REVIEW: ‘The Blade Itself’ is a wonderful, painful read

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Cover art for the audiobook version of "The Blade Itself" by Joe Abercrombie.

“The Blade Itself” is a fantasy novel by Joe Abercrombie. As far as fantasy novels go, this is a relatively recent one, released in 2006. Because of this, many so-called modern fantasies, such as the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin or The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan set up a vast wall of expectations toward this and other newer fantasy books.

The plot itself follows three major characters: an inquisitor who finds himself in the inner circles of the country’s government, a fledgling military officer looking to make his mark and a Northman warrior, Logan Ninefingers, who is still wondering how he got caught up in this mess. These characters experience political turmoil as their country wages a new war with an unknown foe, and not to mention the return of an ancient wizard left by most to legend and myth.

Does this book fall to the trappings of the stories set before it, or does it do enough to position itself as the start to a distinct and new step in such auspicious company?

If there’s one way to describe Abercrombie’s narrative style, it’s “cinematic.” The perspective is honed very close on its characters and their immediate thoughts, rather than trying to have you buy into this big wonderful world.

This style also facilitates this novel’s crown jewel: its fight scenes. It doesn’t take long to find out how hard this novel is willing to hit. This, in conjunction with the book’s obsession with making sure you’re as close to its characters as possible, makes each hit hurt as much as it can.

One example of this is Logan Ninefingers, one of three main point-of-view characters in this novel and holder of most fight scenes. At the end of each one, he stumbles away murmuring to himself “I’m still alive. I’m still alive,” like he has a thousand times before.

Despite an ever-present tone of hurt and grime, one that can be felt in many fantasy novels of its kind, what distinguishes this book is that it never feels cruel to its reader. “The Blade Itself” knows it’s the very first book in a trilogy and is restrained by pairing every intense event, from fight scenes to intense strides in intrigue and conspiracy, with one of release and reassurance that everyone is going to be, in some shape or form, OK.

This balance is also honed by its audiobook narrator, Steven Pacey. I will also say at this point that I read this on audiobook, and if you’re neutral on how to read books, this is the way I would recommend. Pacey succeeds in being engaging while still holding the cadence that the material requires.

The truly remarkable and helpful aspect of his performance is how he gives voices to each character. Pacey successfully gives voice to each character without being distracting in himself, and every voice and accent lands, being consistent enough that you can remember someone by their voice as you try to remember their name.

The only drawback to my experience with this book was some substantial exposition dumping to explain the world. The characters who should know everything about their country and the recent war and the oncoming threat feel the need to tell each other about it for the benefit of the reader.

This is excusable, but most of the information is teased out when its relevant in the rest of the book anyway. If you do read this book, which I do recommend, keep in mind that most of this is settled up by the time that the enormous bald man with half his body tattooed in runes shouts “ANGLAND.”

There are two more proper novels in this book’s series, as well as a series of novellas and the promise of a sequel trilogy in the works at the time of this publication. If you need an engaging fantasy about people having a harder go at it than you, I recommend “The Blade Itself” by Joe Abercrombie, maybe more so than the books that inspired it.

Micah Drake is a senior in English. The views and opinions expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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