characters: Logen Ninefingers, a Northern barbarian also know as the Bloody Nine; Sand van Glokta, once a talented soldier but now a state inquisitor; Jezal dan Luthar, an arrogant soldier/nobleman who also happens to be the Union's best swordsman; Major Collem West, Luthar's superior, and Ardee West, Collem's sister; and Bayaz, an ornery old wizard said to be the long thought dead First of the Magi.
It's the depth and personality infused into each of these characters that makes them interesting. Many stereotypes are avoided: Logen is savage in combat, but thoughtful and full of remorse and regret otherwise. Bayaz is a crotchety old wizard with a bit of a temper (sort of the anti-Gandalf). Glokta is cruel, conniving, and sly, but wishful (sometimes for his own death, other times for his past glory) and pathetic to the point where I found myself wanting him to succeed at times though he is perhaps the cruelest character of all.
Glokta, to me, was the most interesting character of the bunch, in fact. Bayaz calls him "the most honest man in the city" at one point. Considering that he is a state inquisitor, authorized to use torture to extract information, this statement might seem odd at first glance. But Glokta is a man torn between doing what he's ordered to by the Lord High Inquisitor while satisfying the remnants of his conscious. Of all people, Glokta has nothing to gain through ambition. Once a promising soldier and swordsman, he was captured by the enemy and tortured for years. Upon a peace settlement, he was returned home, but only as a vague caricature of his former self. Broken physically, he takes up the role of torturer himself, though he never seems to delight in the practice. He understands the pain he inflicts on others better than anyone else, though, and is quite effective in his job.
The writing is superb, though this is no literary piece. This is "hard" fantasy, with plenty of violence, gruesome deaths, and general mayhem. Right from the beginning, we're thrown into it as Logen finds himself in a fight for his life (Logen finds himself in a lot of those). 'Tooth and nail' is a good way to describe the combat scenes; they're gritty and hard-hitting, and while some take pages they're told in a fast-paced manner that I found myself rapidly reading through.
While Abercrombie does a nice job of avoiding some of the typical fantasy stereotypes, he falls right into others. It becomes evident somewhere in the latter third of the book that what we have is an ancient evil, thought destroyed, returning, and a quest led by Bayaz, who spends his time surreptitiously assembling our various heroes into a not-so-merry band. The story concludes with this group about to set off for "the ends of the world" to find some relic or some such thing to use to stop the otherwise impending doom.
In all, though, those tropes play a minor role in the story told in this first book. The Blade Itself is full of action, adventure, magic, bloodshed, romance, drama, and intrigue. Good storytelling and colorful characters set a high bar for what is Abercrombie's first book in The First Law trilogy. I plan to purchase and review Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings, books two and three in the series, respectively, in the not too distant future.