The Blade Itself
by Joe Abercrombie
"Fucking Flatheads!” he screamed, giving the nearest a fearsome big blow in the head and splattering blood across the clearing. In so far as you could tell what a Shanka was thinking, these ones looked greatly surprised. Dogman reckoned that would have to do for a signal.
He let loose his shaft at the nearest Flathead, just reaching for a big club, and watched it catch it through the armpit with a satisfying thunk. “Hah!” he shouted. He saw Dow spit another through the back with his sword, but there was a big Shanka now with a spear ready to throw. An arrow came looping out of the trees and stuck it through the neck, and it let go a squeal and sprawled out backwards. That Grim was a damn good shot.
Adua, the capital of the Union, is beset with intrigue while external threats from all sides threaten the fragile stability it fought for. The wild clans of the North have been united, rumors of a powerful evil in the South persist, but the political class is deadlocked. Can characters such as the barbarian Logen Ninefingers, aged wizard Bayaz, and dashing but callow nobleman Jezal dan Luthar save the kingdom?
Fucked if I know, because The Blade Itself is one of those depressingly common non-novels that spend 500 pages setting up the pieces for the next book without really telling much of a story themselves. I mean, stuff happens, enemies are vanquished, most (but not all) of the major characters meet and decide on a course of action. But nobody's story is complete, nobody really grows, and none of the mysteries that are hinted at are ever resolved. It is a frustrating read.
What somewhat redeems The Blade Itself is the writing. The prose reads more like a hard-boiled crime novel than the normal fantasy romp, with well sketched, larger than life characters spitting tough-as-nails dialog at each other. Abercrombie also has a particular flair for naming things, which is important in a made-up world. And the book is not boring - stuff does happen, just don't expect it to lead anywhere until the sequels.
Speaking of stuff happening, one of the point of view characters is a professional torturer and the scenes where he plies his trade made me very uncomfortable. In fact, all the violence in The Blade Itself is just that little bit grittier than average.
All this, along with the heavy emphasis on the political system in Adua has lead to some comparisons to the Game of Thrones series. Here is another one - The Blade Itself is not as good as Game of Thrones.
I didn't hate The Blade Itself - it has memorable passages and some fun prose. But beneath that flair is an unambitious first-of-a-series fantasy novel which ends just as it starts to get interesting.
The good news is that so little of consequence to the larger plot actually happens here that the sequel could almost be a standalone novel. I am never going to find out.