The Blade Itself – reread

Posted on May 28th, 2012 in reading

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…?

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  1. Giasone,
    Yeah, ‘filmic’ is a word that gets used occasionally, and as is often the case with discussion of writing I’m never entirely sure what quality of the writing it is that creates that sense. I always think of myself as relatively light on description, but maybe that’s not the case.

    AntMac,
    Best Creepy Bondage Scene – Job Done. Best Served Cold certainly wins for intensity of unpleasant sex and violence.

    Bladder,
    I think your opinion on that is going to change rapidly. You like different books for different reasons at different times. But maybe we’ll have some answers after this read-through?

    Adam,
    I’m not sure I buy the thing about writing getting too polished and over-produced. Sometimes jagged or raw is what you want, sometimes a lot of careful thought goes into creating that effect. Sometimes smooth and silky is what you’re after. Incidentally I think armchair critics much too often associate smooth, clever prose with good, when in fact it’s just one of many valid style choices and can often be quite inappropriate and annoying. But sometimes prose is just lumpy, clumsy, bland. I’m not saying that’s always the case with The Blade Itself by any means, but sometimes there’s a lack of artistry to some of the passages, and actually a lack of variety of style. Now, I think that’s compensated for by a certain exuberance and energy that comes from it being a first effort. I think there’s an inevitable development to a writer’s career in which a first book introduces their style and central concerns in a way that maybe has greater impact than will ever come later. That loss of originality is compensated for by an increase in craft, maybe…?

  2. I have no sense of loss of originality in the progression of your prose. The thing for me is that I don’t read any external influences in your work. I haven’t read anything similar, by any other author, ever.

  3. ^^

    Well said Michael. I feel the same way. Joe’s work is wonderfully original. It always feel’s fresh, never tired. A joy to read even when your favorite character’s are failing miserably.

  4. “Incidentally I think armchair critics much too often associate smooth, clever prose with good, when in fact it’s just one of many valid style choices and can often be quite inappropriate and annoying.”

    “… a first book introduces their style and central concerns in a way that maybe has greater impact than will ever come later.”

    When I post here I maybe come across as an arse-licking fan. But damn, genuinely, I vacillate between agreeing with you, Joe, and being startled by your insight.

    Too often lesser authors employ smooth, clever prose that’s equally smooth and clever throughout, regardless of situation and character POV. It isn’t that hard for the well practiced to use commas and “ands” and sharp, evocative, alliterated nouns to achieve pretty descriptions of nature. It is harder to stay focussed on story, character, world.

    In terms of the author’s central concerns and impact, I felt that the war or anti-war theme of The Heroes enabled you to achieve some impressive (if sardonic) intensity:

    “Oh, flower of manhood! Oh, the brave boys! Oh, send them to war no more until next time we need a fucking distraction.”

  5. Well Joe, I’m not going to debate too much on that with you for fear of sounding like one of those guys in the Wiki entry on Peter North arguing the output of his appendage.

    I just hope my original post didn’t sound like some back-handed compliment. Your “armchair critics much too often associate smooth, clever prose with good, when in fact it’s just one of many valid style choices,” sums up my feelings pretty well.

  6. The world needs more Harding Grim.

    …yeah, I know.

  7. Glokta’s internal voice is one of my favorite things ever in any book! Everyone I know who has read this agrees. When recommending the books, it’s one of the things I point out. That and the… different tones? Glokta wouldn’t speak, think or act like Logen. Everything about the chapter or section reflects that and it makes sense. When I start a chapter, I know just about immediately who is talking to me, so to speak. I have never read another author who does this. Not really.

  8. What the hell, here’s my list of Joe’s books:

    1. Before They Are Hanged (because it’s the one where people are the least shitty to each other)
    2. The Blade Itself
    3. Last Argument of Kings
    4. Best Served Cold
    5. The Heroes

    Love all of them, but can’t deny I love some more than others.

  9. Here’s my list, since everyone is doing it.

    1. Before they are hanged. Battle with the Feared was just so great.

    1.a The Heroes. Loved me some Curnden Craw.

    1.b Blade Itself. Intro to so much good stuff.

    1.c Best Served Cold. Shivers is my boy.

    2. Last Argument. I was one of those a little let down by the ending of the major story lines.

  10. I really hope they make a series of the trilogy if nothing else. I don’t think one movie could capture one book. Although if they made 5 or 6 movies I would be more than happy with that. I can’t wait for the day! Gaaahhh I can’t imagine who Logen would be. Do you have an actor for him Joe? It would be interesting to see how you view him somewhat.

    I have somebody for Glokta, but I’m afraid I’ll get laughed off the thread for suggesting it. :/

  11. If we’re going about picking possible a Glockta, I’m going to go right ahead and put Jude Law out there. Ian McShane for Bayaz while we’re at it…

    And as for getting laughed at, Vinnie Jones for Practical Frost, at least he doesn’t have to speak!

  12. After reading this post, you have convinced me that you are an awful writer. I hope that was the point because it worked!

    ::serious face::

    The Blade Itself started pretty slowly for me but at some point I became totally enthralled. I’m not too sure where that point was though. Somewhere within the first chapters you found exactly what you needed to do and you’ve done it pretty much ever since.

    I was not too fond of Best Served Cold but I loved The Heroes. So, there are bumps but I think you’re on a great style of writing. Even if your new book is a total dud it’ll still be one of the best fantasy books in recent times.

  13. They could never do justice to the best thing in the book, in the form of a Movie.

    And the best thing is “The characters”. They are too good to waste in the sort of visual short attention span format that all movies end up falling into.

    The Characters demand a TV series, time to bring their varied, human, twisted selves to light.

    In a movie, or even a trilogy of movies, so short, such a visual media, Glokta could only ever be a kind of cruel sick joke. Dogman a sidekick. Furious a bully. Dear Ferro just some sort of funny foreigner running gag.

    They could never be given enough time to be people, and then I would be sad.

  14. There’s an great interview with Toby Whithouse, the creator and primary screenwriter of ‘Being Human’, in which he concludes by remarking on how his writing has become more streamlined over time. Interesting to compare this with your own comments on your earlier work. For anyone interested, the interview is at:
    http://www.screenwritinggoldmine.com/writing-for-doctor-who-creating-being-human

  15. Giasone,
    Ha. Funnily enough I met Toby Whithouse at the latest SFX Weekender. He was one of the contestants on the SF&F Just a Minute I took part in. By all appearances a very nice guy…

  16. On Glokta you say “…sometimes a bit obvious and lacking in subtlety…” I read his internal voice as being over the top in everything – self-pity, contempt for others – and also that he was aware that he was over the top. And slightly amused by it. That was his choice, to be over the top and amused rather than despairing.

  17. Neil W,
    It’s more the technicalities of the way it’s used than the tone that I had a problem with. In the Blade Itself his thoughts often just echo what we already know in a not particularly entertaining way, sometimes what we’ve just been told in prose or in someone else’s dialogue. There isn’t always enough of a sense of his own voice infusing his thoughts. Used too often as an unsubtle means for me to keep the reader up to speed. I’m reading Before They are Hanged now and finding it much improved there, though it’s easier when you don’t have so much background to lay out.

  18. My list would have Best Served Cold at the top, and the Heroes at the bottom. I did enjoy TH, but I thought it had too many POV characters for one stand alone novel – was Coporal Tunny’s voice really required? Perhaps it was, I’m no story teller (!), but for me he took the focus away from the main characters and didn’t really add much.

    I think I just preferred BSC as it felt a lot more focused, revolving around a small group of characters with a defined mission and end. It rarely meandered away from the main group/story

    My one hope for Red Country is that it’s more BSC than TH in that respect

    Also, I was disappointed that after BSC, Shivers was relegated to background character in TH – with no POV :(

    Minor gripes though! Keep up the good work mate

  19. Thanks for tip off – I’ll check the SF&F JaM on Youtube, since I’ve come to love ‘Being Human’ (though not as much as ‘The First Law’ trilogy, of course…)

  20. I love all your books, especially The Blade Itself. The only thing I got a bit tired of midway through the trilogy was the constant frowning. But with Before They Are Hanged the frowning stopped, and I started to miss it again.

  21. Niklas,
    Oh, yes, the frowning is still with me. Eyebrows are the other go to response…

  22. Well, their world has much to frown about, a frown on your face makes people hesitate to fuck with your touchy grumpy looking self, and most of the people can hardly like themselves for their lighter, carefree impulses. Thats if they could find such impulses with a weeks provisions and a map.

    And best of all, it makes the perfect foundation to start from and slowly, happily, spread your evil grin across.

  23. Hope you all have read Joe’s short story in “Swords and Dark Magic”. It’s practically part of The Heroes. Great introduction to Craw and his Dozen. I loved The Heroes probably because I was able to read this first and throughout the novel I felt sad for those who might’ve missed the short story. Ha ha, losers!

  24. Read it and enjoyed it, JMa. BTW, ‘S&DM’ is a great little anthology, well worth adding to one’s personal library.

  25. I actually liked how we lost the POV of Shivers in The Heroes. Then we got to see him as others see him, without the sympathetic internal voice, but as the terrifying, massively violent character he became…

    In the same way I loved seeing Logan through the eyes of Jezal the first time they meet. Until that point, we have had nothing but Logan’s internal voice, and no real idea of what he looks like. Indeed until then, I had the impression he was a bit rat-like.. sure, a scrapper maybe, but not particularly imposing amongst his own kind.

    Then we get Jezal describing this hugely scarred, hulking great brute, seemingly less civilised looking even than Fenris, of all people!

    I like this technique. And I may well be wrong, but I think it is not even until The Heroes that we get any idea of what the Dogman looks like?

  26. I started re-reading The Blade Itself recently as well. I agree that there’s some great dialogue in there, one that sticks out is Glokta’s response to Arch Lector Sult asking if he spilled information when he was tortured. As for all this ranking thing people are doing I absolutely love The Last Argument of Kings, I can genuinely open it up at any random page and be instantly engaged.

  27. I have just discovered this author and these books and am enjoying them… Though I have to say, why has no one ever brought up hoe Bayaz is clearly a nod, or an homage if you will, to the Uncle Iroh character from Avatar? I find them insanely similar, in an awesome way, so I’m curious now if this was intentional or just an insane coincidence.

  28. Uncle I,
    Haven’t read/seen Avatar (of the airbender variety), don’t know much about it. So I plead not guilty to intentional imitation on that one, at least. Read the whole series and let me know whether you still see the similarity…

  29. I am an unctuous little bastard and I bow to all of your published works in one sentence rather than a paragraph (I love them all)!

    I am not a hypercritical reader nor am I educated well enough to decrypt word-usage/structure/plot etc.

    The only instance where I paused a moment and said, “man, what the hell is going on?”, occurred when Glokta continued to regard Bayaz as a fraud for a considerable time period after the party emerged from the House of the Maker.

    Glokta is logical, skeptical, cynical, blah blah (awesome) … all traits I highly admire. Why did it take Glokta so long to change his perspective towards Bayaz as being an actual magi?

    The book is obviously incredible. I am such a fan boy I had to post something. I love the moral relativism in your novels.

  30. The trilogy is the best trilogy i have read in a while.

    The scene where Bloody-nine is first introduced in TBI is the best scene i have ever read. Up to that point i kept wondering why this gentle-giant is so feared and why he has such poor opinion of himself.

    i read “The Night Angel trilogy” by Brent Weeks. Its quite different than your work but some of the characters and the plots and situations are so similar to yours that i ended up thinking he has copied from your books.

  31. Well, I finished the series… And Bayaz is pretty much nothing whatever like Uncle Iroh. I think it was his penchant for tea and fire that led me horrifically astray. Oh, and also the original and unique story when I’m normally used to not being fooled by a character.

    Also, I have to say that Glokta is possibly my favorite hero ever written. Yes, I am calling him a hero. No, I will not use quotes, nor will I place the word “anti” in front of it. I was routing for him the entire trilogy, and am very disappointed he hasn’t made a reappearance yet! (just finished Best Served Cold).

    I think I keep reading these books now hoping desperately to find a character with some redeemable qualities, and so very delighted as each one shows their bad side.

    Well, besides Glokta, of course. Oh, and of course Cosca, the hero of Best Served Cold.

  32. I am currently doing a reread of this novel myself after a few years. I just recently purchased them for my brother for his Bday and decided a reread was in order to discuss with him. I found that a few years later i am still enthralled with a lot of the same aspects of your writing style which i enjoyed the first time around. The characters much like a G RR Martin have a real grayness that leans towards the dark. Each character has the capacity to redeem but “You have to be realistic about these things” :) I also through the 5 novels really enjoyed the way you had a trilogy in mind and no more. You moved on to other aspects of the same world but kept a freshness which i think gets lost by other writers who do 8-15 books series. I can’t wait to discuss with my brother when he finishes and as a songwriter myself i always think it is a mark of a success if you can listen to your own work years later and not want to throw it in the fire :) I take that as a win. Thank you again i have really enjoyed the work.

  33. I’ve had all three books for years now and because of life (the universe, and everything) I haven’t gotten around to reading them until now. I’ve simultaneously been listening to the audible version whilst taking part in that mundane drivel we all have to do like folding laundry and gainful employment. I have to agree with everyone else, Glokta’s internal voice is some of my favorite internal dialogue ever. The audible version really makes it that much better. Steven Pacey, the voice actor goes so far as to make Glokta’s internal and external voices different, which is something I didn’t think to do when I tried my best to read The Blade Itself when it was gifted to me in college. I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing myself lately and I’ve had to strive really hard not to mimic your style because I’m very aware that I love your writing style, PARTICULARLY Glokta’s internal voice.

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