Review: “The Blade Itself” by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself: The First Law: Book One (Audiobook)
Joe Abercrombie
Narrated by Steven Pacey

My last encounter with Abercrombie (“Best Served Cold”) did leave me slightly shy of trying another. Not that it was bad – it wasn’t. But it was very intense and unremittingly gloomy.
“The Blade Itself” came as a refreshing dash of cold water to the face. From the first words there was an undercurrent of wry humour. Don’t get me wrong, it is still dark, and bitter, but in the sense of a good pint of something dark with a white head.

A quick word on Steven Pacey’s narration. The word is: awesome. His voice choices for the characters are masterfully edging towards stereotypical without being cheesy, making them instantly memorable and thus recognisable. His use of UK regional accents created easily recognisable groups in a way that artificial accents would never have achieved. His narration pulls you along, never obtrusive, no sharp verbal edges to snag you go.

Characters make this story, and one character in particular. Inquisitor Glokta is a masterpiece – both writing and voice – and I perked up my ears every time I heard his voice. Glokta is always guaranteed to produce something insightful, poignant, pithy – but never trivial. That’s not to say Glokta is the only character that stands out. All of the primary characters have depth and tangible character, and it is very much around them that the rest of the work rests upon. But, all the same, Glokta does rise above the crowd.

The story itself, in this volume at least, is a fairly conventional ‘Hero’s Quest’ format, with noble savages, mischievous wizards, corrupt nobility, mysterious artifacts, threats of war from other powers and the obligatory Dark Forces. The threads of the tale weave a thick braid too complex to go into here. What does impress me is the way Abercrombie twists it all together without it descending into chaos. Most characters have two threads at any one time and Glokta must be running through at least a dozen. Very cleverly done and enticing to read.

Abercrombie paints with a very rich brush, and creates tangible scenes and settings in which his characters play. The detail is never shirked; the sordid and grotesque is depicted with the same detail and intensity as nobility or great beauty. At the same time Abercrombie avoids the expositional trap of droning descriptions to set scenes. Detail is discovered, discussed, and analysed by the characters, not the narrator.

If I did have a gripe, and its a very minor one, it would be that each volume of the trilogy is not self-contained. In audio book format, this work is better than 18 hours long, and it took me three weeks to get through it. There is and element of frustration when one gets to the end of the book and finds no closure. Having said that, I just bought the next book (at a whopping 22 hours) from Audible and I look forwards to getting through a good six hours of it on my round trip to Manchester on Monday.

Summary: A fine fantasy epic saga with wonderful scene setting and characters you can believe in utterly.

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