I don’t like trade paperbacks. They’re unwieldy, like hardbacks but without any of the expensive-feeling durability, and they’re even more prone to broken spines and bent corners than mass markets because of their size. Really, they’re the worst of both worlds. (NB: Not that I’m adverse to people giving them to me for free.) And so it’s a measure of quality that, despite my having Joe Abercrombie’s debut The Blade Itself in trade paperback, I didn’t hold its material handicap against it. I carried it around with me; I took it on the bus; I read it in the bath. It was funny and witty, in a self-deprecating sort of way. It was heroic fantasy, with any number of stock characters — mages, barbarians, vain nobles, torturers and sexy but deadly slave girls — but it was also ironical and self-aware. It took stereotypes, paid tribute to them, and then moved beyond them, and all this without negating the traditional strengths of the form. It was a serious book that didn’t take itself too seriously, and it was really rather good.
The book is set in the Union, a sprawling confederacy of disparate countries and cities united under a King and a parliament of hereditary nobles. Angland, in the North, is harsh, mountainous and riven by old tribal loyalties; Midderland, the Union’s heartland, is lush, fertile and ruled over by the very oldest of noble families; Styria, the land of the Free Cities, is the centre of its trade; and Dagoska is its furthest colony, sitting vulnerably on an outcropping of the hostile Gurkhish Empire. Such a geography should sound familiar, the Union being largely analogous with Europe (Angland=England and so on) and the Gurkhish being something akin to the Ottoman Turks; there is even an "Old Empire" to parallel China. The Union, however, is anything but united, and as Joe Abercrombie’s novel opens, it is clear that it faces threats on at least two fronts. In the far North, Bethod, a tribal chieftain of bloody renown, has been subsuming his rivals into a single Kingdom and has subsequently set his eyes on Angland and its wealth of resources. Meanwhile, in the East, the young Emperor Uthman al-Dosht has been consolidating his own territorial holdings and means to take back Dagoska.
Inextricably bound up in the brewing of these troubles are Sand dan Glokta, a crippled and increasingly bitter torturer with the Union’s Inquisition; Jezal dan Luthar, vain, noble, feckless and a Captain in the King’s Own guard; and Logan Ninefingers, the "Bloody-Nine", Bethod’s one-time champion and now his sworn enemy. All three are drawn into orbit around the mysterious Bayaz, a balding old man who may or may not be the legendary First of the Magi and who may or not be set upon saving the Union from destruction by its enemies.
The novel has little in the way of active plot — no major movements, no set-piece battles, and no resolutions. It is that most necessary and difficult of things: the "gathering" segment of a trilogy, the part in which everything is made ready to happen in Books 2 and 3. Thus the imminent clashes with Bethod and the Gurkhish Emperor are held in abeyance while Abercrombie focuses on world building and casting his net out for his characters. That isn’t to say that The Blade Itself doesn’t have tensions or pace: there are numerous bloody skirmishes and clandestine meetings, as well as a striking chase scene and enough politicking and torturing to satisfy most. But Abercrombie is much more interested in the drama of individual characters than in the wider narrative of his first book, structuring it quite similarly to George R. R. Martin with alternating point-of-view chapters (although he is by no means as strict as Martin in keeping to those points-of-view; increasingly toward the end he mixes and mingles them in-chapter). Glokta, Logan and Jezal dominate, and consequently their idiosyncratic voices build nicely: each has his catchphrases and patter as well his unique way of seeing the world. Glokta’s sections are characterized by particularly dry, self-deprecating interior monologues and his bitter intelligence is pleasantly reminiscent of Tyrion Lannister. When the three men finally come together in the Union’s capital, Adua, their views of each other prove as illuminating, if not more so, than their conceptualizations of themselves.
Not that there aren’t female characters too: both Ardee West, a commoner snubbed at court because of her less than illustrious family connections, and Ferro Maljinn, an escaped Gurkhish slave, have vibrant, independent lives of their own. Thankfully Abercrombie has steered carefully clear of writing them purely as passive or romantic interest and, although it’s true that they don’t get enough to do in this first novel, both promise to be integral to the machinations of the next.
For once nobody has tried to make a comparison with George R. R. Martin; instead the publisher promises something more akin to Tad Williams. But this seems wrong-headed, almost a missed opportunity. Abercrombie is by no means as po-faced as Williams — he loves to laugh at his own conceits — or indeed as willfully dark and complex as Martin, but his style is closer to the latter than the former. Like Martin he has an ear for constructing dialogue patterns, as well as the beginnings of an epic self-confidence; certainly, his prose is fluent and shows great promise. There are none of the peaks and lows that are often common to debut novels, and none of the jarring constructions I met with in Elantris last month. The Blade Itself is an incredibly accomplished first novel.
For the most part the real strength is in character (again, similar to Martin), but Abercrombie also sets about foregrounding some interesting thematic premises for his trilogy. The epigraph he chooses for Part One — "The blade itself incites to acts of violence" (Homer) — sets the scene for what I imagine will be the series’ ethical inquiry: the inevitability of violence vs. the desirability of peace. Logan Ninefingers, for example, has a gory reputation as a mindless killer, but it becomes increasingly clear that he is not an essentially violent man. On the contrary, fear, guilt and a longing for a cessation of bloodshed plague him. It was circumstance that forced the blade upon him, and the blade itself that has consequently incited others to violence against him. The cycle is a preternaturally destructive one and, as is evident in our own world, almost impossible to break. There are parallels with Inquisitor Glokta: a victim of torture at the hands of the Gurkhish, he returns home only to become a torturer himself. Violence breeds violence.
Loosely related to this is the issue of the "civilization" of the Union compared with the "barbarity" of its enemies. The Union, of course, perceives itself as a paragon of nobility and of superior refinement in an otherwise cruel world, and Abercrombie’s decision to focus his narrative there might suggest that he agrees. But far from it, he reveals the Union to be corrupt, cruel and unjust in every way — the majority of its population are little better than serfs; its justice system is predicated on torture and its penal system on the need for slave labor; its all-powerful nobles are selfish, greedy and politically irrelevant. On the surface Bethod’s hard tribesmen and Uthman al-Dosht’s slave economy are even more despicable, but Abercrombie reveals that they’re essentially no worse or no better. Rather all three powers are motivated by the same world-view, the same "law" as one of Bethod’s envoys puts it. Laying down his master’s demand for Angland to the Union’s Open Council he explains:
"Ancient law? Angland is part of the North. Two hundred years ago there were Northmen there, living free. You wanted iron, so you crossed the sea, and slaughtered them and stole their land! It must be then that most ancient of laws: that the strong take what they wish from the weak?…We have that law also!"
Abercrombie’s trilogy is called The First Law, and although there is also the first law of the Magi to consider ("It is forbidden to touch the Other Side and to speak with spirits"), I’m inclined to see this "ancient law", the one that rules the actions of Bethod, the Union and the Gurkhish, as the first and most central of the book.
The second installment, Before They Are Hanged, is due in March 2007, and the third, The Last Argument of Kings, hopefully, in 2008. I very much look forward to reading them, and to watching the development of Joe Abercrombie’s voice, as well as the fulfillment of his thematic ethos.