Over the last few days I’ve been reading Joe Abercrombie’s seminal work of modern fantasy, The Blade Itself. Alright, I confess, I have read it before. About 90 times. In fact there’s probably no significant body of text that I’ve read more times. In a week this book will have been published six years ago. Which means I was making the first (probably now unrecognisable) efforts at writing the first scenes maybe nine or ten years ago. Although I had made the very first (utterly unrecognisable apart from some of the names) abortive efforts at writing those scenes about seventeen years ago. Which means I very much wouldn’t do things quite the same way now in all kinds of ways. Which means it almost feels at times as if it was written by someone else. Sometimes that’s a bad thing, sometimes a good – there were a couple of nice lines and gags I’d actually entirely forgotten. At other times I knew the text so well I’d expect to read a line that had been taken out late in the editing and be shocked that it wasn’t there. The notional purpose of rereading was to check whether there was anything I’d forgotten about that should find its way into the current book, particularly from the point of view of any returning characters (obviously I can’t say who but the sharp among you have probably already got your theories). I’ve leafed through it now and again to check some detail or other but I haven’t actually sat down and read the entire thing for a good two or three years, I don’t think. It was an interesting experience. Occasionally a little wincy and frustrating but by and large a good deal better than I’d feared. Some thoughts…
The writing’s a little lumpy, sometimes trying a bit too hard – why use one adjective when five are available? Then you can repeat a couple of them later in the paragraph! Hmmm. A tendency towards providing pairs of nouns or adjectives when one, or perhaps none, would do. A bit of dead-horse beating, you could say. Sometimes it’s a bit foursquare, dwelling on who did what when, some unnecessary repetition and too much focus on technical aspects of positioning in a scene that really don’t matter at all. He turned, then he turned back, then he turned again. He could probably have turned less. Or indeed simply looked forwards and delivered his dialogue. But actually the writing was generally less embarrassing than I’d feared it might be. Some of the descriptive bits are a little, I don’t know, lacking in sparkle, prone to become a bit listy and unimaginative, and sometimes there’s a slightly trying, breathless, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to tell you how ace this is,’ sense to things, but the dialogue is largely there, there are some really nice exchanges I’d forgotten about. If there’s one relative strength that I’d identify it is the dialogue. The different ‘voices’ for the different points of view generally work but haven’t totally settled down at this stage. I actually found the prose-style with Ferro’s chapters worked really well although I was trying a bit hard for an emotional payoff there, and the Dogman just always worked right off, but Glokta’s internal voice I actually found rather surprisingly disappointing – works in some of the more reflective sequences where he’s just thinking, but comes across as trying too hard when it’s working as a commentary on action and conversation – sometimes a bit obvious and lacking in subtlety, I’d say. It improved as things went on, though and undoubtedly had its moments. Perhaps overused?
I’d say probably the biggest problem is with content and pacing. The different threads don’t necessarily interact all that smoothly. There are some really nice sequences at the Contest, in the House of the Maker, when the Bloody-Nine appears, but they tend not to coincide, coming as blips out of a flatline of occasionally rather dull hanging around rather than building together to a crescendo. In general the first part works fine – although I think a slightly meandering sense remains from when the early chapters were first written more as test samples than as part of a larger, planned out whole – but in the second part you’re waiting for an increase in intensity and if anything there’s a relaxation, a bit of a dispersement and dilution as Ferro and the Dogman appear in their unrelated stories, there’s a little too much fencing with Jezal, though some of that works well, Logen is treading water and Glokta’s investigations into Bayaz, though necessary to fill out the back story, aren’t always thrilling. There are interesting and exciting moments in there, and the characters and world are definitely laid out and built up in a largely entertaining and involving way, things do intensify as we come towards the end, but there’s no denouement to this book, if you like. If you look at the trilogy as a single story that’s not necessarily a major problem, but I think it would have helped to have a rather more decisive structure to this volume – certainly it’s a criticism I often see and probably one that I’d largely agree with. At one time I’d have said something like, ‘well, Fellowship of the Ring sets things up and then trails away at the end without at all standing alone,’ but Fellowship of the Ring is basically one thread, so that sequences like the flight from the Nazgul and Moria have huge impact. I don’t know that the Blade Itself has anything on that sort of scale, and big events for one character tend to be slightly traded off against flatter stuff for others. The second part in particular could definitely have been condensed considerably without costing much, I feel.
That said, despite the issues, I still like it. A lot, at times. Probably that’s unsurprising, since I like it in the way that you like that sandwich you make for yourself, on just the kind of bread you like, with just the right amount of sauce and the lettuce cut just bloody so. I like the way it kicks off hard, I like the tone and the sense of humour, and I think the characters are pretty arresting, vivid and original right off and do pull you (or at least me) through the flatter sections. Although nothing much pays off there is some reasonably cunning set up of various plot points, partly thanks I’m sure to the luxury of publishing the first book when I was already well underway in the writing of the third. There are some really nice scenes, often when the characters suddenly encounter one another for the first time and the way others see them is contrasted with the way they see themselves. And although the pacing overall is uneven a lot of the sequences have a nice internal rhythm. There’s a good sense of timing, you might say. Some rough edges, then, some things I wouldn’t do the same way now at all, but I nonetheless award myself high marks. Unsurprisingly, some might say. But it is handy, since the chances are large that your first book will remain in many ways your most important.
In conclusion, The Blade Itself is incontestably the finest fantasy debut that will ever be made … by me.
Oh, and the comment thread is getting a little spoilery, so if you haven’t read the First Law, firstly, I pity you, secondly, don’t read the comments, and thirdly, what are you waiting for…?