Joe Abercrombie’s famous trilogy has been languishing on my TBR for a long, long time: I kept promising myself I would read it “one of these days”, but also kept being distracted by other titles – that is, until his new work was announced and I was lucky enough to be able to read A Little Hatred, the first book in a new series set a few decades after the events of the First Law. Far from finding myself lost in the “next generation” setup of the new story, I was so intrigued about the past of this world that I did not waste any more time in finally fulfilling that long-ago promise to myself – and you know what? Reading A Little Hatred did not spoil my enjoyment of this prequel story, but rather enhanced it because having met some of these characters or their offspring, it felt as if I already knew them well, and wanted to know more.
The Blade Itself is both a character study and a way to set the background for what will certainly come in the next two books: on hindsight it almost looks as if nothing much happens, and yet this book turned into a compelling read, made even more extraordinary once I discovered this was Abercrombie’s debut work – not that it feels like one, on the contrary. The main setting is in the Union and its capital city Adua: a place of culture and refinement, but also of political machinations and unrest, especially since the Union is threatened from the expansionist moves of the Gurkish Empire in the South, and from the northern barbarian tribes now united (more or less forcefully) under the self-proclaimed king Bethod. And this just to name the two more powerful opponents…
They are jealous of one another, all those people. It may be a union in name, but they fight each other tooth and nail. The lowly squabble over trifles. The great wage secret wars for power and wealth, and they call it government.
In this troubled scenario we meet several characters, defined by ambiguous morals, unclear goals and even uncontrollable violence, which nonetheless manage in a few short chapters to capture the readers’ attention and in some case to make them genuinely care for the outcome of their journey. These characters are indeed where Abercrombie excels, managing to present us with people who might be scary, or unlikable, while at the same time showing some different side to them that makes us question our first judgment, and compels us to learn more.
The first one we meet is Logen Ninefingers – so called because he lost one of them in a battle: a Northern barbarian, once the champion of King Bethod, he’s now on the run from his former ruler and from the savage Shanka who murdered his family. Separated from his band of comrades he now believes dead – and who believe him dead in turn – he moves south trying to leave behind the violence that’s been such a huge part of his life, trying to build himself into a different man and to stay alive as long as possible.
To fight my enemies I need friends behind me, and I’m clean out of friends.[…] It’s been a while since my ambitions went beyond getting through each day alive.
But struggle and strife seem to follow him like a shadow, and even away from his old haunts he must keep fighting, at some point revealing where the moniker “Bloody Nine” comes from, and it has nothing to do with the number of his fingers…
Then there is Bayaz, an ageless mage with an unfathomable agenda: through him the author gives us a peek into this world’s past and its legends (but are they, really?) of godlike beings battling with each other and laying the foundations of the present. This character seems to hover on the dividing line between a fraud and the real thing, just as his temper swings from the jovial to the thunderously dangerous, and while it’s clear he does possess some uncanny powers and has a goal in mind, given that he’s gathering a number of people for some nebulous quest, it remains to be seen what that goal is and where it will take the story.
More down-to-Earth is young, brash captain Jezal dan Luthar, training for the annual combat Contest that should grant him the respect he craves, although he prefers to spend his days drinking, gaming and chasing women. Only the encounter with his comrade Collem West’s sister, Ardee, will prompt him to seriously train and finally make something of himself, although curing his entitled selfishness might take something more than the desire to shine in the girl’s eyes… Jezal is the only one of the main characters I could not truly warm to, and even the few insightful peeks into his personality failed to change my mind, therefore so far he remains the one I love to despise.
Last but by no means least, Sand dan Glokta. Once a proud, valiant warrior, he was captured by the Gurkish and tortured for years, only to be returned to his country broken and crippled. Military career over, he’s now a torturer for the Inquisition – and who better than a man who suffered unspeakable pain to administer it to the King’s enemies? Glokta should have been a loathsome character, and yet he’s the one I ended caring for more than others: a man living in constant pain, moving with extreme difficulty (his thoughts about the daily battle with stairs are darkly and delightfully whimsical) he’s quite resentful of healthy, vigorous people like Jezal, who represent everything he’s lost, but the person he hates most is himself, his helplessness, and that to me is his saving grace, together with the wicked sense of humor he applies indiscriminately to himself and others. Moreover, despite being a skilled torturer, he does not enjoy what he does – yes, he relishes the inevitable results of his work, but not the means with which he obtains them. And there is something of a soft spot in him, which comes to light in a specific circumstance, that speaks of the man’s complexity and layers and makes him very intriguing. Together with Logen, he’s the character I will look for in the next books with heightened interest.
The minor characters are equally compelling, even though their allotted time is shorter, and this is especially true for Logen’s lost companions, some of which – like the Dogman – I’ve come to know in the first book of the new saga, while storywise The Blade Itself achieves the same degree of skilled balance between grimness and humor, drama and amusement that I found so compelling in A Little Hatred: the interactions between characters, the battle scenes, or a breath-taking chase through the streets of Adua, all come across with such a vibrant quality that the story takes life in your mind’s eye with cinematic quality. And leaves you wanting for more…