A while ago, I went to an author event featuring Peter V. Brett, Myke Cole and Joe Abercrombie, and as a result I read (and reviewed here) Brett's The Painted Man. I meant to catch up with Abercrombie, too (I'm sure Cole is excellent, but purely military fantasy doesn't attract me so much) but I've only just got around to reading The Blade Itself, the first part of his First Law trilogy.
I wasn't really too sure what to expect. Abercrombie tends to be considered part of the grimdark school, and I had a vision of unrelenting misery and cynical nastiness. Well, there's quite a bit of the latter, but it surprised me how light, even humorous, his tone is. Dry, dark humour, certainly, but anything but miserable.
The book starts with a bang, with one of Abercrombie's main characters, Logen Ninefingers, falling over a cliff to almost certain death. Since it's made clear on the back-cover copy that he's a major character, it's hardly a spoiler to reveal that he survives.
The Blade Itself has six POV characters, though one only has a couple of chapters, and each has a very clear, individual voice: the barbarian Logen, ruthless and with few morals but a curiously stubborn loyalty to the cause he adopts; Jezal dan Luthar, a vain, selfish young officer whose main obsessions are winning at cards, seducing women and showing how clever he is; Glokta, once very like Jezal but now a broken, cynical cripple who works as inquisitor and torturer; the Dogman, one of Logen's former brigands who's perhaps the least action-obsessed member of the band; Ferro Maljinn, a psychopathic superwoman out for revenge on the king who imprisoned and tormented him; and Collem West, harassed major in an army preparing for war.
All of them are vivid characters, though it's maybe Glokta that lingers longest in the memory, with his habit of given a mental and very sarcastic running commentary on everything that happens. He's the source of much of the humour, bitter though it is, but there's ironic comedy too in Logen's attempts to cope with civilisation and Jezal's attempts to cope with having fallen hopelessly in love with the one girl who seems unwilling to be swept off her feet by his charms.
The characters are one of the book's strongest points — not only the main ones, but a rich supporting cast — but another is the effortless and visceral way Abercrombie describes the action scenes. Even the heroes hold life pretty cheap — on the title page of the second section, Abercrombie quotes Joseph Brodsky that Life — the way it really is — is a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse — and it's a testament to his characterisation that Abercrombie can keep us rooting for murderers, torturers and… well, and Jezal.
The story rollicks along at good pace, what with fights, torturing, magic and politics, but Abercrombie doesn't ignore worldbuilding, and he has an intriguing set-up, with an enigmatic Old Empire across the ocean, non-human killers rampaging in the north, and a strange, half-mythical figure called the Maker who gradually becomes more real and part of history through the book. Most of the questions aren't answered, which is reasonable enough for the first part of a trilogy.
It doesn't all completely work. Mixing and matching is all very well in worldmaking, but there has to be an internal sense in it, and having a military that seems half mediaeval, half Napoleonic doesn't have a lot of sense. The naming isn't always consistent, either — Collem West doesn't really fit into the same culture as Jezal dan Luthar or Sand dan Glokta. I suspect the theory is that West comes from a province called Angland and the names are "translated" in the same way that Tolkien "translates" Shire names. The difference is that the Shire is a familiar "home" place, whereas Angland is a strange, far-off place we never see.
There have also been suggestions that the southern empire of Ghurkhul is a rather cartoonish negative image of the Islamic world (a charge also levelled at Brett). This doesn't really come across in The Blade Itself, the only real similarity being that they have a prophet, but possibly it's clearer in the subsequent books.
The writing is mostly OK with occasional lapses. This was Abercrombie's first published book, and hopefully his style has firmed up since then. Not that there's anything really wrong with its readability, and the content easily carries it over any rough patches, but the rough patches are there.
The book finishes with far more questions than answers and all the main characters heading for somewhere new, including a voyage to the "end of the world" for reasons that aren't revealed. I'm looking forward to reading the second book and following the characters to more puzzles and revelations. And, it's safe to assume, more bloody battles.