Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Hilariously, I read THE BLADE ITSELF alongside SUMMER OF THE UNICORN, and while both are fantasy novels, just look at those covers and guess who the targeted audience for each is. Yeah, I thought so. Now imagine THE BLADE ITSELF with a hero (let's go with Bayaz) and a heroine (Ferro?) clad in scanty clothes, miming sexual positions around a sword plunged into the middle of a scenic wood populated by deer...and Shanka.

This NEEDS to happen!

My first encounter with this author was with his book, HALF A KING, which I thought was okay. It felt a lot like a blend of Robert Louis Stevenson and George R. R. Martin, and while I thought the story was interesting, the pacing was terrible. The ending, especially, dragged like nobody's business, and I had to force myself to read the book in time for my book club.

I actually owned books 2 and 3 in The First Law series for about five, six years now, but never started them because I was lacking a book 1. Recently, it went on sale for $1.99 and I one-clicked that switch immediately, because at last, my collection was complete (mwa-ha-ha). When my friend Mary agreed to do a buddy read with me, knowing her penchant for fantasy I thought this would be a winner. Plus, my brain gets super lazy when it sees a page count that exceeds 500. Buddy reads are a super handy tool for corralling lazy brains into reading long books - two birds, one stone! Let it be so!

Now I have finished THE BLADE ITSELF, and I find myself in the same position as I was after I finished HALF A KING. The story was good, and the characters were complex, but the pacing was awful. The beginning was so tedious that I remember thinking to myself, "I wonder how much Mary will hate me if I put this book down slowly and pick up a bodice ripper instead?" (Spoiler: Probably not at all, Mary is super cool.) But I have a modicum of honor, so I forced myself to keep reading and the book (very gradually) got better as other characters entered the fray.

I'm not sure how to summarize the book except to say that it's a lot like GAME OF THRONES, in the sense that it is about a kingdom that has been plagued by war in the past and has a new threat looming on the horizon. This kingdom is called Angland and the threat is coming from the North. The main characters are Logen (a barbarian soldier); Bayaz, a bald-headed, legendary magician; Glokta, a promising soldier who was tortured horrendously and now leads inquisitions involving torture himself; Jezal, a spoiled rich boy soldier, and the fantasy equivalent of a whiny frat boy; and Ferro, an escaped slave who is deadly and desperate to escape, even if it means her own death.

This book really, really wants to be the next GAME OF THRONES, but I don't think it succeeded very well - at least not in the ways it wanted to. Like GoT, I definitely was interested in some characters more than others, to the point where I'd skim if I'd see certain characters' names (I see you Ferro and Logen). Also, this book suffers from a problem a lot of other fantasy novels written by men have - it doesn't have that many fleshed out female characters. Yes, yes, I know about Ardee and Ferro, but Ferro really didn't feel very complicated to me, she felt like a dude's idea of a "tough girl": personality-less, merciless, and utterly anti-feminine. And then Ardee was kind of the classical manipulative b*tch with daddy issues. I didn't really appreciate that, as a woman.

The last time I brought this up about a fantasy novel, I actually had some dude come onto my review and mansplain fantasy to me. Did I not know that women are not the intended audiences of fantasy novels, he asked, mansplainingly, because that is not the "domain" of women. Or something like that. I forget the exact words. LOL, maybe the problem isn't that women aren't interested in fantasy; maybe the problem is that we don't see ourselves reflected in any of the characters, so we have to stick with books that have titles like SUMMER OF THE UNICORN (which, incidentally, is not a bad book, and is certainly a much better book than anything written by Heinlein, who is as trashy as all-get-out and yet, bizarrely, his work is regarded as literary by some - wtf?).

My favorite characters to read about were probably Bayaz and Jezal. I felt sorry for Glokta, but all his obscene gum-licking and his constant gripes about stairs (LOL, but seriously, I think every time his narrative was mentioned, he talked about the stairs at least once) made him feel a bit one-note. The scenes where he shone were the torture scenes (which are graphic and disgusting - you have been warned) and the scenes where he seems vulnerable, like when his past comes up or when he softens a bit towards Ardee and West. I found that touching. Logen was boring, but he wasn't a bad character. Ferro was irritating, for the reasons I outlined earlier. The best scenes in this book were probably the journey into the tower and the sword-fighting duels; Abercrombie is good at writing sword fights.

Did I enjoy this book? Yeah, more or less. I'd read books 2 and 3 since I already own them, but I don't think I liked this book enough that I'd rush out and buy the sequels if I didn't own them already. It wasn't bad, though, and the world-building grows on you as you read. I hear that books 2 and 3 really gain steam and become darker yet, so I guess I'll have to wait and see what Abercrombie comes up with next.

2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars

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