Snap review: 5 stars, a dark, gritty and wry fantasy based on the sword-and-sorcery and epic fantasy templates. There’s no safe middle ground here: you’ll either love the raw gleeful energy, or you’ll find it too slapstick and cynical. Joe Abercrombie’s prose is deadly: witty and violent, well plotted and brilliantly told.
Joe Abercrombie really packs it in. I was reluctant to begin a book with a blood-spattered cover lauded as ‘delightfully twisted and evil’. I’m not a psycho. I don’t fantasise about blood. But as a fantasy author, I want to know what’s happening in the fantasy genre, and so I stuck my neck out and got it chopped right off by the blade itself. It’s not what I was expecting. It’s personal, brutish, and brilliant. I get the feeling that Abercrombie takes great pleasure in writing this way. If he doesn’t like someone, they get smacked.
His characters scream “Character!” In a few lines of dialogue we meet some unforgettable rogues. Logen’s viewpoint shines! To enter a city for the first time and see all of its strangeness through the eyes of a barbarian was so very funny. (I felt not unlike a South African arriving in London). The book is worth reading for this character alone. But Abercrombie himself is the lead character – he expresses himself so strongly that I found myself wanting to read on just because of the way he told his story.
He drops his capitals too. Instead of The Blade Itself the first cover was ‘the blade itself by joe abercrombie’. Unfortunately later designs have put his name and titles in capitals, which doesn’t truly reflect the style. His prose cuts you before you’ve seen the stroke coming; no words are wasted on flowery descriptions. If he’s telling you something, it’s relevant: if he’s building someone up, he’s poking fun at them. His story-telling is remarkably efficient.
By the half-way mark we have met a whole host of characters, each one unique and memorable and quite possibly important to the outcome of the story, which seems to be that a war that is brewing. Funny, I thought, no clear goal in sight, yet it’s compelling reading. Due to his wry observations and confident style I was drawn into the story despite the lack of any primary character with whom I can sympathise. I can empathise with Logen Ninefingers but to be honest it’s hard to really root for someone who has ‘thrown a woman down a well because she attacked me for murdering her husband’. He’s despicable, just like Inquisitor Glokta, whose murderous reasoning is appalling. I wouldn’t shed a tear for him, but in his tap, tap ... scrape I learn the rhythm of his pain, and strange as it may seem, I become drawn into his world, which just goes to show how good Abercrombie's writing is.
The architecture of the world, the cultures and the power struggles slowly emerge as the pages fly by, and the revelations are perfectly placed and nicely hidden within the fast-paced prose. There's a lot going on in the background, revolving around the wizard Bayaz, who is a truly outstanding wizard introduced with cunning and subtlety. Bayaz has terrifying power, and is the most fantastically arrogant self-centred bastard of a wizard there ever was, though he seems so reasonable. Or maybe he's actually good, I can't be sure, he disturbs me too much, so I'll have to read on, there is no way I'm putting this series down.
I went out and bought the whole series – it’s an altogether fantastic read. Highly recommended.