432 PAGES · £16.99
There aren't many fiction genres that get as much muck thrown at them as Heroic Fantasy. Everyone knows the clichés about these novels – they’re too long, too pompous, too predictable and too concerned with ripping off JRR Tolkien at every opportunity. Thankfully, this fantasy saga takes a slightly different approach, sidestepping these issues in an entertaining manner while serving up the requisite levels of swords and sorcery.
Trumpeted as the official Next Big Thing™ to hit the genre, The Blade Itself is an admirably hard, fast and unpretentious read from debut author Joe Abercrombie that isn’t quite the “Richard Morgan meets Tad Williams” experience promised by the hype, but still packs a mean punch in the bloodthirsty mayhem and mystery departments.
Crammed full of torture, vengeance and bad behaviour, it’s a lively tale of civilisation vs savagery, kicking off when war begins to brew between the brutal men of the North, and the supposedly cultured people of the Union. Battered barbarian Logen Ninefingers doesn’t want anything to do with either side, but life is soon dragging him into stranger circumstances when he’s summoned to assist the semimythical Magus known as Bayaz.
While Logen is accompanying Bayaz on a journey to carry out some bizarre unfinished business, there are plots, counterplots and strange murders happening in the Union, and the sardonic, bad-tempered, half-crippled Inquisitor Glotka is the man charged with finding out who’s responsible. This sends him up against the powerful Guilds, and when he’s not scheming, investigating or torturing people for information, he’s clashing with the staggeringly egotistical officer Jezal dan Luthar, a nobleman who approaches fencing and sleeping with as many women as possible with equal levels of enthusiasm.
Naturally, all these characters end up colliding, and there’s plenty of complexity at work in the world that Abercrombie has created. Avoiding the kind of convoluted mythologies that can make Heroic Fantasy heavy going, his main concern is with character interplay, and throwing plenty of interesting conflicts at his central trio of “heroes”.
Out of these, it’s Logen who grabs most of the attention and audience sympathy. A born fighter who starts the story with little but superb combat skills and a cooking pot, he’s capable of horrendous violence, yet is also one of the most honest and honourable figures in a lurid cast of flawed, interesting individuals.
Trouble is, while Abercrombie keeps the book rattling along at a fair pace and adds plenty of hardedged attiude, his writing style isn’t always as successful. It’s lively, but sometimes comes off as a little unwieldy in comparison with more accomplished scribes like David Gemmel. Plus, the plot doesn’t really gain momentum until the final third.
Despite this, Abercrombie has still pulled off a mean feat: he’s created a highly readable fantasy that isn’t going to scare off mainstream readers or newcomers to the genre. The Blade Itself may not re-invent the wheel, but it does serve up a whole banquet of violent action and intrigue, and leaves the prospects for the next book looking downright enticing.