Friday, 5 February 2010

The Blade Itself

I don't read much bookshop fantasy, as a rule, as it's not really my bag. I'm not sure what it is exactly, but I find all the thees and thous, and related mullarkey a bit annoying. It seems too stagey to me, unnaturalistic and unconvincing. The fantasies I do like tend to empahsise the artifice rather than attempt naturalism. Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith, Michael Shea and Gene Wolfe dress their stories up in melodrama and ornate language which lends them an archaic style as if the texts themselves originate from another world.

The contemporary fantasy series strives for a kind of naturalism similar to a historical novel. We are asked suspend disbelief and inhabit their world for a while, as if it was a consistent reality realated to our own. For whatever reason, I've always had trouble doing this and so I struggle to engage with fantasy a lot of the time.

But, there's a lot of experimentation going on in genre fantasy at the moment and it's obviously a bad idea to cut onself off from that sort of thing. Writers of intelligence and craft who grew up with the genre have started to appear - China Meillville being perhaps the most notable, but also Jeff Vandemeer, Richard Morgan and George RR Martin (among many others I probably don't even know about). The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is a book that comes up when the new fantasy writers are mentioned, and so when I saw it in the remaindered bookshop for a pound, I snapped it up!

The buzz around the new fantasy writers reminds me a bit of the buzz around super hero comics in the 80s. Back then, the fimiliar form of the super-hero comic was being similarly re-examined by a new generation of writers. The Blade Itself is like a gritty Frank Miller super-hero book. Abercrombie establishes the reality of his world through its muck and grime and blood. The vividly described action is full of crunching bones, spurting blood and dismembered limbs; the world around the characters elsewhere is filthy and smells bad.

Like the grubby reality of the fnatasy world, we're introduced to the grubby reality of the fantasy archetypes, which emphasises darker traits of humanity. The three main characters are a Jezal Luthar, the dashing egocentric scoundrel of the Flashmanesque type, the hulking Northman warrior Logen Nine Fingers who is raddled with aches and regrets and the crippled inquisiotr Sand dan Glokta radiates hatred for everyone and everything. Abercrombie deftly shifts style with each point of view, giving each character a unique feel. The outstanding character is Glokta, portrayed by Abercrombie through well-chosen and vivid details of his physical agonies and tortured spirit.

It was Glokta that kept me reading but Jezal's story was full of excellent intrigue and the adventures of Logen with the mage Bayaz and the rest of the fantasy spooky crew is obviously does the most work for outlining the cosmic scale of the conflict. I was a little frustrated by the introduction of more voices about two-thirds in, but I guess they'll be important in later volumes.

The plot is standard fantasy fare, but deployed through characters who have convincing motivations and drives. As the super hero comics of the eighties generally stuck to the standard generic elements - secret identities, colourful spandex, ultraviolence - Abercrombie sticks with the standard generic elements of epic fantasy but lends them great depth through characterisation. The standard elements spring from the personalities of the cast as well as the engine of the plot. Even the legendary bust-up of the wizards millennia before seems to have its origins in the coolly bellicose personality of Bayaz.

I prefer single books to series, but I've read a few different series in recent years (such as Moorcock's Col Pyat quartet, Neal Stephenson's Baroque trilogy, the Book of the Long Sun and the Soldier series by Gene Wolfe, eg), but on those occasions I've already secured the necessary volumes before embarking. In this case, I have only Book One of The First Law, and I'm not even sure what Book 2 is called (google time: Before They Are Hanged). I'll keep an eye out for it though, and if I see it cheap I'll snap it up, too.

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