The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie

My expectations concerning The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie’s debut novel, were all of the dark and gritty variety.  I’d heard that Abercrombie has forged a reputation for fantasy fiction with a very sharp cutting edge, making few concessions to the sympathetic and merciful lobby or indeed any pressure group advocating the idea of emotional attachment to character.  I’d even heard the term nihilist thrown in Joe’s direction.  In cinematic terms I’d imagined some kind of cross between Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (well you would wouldn’t you?), only with fewer laughs.  I was therefore surprised to find myself reminded more than anyone of Terry Pratchett, during the opening chapters.

Pratchett of course, isn’t in the least bit dark and gritty, but he is very funny – think Hitch-Hikers for fantasy fans – and he knows how to weave engaging and gently satirical stories out of his warped fantasy materials. Best of all, he has a priceless ability to imbue characters with genuine humanity (or trollity, to use one of Pratchett’s favourite devices) engendering empathy with his protagonists / antagonists, no matter how unattractive, sordid and downright devious they may be.  In the introductory phase of The Blade Itself, Abercrombie ticks all these boxes: skewed fantasy archetypes with by-turns, world-weary, calculating or credulous outlooks on life; strong minority voices who make life difficult for the powers that be; and humorous vignettes establishing the protagonists and their place in the world.  Sand dan Glokta, an early favourite, is a once renowned swordsman, crippled by years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Gurkhul empire, latterly an Atuan inquisitor who’s greatest fears have reduced down to waking up with soiled sheets and climbing stairs.  His formative experiences with the Gurkhul – which included the forcible removal of half his teeth and other, more sensitive, parts of his body – have left their mark on him emotionally as well as physically, making him an ideal candidate to commit unspeakable acts of torture in the name of the King.  His scenes are accompanied by a withering internal monologue, equal parts resigned insight and calculated manoeuvering, he speaks with economy but he has some brilliant one-liners.  In short, he’s a character straight out of Discworld central casting.

This style is all very readable but distinctly cartoon-like, with plenty of opportunity for satire and running gags, but less room for understatement, subtle characterisation or darker themes. The general rule of Pratchett is that the laugh count reduces as each book progresses.  By way of compensation we get increased plot emphasis and clever development of the underlying theme (there is always one per book; it becomes a little wearying eventually, as Pratchett reaches ever harder for new subject matters – The Fifth Elephant being the nadir).  The laugh count in The Blade Itself follows the same pattern, all but petering out after the oft funny introductory chapters.  In its place we get…..well, there’s the thing.  Picture if you will, Wile E Coyote, running very hard off a cliff.  All that momentum and suddenly no terra-firma.  You can see his expression can’t you?  And the sign he’s holding up, which reads: That’s All Folks!

Part of the problem, I think, is that this book is almost entirely devoted to scene setting, for the rest of the First Law trilogy.  Nothing very much happens for long periods, characters move around, have the occasional fight and interact with each other to no great effect.  Like Logen Ninefingers, the battle-weary barbarian, the reader tags along with no idea where it’s all going.  Bayaz, the First Wizard, returning to court after a lengthy sabbatical, seems to know, but he’s not letting on.  There’s not even a climactic ending to speak of, merely a biggish fight, a revelation about one of the protagonists and the sudden arrival of directional narrative for book two.  Worse, the author’s hand is all too often in plain view, nudging characters into unlikely directions for spurious reasons or contriving excuses for a scrap.

The heart of any character-driven work, is in the interactions between the strong personalities and individual motivations of  the protagonists.  Some recent US TV shows, Madmen and in particular Deadwood, have excelled at this.  The multi-season format allows viewers to get to know the characters and their conflicting obsessions over an extended period. We know precisely what characters are thinking, regardless of what they actually say; often it is the things left unsaid, which are the most telling.  Crucially, the characters remain true to their identity throughout, and the narrative takes its lead from these interactions, however messy.  By contrast, Abercrombie’s leads, caricatures but individually well defined, interact at times in altogether unconvincing ways, becoming either far too passive and accommodating or overly aggressive, and generally erratic. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that their actions are governed more by the demands of the plot than rigorously applied internal consistency; that Abercrombie is joining the dots for the protagonists, from their dispersed starting positions to where he wants them to be by the end of the book.

There is also a jarring lack of evenness in tone, as the irreverent but generally sedate default-setting is punctuated throughout, with passages of extreme violence.  I have no problem with extreme violence in itself and to be fair, Abercrombie is at his strongest in the midst of bloody battles; his punchy but otherwise rather flat-pack prose, is best suited to describing action (it works well too, for the occasional witty rejoinder:’ “there are few ills a good cup of tea won’t help with.” “How about an axe in the head?” ” that’s one of them” admitted Bayaz.’).  And I have no problem with work which switches between these extremes, Quentin Tarantino style.  But where Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction for instance, are genuinely menacing – with that stomach-churning fear of explosive, life-threatening violence hanging over the principal characters at all times – The Blade Itself is no Sword of Damocles and there is no comparable tension whatever.  There is gore aplenty but it is reserved entirely for the cannon fodder class: lower even than the bit-part class, those individuals introduced solely for the purpose of being shredded to tiny pieces by more important characters with big swords.

Despite the problems, the usual debut novel disclaimers apply, and I must admit to being intrigued to know what comes next.  Overall I’m left with the feeling that promising characters and an engaging over-arching story, have been smothered by poor directing, an inconsistent script and over-reliance on special-effects.  Not so much Lord of the Brazils then, more like Star Wars – the prequels,  plot-device recidivists all.  The much-touted dark tone – which could perhaps have made up for some of my other reservations – while undoubtedly present at some level, in the coarse language and occasional violence, appears to have been all but written out of the final edit.  The central characters and the world they inhabit are far too forgiving, attempts at social commentary take the form of one-liners apropos of nothing in the rest of the text, and the romantic interludes are little more than adolescent mush: ‘she couldn’t kiss the way Ardee could, no one could.’  We are several Dulux colour charts away from nihilism here, and too uneven for sustained comparison with Pratchett.  All in,the Jub Jub Board of Book Certifications (JJBBC) is awarding The Blade Itself a PG rating (Progenital Guidance): children should be advised, this book contains some scenes which their parents may find disturbing.

May 11, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment