Monday, December 15, 2008

The Blade Itself

The prologue is past.

I've been reading enormous buzz about this novel by Joe Abercrombie, so much so that I decided against waiting for it to come out in mass market paperback and bought it as a trade. Along with The Name of the Wind and The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Blade Itself is often mentioned as groundbreaking fantasy, destined to be remembered as a one of the classics of the 21st century (no exaggeration). And yet it falls into the one of the most boring clichés of epic fantasy, a first book that is spent entirely on character development, with the last few pages containing the first movement into what the series is supposedly going to be about. In the cliché, this would be the "They gather" stage, with book two being "They travel" and the final one being "They win."

That all said, Abercrombie does a wonderful twist on the fantasy trope with his characterization. The book has chapters alternating in viewpoint between three major characters (and a very few chapters from two other characters). Of those three, Abercrombie has successfully written two such that they are unlikable though thoroughly engrossing. Jezal is a pompous officer in the Union military, training for a sword competition. He is a snob, feeling he is better than those around him because of his royal birth, and his motives for most of his life's work are based on not displeasing the public perception of himself or his family. He comes close to quitting the difficult competition because it is hard work, but eventually continues in order to show up those people who doubted him. He scorns people who are different from him, even mentally belittling people who consider him a friend. But in all of his bias he is immature, playing out the role of an arrogant child. And by the conclusion of this first book, there is very little hope of redemption for him (and it may be Abercrombie's intention that he never be redeemed).

The second unlikable character is Glokta, a torturer so filled with self-loathing that it colors his relationships with everyone he comes into contact with. Clearly an intelligent man and a former winner of the competition that Jezal is taking part in, Glokta learned the craft of torture as a prisoner for two years in a foreign country, watching his body being ravaged by his enemies. The shell that is left is a wry commentator on human nature, being a witness to an unusual aspect of it. He is cynical about the motives of everyone around him, but surprisingly not cynical enough, as he discovers when he realizes is he is a political pawn.

Both Jezal and Glokta are citizens of the Union, a confederation of formerly separate countries brought together into a single entity under a king. The name and history of the Union evokes warm feelings by its very nature (at least to this American), but the results of the grand experiment have become decrepit and tainted in the 500 years since their birth. The Union is ruled by its nobility and an ineffectual king gives free rein to political scheming (there's a metaphor there, I'm sure of it). And the mighty works for which the Union was originally known have begun falling into disrepair, and its people no longer recall what its monuments commemorate. And if this point-of-view is not clear enough from the descriptions given by its inhabitants, we also get to see the Union from an outsider's perspective, Logen, the third character. Logen is immensely sympathetic, a great bear of a man from the North, a good fighter with lots of common sense, who finds himself sucked into circumstances he doesn't have the experience to understand. As he travels to Adua, the capital of the Union, he doesn't see the beauty or nostalgia by which other descriptions are tainted; he sees the ugliness of the city and its people. Logen is also not very happy with himself, but he is a freedom fighter of his own sort, and it is not until the end of this first novel that we discover the secret that drives his unhappiness with himself.

In the background of the daily lives of these characters, the Union is being attacked on the northern border by a self-described King, whom we first dislike only because he opposes the narrative point-of-view of the novel and because Logen doesn't like him. He is a braggart and a ruffian, but we never see him do anything distasteful. His emissaries to the Union are scary and threatening, but again, they do nothing compelling other than attack the land that acts as the point-of-view for the novel. At its southern borders, another kingdom appears to be lining up its forces to attack the Union while it is preoccupied to the north. These people deserve the readers' wrath, as we discover through the course of the novel that they practice the blackest magic in its strategy.

And into this volatile mixture comes Bayaz, the Union's best magician and the originator of the idea of the Union. Recognizing signs and portents as being part of some prophecy that is not made known to the reader, he returns to the Union to help it fight its enemies. Unfortunately for the hapless main characters of the novel, that prophecy somehow includes Jezal and Logen. Bayaz himself is something of an enigma, fitting tightly into the cliché of the inscrutably ancient but wise magician, which contrasts sharply with the cast he has to work with. And as the first book concludes, he and his not-so-merry band of adventurers set off to fulfill their quest.

So this first novel is not so much about action, though there are some action-packed moments. Instead there is a wry humor about the events being described and the politics of point-of-view. Glokta and Jezal are fascinating in their ugliness, and while there is the compulsion to find them redeemed by the end of the series, it is not necessary for an enjoyable story. I have no idea where Abercrombie is going to take this story, which is part of its attraction. While the story is not slow-paced, it will annoy the reader who wants the world-changing events in a hurry. I'll be finishing the series with anticipation of something new and exciting in the fantasy tradition. However, I can't say that The Blade Itself lives up to the hype I see for it, at least not yet. But it is still worth reading, especially when mass market editions come out.

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