Joe Abercrombie was recommended to me by a friend who has also been reading fantasy for a long time. He knew I was a huge fan of David Gemmell and said there were some similarities between his and Abercrombie's work; a certain level of grittiness, grey characters and an unpredictable plot. If Brent Weeks writes dark fantasy or crime fantasy, then Abercrombie's is definitely gritty fantasy or maybe blunt force trauma fantasy. Marketing people love labels, and sometimes they can be annoying, but in this case it tells you exactly what to expect. A shock to the system that will leave you reeling and bloody afterwards.
At first you might think The Blade Itself is a Me Too book as two of the characters are a battered warrior and a cranky old wizard. However, another main character is a torturer, someone who was himself a victim of torture, so much so that he is now crippled and in constant pain. And if someone were to kill him it would almost be a relief, because there would be an end to his daily suffering. Glokta was a former golden boy, a swordsman of renown who was captured by the enemy and broken in their cells. He didn't slaughter an army single-handed and fight his way home. If that's the kind of fantasy story you're expecting then look elsewhere. What emerged from the enemy cells not only looked different but inside Glokta was a new, very twisted man. This bitterness might sound depressing but in fact Glokta's dark sense of humour and internal monologue is some of the funniest material in the series. In any good book, no matter the genre, if it's dark you need some comedy or an undercurrent of black comedy to make it less depressing and Glokta delivers this.
What emerged for me throughout this book is how human Abercrombie makes his characters. All are flawed in some way, emotionally or sometimes mentally, and while some have previously achieved greatness, they have also stumbled since those heady days and turned down darker paths. His characters have texture and are perfectly formed in the mind of the reader. A hero might have won a great battle, but what does he do afterwards? Marry a princess and walk off into the sunset to live happily ever after? Well, there isn't such an animal in this book, although you can find this sort of thing in some fantasy that is more fairytale and less realistic. That's not to say there are no happy endings, but each person has their own version of that concept, and likewise each character in the story does as well. A happy ending for one person might be an end to physical pain, or revenge, or glory on the battlefield. It's very much a personal thing.
After reading only one chapter I realised this is not a typical fantasy series. Abercrombie might use some familiar tropes, but he takes them and remoulds them to create something unique. We are given hints throughout the trilogy of a momentous past full of great deeds carried out by wizards who are almost god-like beings, disciples to Juvens, the greatest of them all. But all of that is gone. They are a part of history that few remember. Remnants and bits and pieces remain, but this story is not about giants reshaping the world with their bare hands. The story is what comes after, but we are also given glimpses of other forces at work that are pulling the strings behind the curtain.
One of the three main characters is Logen Ninefingers, a warrior from the North, a Named Man, and someone well known and respected. He is also feared, and rightly so, for his past is incredibly bloody and unpleasant. The second is Jezel, a foppish turd who has no real aspirations who I found incredibly unpleasant and difficult to like, throughout the trilogy in fact. But of course I don't believe we're supposed to like him very much, not at first anyway. And the third is Glokta, who through his work begins to realise that a conflict seems to be brewing between the Union and the North. There is also a third political power whose influence is felt more acutely in the next books in the trilogy but I won't spoil any details.
The plot is full of twists and turns where characters bludgeon, torture and blackmail their way towards answers, and by the end of this first book you are deeply immersed in the world and the fate of the characters. The fight scenes are brutal, detailed without being over the top, and Abercrombie does a good job of painting both the world and the characters without it clogging up the story and making you read pages of tedious description. This was his debut book and it immediately caught my attention and I couldn't wait to read the next two books in the trilogy. I can also see why this book was nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Award for fantasy, because Abercrombie's no nonsense style of writing shares elements of Gemmell's style of digging into areas of fantasy others wouldn't dare to go. There is magic, and mystery and elements of the supernatural in the story, but none of it is done overtly.
A minor complaint I've heard from a couple of people is the lack of a map. I can see why someone might want one, but I don't think it's really necessary since the whole story and all of the characters are effectively conjured in your head through the text. If any writer has done a good job then you can clearly see the cities and the characters, and you can navigate around without being led by the nose. I'm not against maps, and if there is one then great, but I don't spend time flicking back and forth to it as I read any book. But some people expect it in every fantasy book and seemed genuinely put out by what is a minor issue at best. To me at least, it seems like another fantasy trope, and this book, and indeed the series, does the unexpected which makes some people uncomfortable.
If you want a fantasy book that isn't safe, that is full of gritty, violent and fascinating characters in a well thought out world, with a story that is often surprising, then this is the book for you. Abercrombie is an exciting new voice in the genre and his blunt force trauma fantasy novels certainly leave an impression (and a mark) on you after reading them.