The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

I have to be brutally honest here: I quit reading genre fiction for about ten years and have just recently begun indulging in the genre again. I’ve found that I still very much love reading genre fiction and there was a lot that I’ve missed during my little sabbatical.

While reintroducing myself to the genre, I bumped around online to see what new faces and words were being published, and I came across this article by Leo Grin, who talked about an author named Joe Abercrombie. Grin described Abercrombie’s novels like this: 

“Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.”

Well, I thought. I would certainly read that.

It was almost a year before I acquired a copy of Abercrombie’s first novel The Blade Itself, but I did and I read it and here we are, wallowing together in a jaded literary sewer, which I, for one, found quite appealing.

The Blade Itself is an epic fantasy, which plays out in an almost recognizable world with place names that don’t hurt my eyes. Angland could very well be England, Adua has an almost French feel to the court, and Gurkhul sounds foreign and exotic while purling up nicely in a throaty growl should I feel the need to pronounce it.

The essence of the story is this: Logen Ninefingers, a barbarian with a conscience, is tired of killing. Unfortunately, he can’t leave his murderous past behind, because Bethod King of the Northmen has his sights on conquering the southern lands. Logen goes south to find the Magus Bayaz, and from there Abercrombie spins a tale of old allegiances, betrayals, and coming war. This seemingly simple premise becomes wonderfully entangled with several threads of intrigue spiraling out to carry the reader into the lives of the people most affected by Bethod’s actions.

Usually when reading an epic fantasy, I find myself floating and feeling a bit lost during the first chapters, but I never experienced that with Abercrombie’s story. He holds the tale together by limiting himself to six points of view: Logen, Jezal dan Luthar, Inquisitor Glokta, the Dogman, Collem West, and Ferro Maljinn. The beauty of these characters is that Abercrombie knows them so well he conveys their diverse personalities immediately with his prose. The reader is firmly situated in the character’s mind at the beginning of each chapter, and there is never any doubt as to who is telling which part of the story.

That’s important for a story with this many plotlines. Abercrombie holds it all together brilliantly, building the story slowly and giving the reader ample time to become entrenched in one plot before he spins out another with sharp prose and black humor. I couldn’t help but think that if Joseph Wambaugh decided to write fantasy, The Blade Itself is what it would look like.

This complex plot is cast through the eyes of Abercrombie’s characters, and these characters are what make The Blade Itself so invigorating. I didn’t like all of them but none bored me. Logen and the Dogman were colorfully rendered; they simply were not my favorites. Collem West is portrayed as a good man, who succumbs to the unremitting stress of his career and must acknowledge his own dark nature. West’s part is handled exceptionally well along with that of his sister, Ardee, who is the quintessential alcoholic, right down to her manipulation of everyone around her.

Then there is Ferro, who I would describe as the classic kick-ass heroine. I am going to make a total leap of faith and hope that she will become more interesting as the story develops in subsequent books. In The Blade Itself, she exhibits all of the impulse control of a hyperactive three-year-old on a sugar high. However, I can honestly say that I have encountered women (and men if we are to include the fairer sex) like this, so I’m going to roll with it. She is the only the character that seemed to lack the nuance that Abercrombie gives to the rest of the crew, but that interpretation could simply be based on the fact that I’m rather jaded about the whole wonder-woman-warrior-thing.

My favorite characters were Jezal dan Luthar and Inquisitor Glokta.

I think it was because these two men are mirror images of one another. Jezal is a reflection of what Glokta once was—a dashing officer out to seek advancement through winning the Contest, a major fencing competition. Jezal is the kind of man whose handsome form and fortunate birth have played a large part in his advancement. He sees himself as infallible, a brilliant officer, a man of the world, and he would be utterly obnoxious if it weren’t for the way in which Abercrombie handles Jezal’s dialogue.

Jezal is quite witty in his own mind, but when he speaks, he hardly ever gets past, “Erm,” or “Um,” before he’s interrupted someone with quicker wit or more confidence. Jezal’s rapid fire thoughts are rarely articulated. The longer I read, the more I admired the way Abercrombie handled Jezal’s scenes, because the self-image that Jezal has of himself is not what others see, especially Inquisitor Glokta, who thinks Jezal is something a buffoon.

Glokta is insightful enough to recognize in Jezal aspects of himself as a younger man, but two years in the Emperor’s prisons left Glokta physically broken. However, his determination and endurance had me absolutely rooting for him. He was, by far, the most astute and clear-eyed of all the characters. Glokta sees the world without pretension, sees it right down to its ugly core, and he has developed a black sense of humor with which to deal with his pain and the intrigues that surround him.

One of the novel’s most poignant scenes plays out between Glokta and Collem West. The character development leading up to this scene was extremely well done, and Abercrombie used his material to deftly reveal another layer of Glokta’s personality, one that was both surprising and intimate. The attitudes and interactions between Glokta and West fell together like clockwork, which fairly sums up The Blade Itself.

Some people are only most interested in what’s on the surface, but I enjoy digging a little deeper, even if it means descending into the messiness of real life. If The Blade Itself is a jaded literary sewer, it is one with interesting connections and conduits. At times I felt like I was meandering down a familiar road, then the story would take an unexpected turn or wander down an unforeseen channel, but the sights were familiar and all told, the trip was wholly worthwhile, especially if you, like me, have an affinity for sewers. However, it was the characters that carried the story, and since I believe that to be the hallmark of excellent storytelling, The Blade Itself worked quite well for me.

On the surface, The Blade Itself is an adventure, but if you look closely and you’ll find satisfying characters and a tightly rendered story. If Abercrombie accomplished this by design, I salute his attention to detail; if he didn’t plan a word and the story rolled forward from his imagination to the page effortlessly, I salute his talent. Either way, he has put together a diverse group of characters and linked them all quite devilishly while driving forward a plot that becomes more twisted as the pages turn. I became so entwined in these fictional lives that I forgot my own for a while, and I don’t know about you, but that’s one of reasons that I read.

My rating:

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Well, my darklings, I can see the Dragon has been too long gone from her lair. It’s been a dreadful summer and I, for one, am most glad to see it over. I’ve been busy though, reading, shifting the iron from the ore to tell you about the books that kept me up long through the night.

It was hard to pick the season opener, but I will tell you this: nothing, NOTHING piques the Dragon’s interest more than a novel that causes other reviewers to either love or condemn a story. When I see such vacillation, I know I have to read it so that I can decide for myself.

And so I did.

Mark Lawrence tells the story of Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, a young man who was once a privileged royal child. At the age of nine, Jorg witnesses the brutal murder of his mother and younger brother. By the time Jorg turns thirteen, he leads a gang of outlaws with the sole objective to extract revenge against the Count of Renar, the man who ordered his mother’s death.

Jorg has nurtured his rage and tends it like a dark garden in his heart. He seeks vengence and his days with his outlaw brothers have taught him the brutality he needs to achieve his goal. There is only one thing that frightens Jorg and that is returning to his father’s castle where he must confront the horrors from his childhood and win his place as the true prince of Ancrath.

Lawrence gives us a broken empire in chaos where violence is rampant, but it is our world, easily recognizable. The novel is told entirely from Jorg’s point of view, and Lawrence handles Jorg’s character with the right amount of verve and pathos thrust in equal measure to keep the reader engaged.

Just when Jorg’s violence becomes extreme, Lawrence slows the pace and gives the reader a clear-eyed view into the heart of a child who has known nothing but grief. Only the coldest soul could not see the armor Jorg has placed around himself, caustic wit shields his fear and he buries his sorrow beneath rage. He is a young man who tries to scald love from his heart and he often succeeds. Yet no man is ever completely untouched by those around him, and Jorg is no different.

Jorg is a complex character in a world both familiar and strange, and though the Broken Empire is seen entirely through Jorg’s eyes, the other characters are just as intricate as Jorg himself. Lawrence’s pacing is exquisite and he exhibits a penchant for horror with several well crafted scenes. It is a dark tale well told, you’ll be up into the wee hours as you follow Jorg and his brothers down their bloodied path.

My rating:

Willy by Robert Dunbar

Willy begins with the arrival of an unnamed adolescent at his next stop in the institutional cycle, a school for boys with emotional problems. His last doctor has suggested that he keep a diary, and so begins the story of a withdrawn child shuttled to a school that is so decrepit it barely functions. There he meets his new roommate, a boy named Willy, whose charisma draws the other young men to him.

Within the first few pages, Robert Dunbar thoroughly places you in the young diarist’s head, and it is heartbreaking to read the thoughts of a child with such low self-esteem. No one encourages him or attempts to draw him from his shell, except for the principal of the school and eventually Willy.

With the arrival of Willy, the diarist begins a subtle transformation that Dunbar communicates with eloquent prose. I was reminded of Flowers for Algernon as I read the diarist’s words grow from those of an isolated child to become the thoughts of a young man. Yet Dunbar doesn’t overreach by creating an adult clothed in an adolescent’s body; he stays true to the diarist’s character and he shows us how love can transform and damn a soul.

This is the kind of novel that makes me yearn for a book club that discussed superior dark fiction. With Willy, the reader gets the best of both worlds–an excellent story for the casual reader, but if you’re like me and like to look a little closer, Willy is a tale of depth both in terms of story and characterization.

This is Robert Dunbar’s finest novel to date and certainly my favorite.

My rating:

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

It’s good to see something fresh brought to the fantasy genre and Stina Leicht does it with flair in her debut novel Of Blood and Honey. Set in the 1970s when the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Army (BA) clash, Leicht’s story opens with action that doesn’t stop until the last page is turned.

Ireland’s Fey are at war with the Fallen, and as that conflict escalates, so does the confrontations between the IRA and the BA. Caught up in the war zones from both sides is Liam, a young man who always assumed that his protestant father was dead. When Liam is wrongly accused of participating in a riot and is arrested, his mother turns to her old lover and Liam’s father, a member of the Fey, for help.

Told with the fierce voice of the Irish, Leicht takes the reader deep into Northern Ireland’s Troubles through Liam’s experiences. She pulls no punches and shows both the IRA and the BA in all their brutality while never losing sight of either the old Celtic religion or the new (Christianity). It’s rare to see such a masterful weaving of worlds, but Leicht keeps a tight grip on her story and propels the reader forward like a bullet from a gun.

All of Leicht’s characters are rich and complex, and she keeps the surprises coming. She masterfully intertwines fantasy with reality to create a world so gritty, you feel like you’re walking Belfast’s streets. Dark and feral in its imagery, this is a story you don’t want to miss.

My rating:

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

A spaceship hurdles through space, seeking the perfect planet, and within the ship sleeps the planet’s future population: men, women, and creatures designed to help populate and settle the world to which they fly. Until something goes wrong, and ship goes to war with itself.

Teacher is jerked from dreams of this new world and brought into the harsh reality of ship. He can remember only bits and pieces of his life before awakening. Cold, he runs toward warmth and the mysteries of ship.

This is the best science fiction I have read in years. Bear’s command of Teacher’s story grips the reader from page one and does not let go. The story is dark and haunting, and I loved every page of it.

Science fiction writers sometimes make their tales more about the science and less about the characters. Not Bear. He carefully intertwines all the qualities of science, which makes science fiction fun, yet he never loses Teacher or his bleak story.

Nuanced with lovely prose, Bear reminds us that science without a conscience can be deadly.

My rating:

Shadows: Supernatural Tales by Masters of Modern Literature [ed. by Robert Dunbar]

Robert Dunbar, an author of literary horror in his own right, has selected a group of chilling tales by some of the finest authors of dark fiction. Ten creepy tales by classic authors: Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Henry James, E.M. Forster, Willa Cather, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Oliver Onions, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and D.H. Lawrence are combined into one chilling volume.

I found two of my favorite stories “The Empty House” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” in this collection, and re-discovered “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” Well chosen and arranged, the stories build to a wonderful climax at the end.

Prepare to be entertained, because Shadows is a lovely anthology for anyone who loves horror.

Rating:

Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner

Animal tales are the best, and Hilary Wagner has created a delightfully creepy fantasy filled with adventure and great deeds in her debut novel Nightshade City.

Beneath the human city of Trillium lies another world called the Catacombs. Here there be rats, intelligent rats, who suffer under the hand of the evil High Minister Killdeer and his wicked henchman, Billycan, a former lab rat. Peace once reigned in the Catacombs until Killdeer and Billycan turned the democratic society into a dictatorship with the Bloody Coup.

Now a rebellion is in the works, and three young rats–Vincent and Victor Nightshade, and the clever young Clover–are drawn into the conflict to defeat the Catacomb’s oppressors. Led by Juniper Belancourt, an older one-eyed rat who remembers the days of peace, they seek to establish a new beginning with their own Nightshade City.

Kids who loved Redwall will really enjoy the world Wagner has created with her characters and story. Wagner does an excellent job keeping the younger reader engaged;  the story is tense, but not overwhelming for children. Wagner leads the younger reader through harrowing events with such grace, because she has a way of intertwining a line of hope with every wicked thing that happens.

Her characters are sharp, and so far, adults and kids alike love Billycan as one of the up and coming villian greats. Billycan is the perfect bad guy, yet at the same time, the reader can’t help but feel a little sad for him too.

All the characters of Nightshade City leap off the page and will engage the reader’s imagination. Yet beneath all the adventure, Nightshade City shines bright with hope. It’s a story of what can be achieved when everyone works together, but the tale never loses sight of Vicent’s love for his brother Victor. Together they learn about friendship and the courage they will need to one day lead in Nightshade City.

My rating: