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:

The Girls with Games of Blood by Alex Bledsoe

It’s 1975 in Memphis, Tennessee, and Alex Bledsoe returns with his Memphis vampires for a novel filled with fast cars, rock and roll, and steamy southern nights. Baron Rudolfo Vladimir Zginski has his eye on a car, and not just any car. He outmaneuvers a good old boy, Byron Cocker, to buy the 1973 Mach 1 Mustang of his dreams. Cocker is a former sheriff of some renown, who doesn’t appreciate being cheated by anyone, especially foreigners.

Cocker is determined to wrest the Mustang from Zginski, but Zginski has other worries. Life becomes more complicated when Patience Bolade, who poses as a folk singer, enters the scene. Zginski and the two young vampires he’s taken under his tutelage immediately recognize another vampire has entered their territory.

One of the infamous Bolade sisters, Patience has a history of her own in the form of a blood feud with her sister Prudence, also a vampire. Prudence has vowed to destroy Patience and anyone who stands in her way. Zginski, Leonardo, and Fauvette, soon find themselves drawn into the sisters’ feud with some surprising twists and disastrous results.

Bledsoe really hits his stride with his latest novel of love and betrayal amongst the undead. The pacing is superb and just when you’re sure you know how the plot will unfold, Bledsoe gives it a twist to keep you engaged.

Bledsoe’s characters are portrayed with layered personalities so that every scene reveals their inner struggles in more depth until you’re caught up in their lives and loves. Patience Bolade’s transition from dying woman to vampire evokes mystery beneath a full moon and remains the novel’s most poignant scene. Leonardo grapples with racism and his own motives as he seduces his latest victim while Fauvette tries to find her place in the world and Zginski’s life.

Zginski remains as repulsive as ever, unrepentant racist and misogynist — and those are his good qualities — but towards the end, Bledsoe gives you a clue that Zginski isn’t quite all that he seems, either. While the younger vampires seek to emulate their mentor’s stoic old world mentality, Zginski finds his humanity reawakening in ways that surprise even him.

Bledsoe ties it all together neatly and doesn’t miss a beat with either plot or prose. He serves up vampires for adult readers, so if you’re looking for horror with verve, check out The Girls with Games of Blood.

My rating:

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

I’ll keep this review short and sweet — kind of like Sarah Addison Allen’s books.  This is Allen’s third book and much like Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen, it has elements of fairy tale mixed with small town North Carolina flavor and a pinch of romance.  Emily Benedict returns to quirky Mullaby, North Carolina in search of a solution to the puzzle of her mother’s life.  Why did Dulcie Shelby leave Mullaby and never return?  Why was she so reluctant to discuss the grandfather Emily never knew, or the house she grew up in?  And why are the eccentric townspeople so angry at Emily for something that Dulcie did years ago?

Like the two other books before it, The Girl Who Chased the Moon is filled with magic, like the wallpaper in Emily’s room that changes with her moods, the bewitching aroma of the sugary cakes that  Julia, owner of the local barbeque joint,  bakes in an effort to lure lost love back to her, and the mysterious Mullaby lights that appear in the woods outside of Emily’s window each evening.  Emily’s grandfather is a gentle giant and her boyfriend’s entire family mysteriously refuses to be seen by moonlight. 

Even though this time around Allen’s book was a bit predictable and some of it was a little silly (the explanation of the Mullaby lights for example), I still enjoyed it for what it was — a light enjoyable read as sweet as one of Julia Winterson’s cakes.

My Rating: 

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Mary Anning truly was a remarkable creature.  Born in 1799, she was struck by lightning at the age of one and survived.  Living with her family in the village of Lyme Regis on the southern coast of Britain, little Mary spent many hours on the beach with her father searching for “curies” or “curiosities” which were in fact fossils of many prehistoric creatures such as ammonites, crinoids and belemnites.  To Mary and her family, “curies” were a way to put food on the table.  They collected the specimens and then sold them to the tourists who visited the coastal resort each summer. 

When the three spinster Philpot sisters move from London to Lyme Regis, Elizabeth Philpot takes an interest in Mary and her fossils.  A collector herself, Elizabeth joins Mary in scouring the beaches and uses her connections in aristocratic circles to help her sell her finds.  When Mary discovers a “monster” embedded in the rock, she unknowingly uncovers the first documented dinosaur, the first of many finds to come, and Elizabeth must fight to see that Mary gets the recognition she deserves.

Chevalier has taken a real life person in Mary Anning and fictionalized her life and accomplishments.  At the time that Mary lived, science was a man’s world and hunting fossils was not considered a suitable pursuit for women.  It was seen as “an unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious.”   Although she made major contributions to the world of paleontology, Mary was never given the credit she deserved and was mostly forgotten, though several of her finds are still on display in museums today. 

Alternating between the voice of Mary and the voice of Elizabeth, the chapters emphasize the class differences between the two women and highlight their unlikely friendship, including both mutual admiration and, at times, barely disguised envy and jealousy.  Not just a book about fossils, Remarkable Creatures is also an examination of the roles of women in society, and in the world of science, at a time when being a spinster at the age of 25 or spending time in “unladylike” pursuits such as fossil hunting were looked upon with suspicion and derision.

My Rating:  

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

The Sad Tale The Dragon sits on the fence about this one, my good Wild Things. I simply do not know, so I will render the tale as impartially as I can and let you decide:

Set in 1364, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart follows the adventures of Manfried and Hegel Grossbart, two German grave robbers of dubious morals. They are as physically ugly as their dispositions and leave everyone worse for their passing. They have decided, these Grossbart Brothers, to journey to Gyptland where their grandfather allegedly disappeared while plundering the graves of Egypt’s kings.

In need of supplies for this great undertaking, Manfried and Hegel descend on the home of the turnip farmer Heinrich, who once injured both the Grossbarts when they were young. By page seven, the Brothers Grossbart have attacked Heinrich, murdered his wife and daughter with an ax, burned his two young children alive, and sliced the son’s throat.

This is but the beginning.

One quarter of the way through the novel, the I was hoping someone would come along and kill the Brothers, because I found them so vile. Eventually, I started giggling and glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one saw. Midway through the book, I realized that even should someone come along and kill the Brothers, the Grossbarts would be too stupid to comprehend the meaning of their deaths. Three quarters of the way through the tale, I felt as bludgeoned as one of the Grossbarts’ victims. At page 400, I rediscovered religion and started praying for the end.

That the Dragon didn’t stop reading is a testament to Bullington’s prose, which is as dark as a fairy tale and suits the overall grim mood of the Grossbart story. The journey through the mountains and the encounters with the witches and demons were excellent. Bullington’s characters were well rendered, but there is no humanity in this novel. The world Bullington shows us is so ugly, it’s practically a caricature.

Only in one scene does Bullington give us a brief glimpse into Hegel when the Grossbart kills a young girl, who is mourning another dead child in the street. In a barely perceptible flash, Hegel hesitates as if he regrets the action he must take. Yet he finishes his gruesome task and justifies it as the Virgin’s will.

Neither brother has the least difficulty justifying their acts of violence or hate in this amoral fable. Religion is mocked and manipulated by cardinal, serf, and noble; violence permeates every aspect of life; and no bodily fluids are sacred. The Brothers cruise through Europe wrecking havoc, yet they always emerge emotionally unscathed.

The Brothers’ ability to rationalize their every act to themselves is why I believe the ending wasn’t as satisfying to me as it could have been. There was no catharsis when I was done. However, when I evaluate Bullington’s tale, I’m hard put to find an alternative ending that would have been satisfying to me. Hence my ambivalence about the novel as a whole.

Bullington’s research is impeccable, and his pacing keeps the reader engaged. Be forewarned, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart lives up to the disclaimer on the back of the novel, which cautions that the book contains strong language and scenes of graphic violence. The fight scenes (and there are many) are extremely graphic, and the retching references become so numerous, they’re almost comical by the end.

So I will give my subjective rating; however, I would be most interested to hear what others may have to say about The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.

My rating:

Twelve by Jasper Kent

Twelve Voordalak, voordalak, voordalak . . . ah, yes! Vampire. Hmm, even the Dragon is getting a little burned out on the vampire spin, but at least Kent does vampires right in his debut novel, Twelve.

The Grande Armée of Napoleon Bonaparte is poised on Moscow’s doorstep in the autumn of 1812. In a desperate bid to stop the French, Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov and his comrades enlist the help of the Oprichniki. The Oprichniki are twelve mercenaries from Eastern Europe, each is named for one of Christ’s disciples, including the enigmatic Iuda. The Oprichniki promise they can stop the Russian advance with their unorthodox guerrilla warfare, and Aleksei and his comrades are desperate enough to accept their help.

Kent does an excellent job of writing about this period of the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Russian. The historical aspects of the novel never overshadow or supersede Aleksei’s story, but instead enhance the supernatural portions of the tale to lend believability to the overall novel.

The vampires are not sparkly teenage stalking caricatures of young adult novels, but creatures of blood with a lust for killing. The entire novel is well written and accurate in both history and legend.

So why is the Dragon ambivalent about this novel?

Aleksei was a likeable character, all of Kent’s characters were well drawn, including Iuda. I certainly enjoyed the story; and I positively loved the historical setting of the novel. The sub-plot concerning Aleksei and Domnikiia never interested me, and I had difficulty believing there was actually anything between the pair other than lust. Aleksei proclaimed love, but his adoration was never accompanied by action. At one point, he couldn’t wait to be rid of her, so I didn’t buy into his angst over her well-being.

This is highly subjective, but I would have enjoyed Twelve better as a war story that focused on Aleksei, Maksim, Dmitry, Vadim, and their war against the French, then the Oprichniki. I would have liked to have seen a more focused approach on these four men and their betrayals without all the pretensions to romance with Domnikiia.

There was more than one occasion where I felt the scenes were ponderous with information. The plot and Aleksei’s thought processes were so meticulously detailed in some passages that Kent lost the emotion of the prose in lieu of an almost technical rendition of the facts.

In spite of this, Kent’s prose did have a very comfortable feel so that the novel’s defects did not prevent me from enjoying Twelve. I think that Twelve is well worth the read, and I will certainly look forward to Kent’s next novel.

My rating:

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip

I believe this is the most recent book by Patricia McKillip (published in late 2008) and it is my third McKillip book.  While I did enjoy it for the most part, it was the least satisfying McKillip book to date for me.

The story centers around a crumbling manor house in the small town of Sealey Head, perched on the cliffs above the sea.  To all outward appearances, not much happens at Aislinn House where Lady Eglantyne lies on her deathbed.  The only sign that things are not as they seem is the mournful tolling of a bell as the sun goes down each day.  No one knows where the bell is or what it signifies.  It has been a part of the lives of the residents of Sealey Head for so many years that many don’t even notice it any more.

It soon becomes apparent that there is another side to Aislinn House which only a select few people know about.  Emma, the housemaid, sometimes opens what seems to be a closet door or a door to an unused bedroom and finds instead a parallel world of princesses and knights entangled in some sort of bizarre ritualistic existence unchanged for year upon year.

The entire idea of the story is fascinating and as I said before I did enjoy the book, but the ending was a bit of a letdown with many questions left unanswered (for me at least).  The mystery is wrapped up rather quickly and anticlimactically (is that a word?).  Of the three McKillip books I’ve read, this one seemed to have the least of the enchanting and poetic language that initially drew me to her work when I read In the Forests of Serre

Still, I would recommend this one to McKillip fans and those who have not discovered McKillip yet and enjoy “world within a world” fantasies.  As always, the artwork on the cover by Kinuko Y. Craft is extraordinary as well.

My Rating: