Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Blade Itself

This one was a recommendation from Smartypants and Cookie Monstress, my martial arts instructors.

Not to be confused with Broken Blade or The Fallen Blade, both of which I reviewed earlier this year. "Blade" is one of those words that fantasy authors absolutely cannot resist. 

Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Hefty for mostly good reasons (531 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: September 6, 2007 from Pyr
Premise: An infamous barbarian warrior, a young officer who's never had to work for anything, and a crippled torturer are all trying to live their own lives when the wizard Bayaz enters their lives. The realm is threatened, and he is determined to save it by whatever means necessary, even if it means working with unconventional tools.
Warnings: graphic depictions of torture, physical family abuse, gore
Recommendation: If you're interested in every main character being a bad person with just enough good traits to make them likeable, absolutely pick this one up. It accomplishes that better than anything I've ever seen, and the action and tone are quite good as well.

What makes this one bold: 

The main three perspective-holding characters of The Blade Itself should be deeply unsympathetic because they are not good people, but for some reason they're all likeable and vivid (though it says a lot that most sympathetic of the three is probably the mass-murdering barbarian). Logen Ninefingers killed many opponents in single combat and far more in mass combat-- he once tried to settle down with a family, but they were killed and his name has become a feature of terrifying legend throughout the North. Jezal dan Luthar is an arrogant young brat whose father purchased him his captaincy and now has no larger ambition than to win the fencing contest and rest on his laurels. Sand dan Glokta was once in Jezal's position as a brilliant duelist, but then he was captured and tortured for two years. On his return to civilization, he turned to torture himself and became one of the most accomplished and feared members of the Inquisition. They all have their vices, but also striking moments of humanity that make it difficult to altogether condemn them-- Abercrombie has a gift for holding characters poised right at the boundary between darkness and redemption. 

The siblings of the West family, Collem and Ardee, are held in a tension with Jezal that illustrates this wonderfully. Major Collem West is a respectable young man who had to claw his way up through the ranks in combat during the wars because no one would promote a commoner to a respectable rank otherwise. He helps Jezal train with swords, which demonstrates that he has the patience of a saint, and is holding his life on an even keel when his sister Ardee returns from the north to spend time with him. She drinks heavily and insists on flirting with Jezal even if it means risking her reputation and by extension her brother's standing, which is already delicate. He tries to put up with her, she provokes him, and the situation eventually explodes in an unexpected direction. Jezal is unquestionably the most shallow and casually unkind of the three, but the fact that he has all the emotional depth of a puddle is, in an odd way, a blessing: he doesn't have the capacity to conceal true darkness within himself because there's simply not room for it with all the arrogance he holds.

The Blade Itself has a sly sort of self-awareness that keeps the story from taking itself too seriously. When Bayaz and Logen enter the city, planning to announce their presence so Bayaz can take a more active hand in the city, they're disheveled from attacks and rough living on the road. So Bayaz finds a store that sells stage costumes and purchases a grand shimmering wizard's robe for himself and a fur-covered ensemble with a flimsy false sword for Logen. He's lived long enough to understand that people are manipulated by appearances, so he dresses as the showy stage idea of what a wizard ought to look like in order to get past the inner gates of the capital. Abercrombie undermines traditional expectations at every turn by doing things like making some of the most touching family dynamics in the book those between Glokta and his two Practicals, assistants who do the heavy lifting to support his methods of torture, but the costumes are obvious in an altogether different way. People see what they expect to see, which is why Bayaz does such a good job living in a persona he's built. He could act naturally and rely on his message to gain the attention of the right people, but in this time and place, there's no way to get through but artifice.

In other places, people invoke, or are forced to invoke, their own legends or history, no matter how painful the process may be. Sand dan Glokta lives at the fringes of his old self, remembered for his stunning victory in the Contest and for being the only person to survive two years of torture and come back sane, or mostly so. When people from his old life encounter him, they shrink away, and he lives in a numb bubble of fearlessness. Danger tracks him, but it's as though he's lost the ability to feel emotions as keenly as he once did-- he can muster little but annoyance, caution, and a sort of spiteful anger for most of the book. Logen Ninefingers has done his best to flee his own reputation as the Bloody-Nine, and the part of himself that built the legend, but it returns when he comes close to death. I'm honestly not sure I've seen a physical fighter be scary in quite this way: he beats a man to death at close quarters by slamming his own forehead into the bones of the face, and the alter ego who rises to the surface sees that as nothing more than fun. His opponent had taunted that many barbarians had nine fingers without being the Bloody-Nine, and his response was "No. Only me." He knows and hates that name when he's himself, but he more than lives up to the fear that the name inspires. Abercrombie spends a lot of time exploring reputation and reality and goodness in this book, and it can make even the action scenes thought-provoking.

What makes this book very nearly unique, woven through every page and scene and character, is its moral ambiguity. You're not always sure that this kingdom deserves to survive and triumph, or that these heroes deserve to win; they betray themselves and each other almost constantly, and even the most trustworthy are dangerous. The reader ends up cheering for these characters sometimes only because the alternative is worse: people who torture for fun or who make choices that would subject civilians to mass slaughter, or who use dark magic to feed on others and sustain themselves. The realm has champions with bloodstained hands and troubled souls because that's who it deserves and what it has helped to create.

The red pen: 

Some of the characters, unfortunately, fall quite flat next to the complexity of the main cast-- even the best of them take quite some time to be fleshed out. The Northmen who were traveling under Logen leadership, for example, spend the first half of their scenes arguing with each other and occasionally killing other people on the road. They eventually acquire a purpose and coalesce into more well-rounded people once they see how far their enemies are willing to go, but it takes so long that their early segments drag. Ferro has a similar problem-- she's introduced as a deadly warrior who wants nothing else in life besides vengeance on Gurkhul, the nation responsible for the oppression and deaths of her people. She's unquestionably tough and good at what she does, but she acts more like a rabid dog than a person most of the time. Bayaz and Yulwei (the wizard who discovers her) can manipulate her easily with promises of more efficient and thorough revenge, to the point that she's barely thinking for herself. 

The two leading authority figures are similarly underwhelming, in part because they radiate melodrama. Lord Chamberlain Hoff more closely resembles a cartoonish caricature of a corrupt bureaucrat than he does an actual person. He has one particularly obvious sequence of managing audiences with petitioners-- he shouts down a peasant who has been illegally turned off his land because he doesn't care for the man's lack of rank and refuses to listen to the Guild of Mercers even though they're complaining that one of their own was attacked and seized by the Inquisition. The man can't even maintain a semblance of objectivity, which adds to the air of the kingdom falling into corruption but also strains credulity a bit. 

Arch Lector Sult, head of the Inquisition, starts out much better-- he's coldly menacing and able to leave Glokta completely in the dark about his motivations. He sets up elaborate loyalty tests and keeps his subordinates on edge, but when Bayaz turns up, he runs completely off the rails. He tries to expose the wizard as a fraud and seeks Glokta's help in finding evidence, but the plan keeps failing and he slowly turns into a shrieking figure with no ability to accept responsibility for his own actions or see the obvious when it's in front of him. Hoff and Sult both make good semi-villain figures in a structural sense, but as people they don't carry the necessary zest and nuance to blend with the gritty realism of the rest of the story.

That realism works well in most places, but it means that some of the setup for plot points in later books is confusing or throws off the pacing. Ferro's entire arc, such as it is, consists of fighting and swearing and running away but being drawn back to Bayaz and the rest because they need her to be some sort of vessel later on. When the characters are finally drawn together to leave the city where they've been running into each other, it's hard to be exactly clear on what they're doing. There are quite a few clues about the daughter of the Maker, power and time, strange and hidden forces, but nothing terribly conclusive. In some ways, the murky nature of the quest works to amplify how confused the characters themselves are, but it's hard to latch onto a solid point of anticipation when most of the central characters are off doing something unexplained and Glokta has to leave the city just after establishing an interesting rapport with someone staying there.

On the whole, The Blade Itself establishes a gritty and morally conflicted tone that breaks away from many fantasy genre tropes. Details are offered in such a cryptic manner that it can be hard to track what's useful to know later, and this can muddy the pacing-- it's also annoying to see such an interesting book fall to the trap of making some characters half-sketched in a way that barely lets them seem like people. That aside, watching Abercrombie manage three such anti-heroic figures in a way that commands the reader's sympathies is an absolute joy; it's hard not to dive into the sequels.

Prospects: This is the first book of The First Law trilogy-- the third one, Last Argument of Kings, came out in 2008. He's written more books, including Best Served Cold, in the same world, and signed a contract to write four more in 2011. The newest, Red Country, comes out in November.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~C.S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising, first in the Coldfire Trilogy, isn't quite so gritty, but it plays well with shades of grey and the promise of redemption in a way that's reminiscent of The Blade Itself.
~Glen Cook's Black Company series works beautifully for this-- many of the mercenaries have a streak or core of goodness, but they've watched enough friends and enemies die that they're numb to the finer points of compassion.

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