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The Blade Itself: Book One of The First Law

by Joe Abercrombie

(Gollancz, £9.99, 422 pages, trade paperback, also available in hardback priced £18.99, published 18 May 2006.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanNow this is a breath of fresh air! A story told with wit, dash, and a keen eye for character.

In Adua, capital city of The Union, Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, crippled ex-soldier, spends his days torturing confessions out of petty traitors. His work is banal yet revolting, still, it's a living, in its way, and Glokta isn't good for very much else since the servants of the Emperor of Gurkhul got through torturing him!

Also in Adua, Captain Jezal dan Luthar, a pretty, spoiled, lazy young nobleman, prances through the undemanding duties and amusements of a garrison officer while half-heartedly training to win the annual fencing contest which he hopes will set his feet on the path to greatness. Conceited and blinkered, Luthar knows little about the greater world, and cares less, which is unfortunate, as the greater world is about to come knocking, with intentions malign!

Up in the Northlands Loren Ninefingers, ex-champion to the brutal Bethod, King of the North, is on the run. He's on the run from Bethod, and from the inhuman Shanka, and from a horrendously bloody past which has given him a reputation on a par with Vlad the Impaler (and he almost deserves it...) Surprisingly, Loren is actually a rather decent man. His cruel life, his painful losses and disappointments, have mellowed him. He's gained a strange wisdom from all the brutality he's lived through, and an almost melancholy reserve. When Bayaz, First of the Magi, sends Loren an invitation it seems only polite to accept, and shortly thereafter to join Bayaz on a little trip he has planned to (you guessed it) Adua...

There's a nicely nested set of conflicts at work in this story. As the above should make clear, all the principle characters have their own crises, trials and obsessions to work out. At the same time they persistently get in each other's way. Then there's Bethod, King of the North, who having spent half his life hammering the bloody-minded Northmen into some sort of unity now finds he has to do something with them and there's The Union, just to the South... For that matter, there's the new Emperor of Gurkhul, Uthman the Merciless, who intends to take back the territory The Union won in the last war... Of course this is all froth on top of a tidal wave as Bayaz, First of the Magi, is desperately trying to deal with Khalul the Prophet, who has raised himself up an army of cannibalistic sorcerors with which to overwhelm the world...

The ideas, the themes, and even the plot devices in Abercrombie's work aren't new, but they don't have to be. They are told with real verve, a genuine ear for good language, a willingness to take time to make the characters' thoughts, actions, and experiences real for the reader. Also, as I've said, there's a dark, playful, at times genuinely delightful wit here, which picks a grain of humour out of the most morbid circumstances.

Of course, one can point to flaws. The book could have used a slightly tighter edit, and very occasionally Abercrombie lets the darkness in his characters mount just a little too high, but never mind. Finding a writer like Abercrombie amidst the clutter of second-raters who crowd the fantasy genre is like the sun breaking through dark clouds; he wakes you up and reminds you why you took up reading in the first place.

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