Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Blade Itself: Book Review

Finally, a fantasy series I can get excited about again.

After struggling through the brutal Across the Face of the World, and getting only a few pages into some book about vampire hunters (I've since forgotten the title and lost the book, but it hasn't been missed), I tried a new author based on Amazon recommendations. My expectations were low enough to stumble over, but this book far exceeded what even the most enthusiastic user reviews had led me to expect.

Joseph Brodsky is quoted at one of the chapter beginnings, telling you exactly which direction the author's moral compass points:
Life -- the way it really is -- is a battle not between bad and good but between bad and worse.
The plot is just-good-enough, with plenty of battles and palace intrigue, but The Blade Itself is mostly character driven. And the characters are a blast! Deep, balanced, realistic, and easy to identify with...described with the author's flair for dark humor and insightful cynicism, I've already started to miss them (the next book in the series arrives tomorrow.)

Here are a couple of my favorites, with minimal spoilerage:

  • Inquisitor Glokta - A criminal investigator and torturer, Glokta is a model of efficiency. He doesn't enjoy the torture, but he's highly effective and strongly convicted that his work benefits both king and country. But he's also terribly bitter, and as a former fencing champion who is now a toothless cripple (as a result of torture, ironically) - he has little to hope for and nothing to fear. Taking on a central character with this occupation is rife with challenges, but Abercrombie surmounts them admirably. He deftly avoids the senseless cruelty that Terry Goodkind revels in, by doing most of the torture 'off-camera'. In spite of this consideration to a reader's sensibilities, Glokta retains a dark, fearsome, and bloody aura.
  • Loren Ninefingers - Better known as the legendary "Bloody Nine", this barbarian champion has matured from his cavalier younger days to an older warrior who has learned the value of life. He's given up fighting for glory, for pleasure, or for causes - and fights now only for survival. In spite of his remorse over his past, he's neither running from it nor asking for forgiveness. He just lives from moment to moment, glad to still be alive.
  • Jezal - Not a likable character at all, Jezal is the typically self-absorbed, immature nobleman with no desires other than to improve his social standing. But he's slowly showing hints of self-awareness, without understanding why. Abercrombie's doing a great job with his awakening so far, it's subtle and gradual instead of some cliche epiphany.
  • The Named Men - A group of barbarians that used to travel with Loren, they have no king, no families, and no home - but they do have plenty of enemies. Constantly insulting each other, fighting over goals, tactics, and imagined slights - these guys seemingly have nothing in common except a talent for killing (their names were earned in combat) and a hatred for their foes. They mix desperation, hopelessness, resolution, and a flawless precision for dealing death into a small band you'll be cheering for relentlessly.

More than one promising series has been ruined by a terrible ending, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't be the case here. In the meantime, I'm truly enjoying reading again.


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