Joe Abercrombie’s “The Blade Itself” is the first of the First Law Trilogy and my introduction to the subgenre of “grimdark”. The agreed definition of grimdark is usually one of realism in tone, setting, and violence in the story. Think: gritty. Few things feel clean and there is this sense throughout the world that characters are gray more than anything else. Heroes with shining swords are not found here. They are more the antihero type who have vices that are magnified and they do not come out of the fight unmarked in some way or another.
“The Blade Itself” is such a novel. The main viewpoints follow a cursed warrior, a conniving torturer, and a selfish nobleman who has bought his position as an officer in the army. None of these characters are your Frodo, Aragorn, or Gandalf type. They’re characters caught in a violent world of webs of conspiracy. The world of the book never feels warm or inviting. The settings are often cold and dark and truly realized through the arcs of the characters as they traverse through the plot, never guaranteed the next day.
Depressing, right? Well, I don’t mean to paint a murky picture here but what Abercrombie genuinely does is make all of these characters worth your time and interest. They are compelling despite their grayness. Each of them realizes they have choices to make and they can either fight to live or let higher powers manipulate them into servitude.
You all know how much I enjoy well-rounded characters (at least I hope you do after these last four months). This book is where you get some of the best. Plus, no one is quite what they seem.
Another reason Abercrombie has gained me as a fan is the fact that he purposely sets up what you, the reader, thinks will be common clichés and tropes and he awesomely twists and turns to surprise you from page to page. This is more realized as you read the entire trilogy but enough so in the first book that you can’t help but smile once you realize what had happened. He crafts the narrative perfectly.
I recommend this book and series to everyone who asks me but I must warn that it is not for everyone. Grimdark is like whiskey straight. It punches you in the mouth at first taste but the more you sip, the better it gets and you truly appreciate the writing you’ve immersed yourself into.
Call to Action: Read it if you dare. If it’s not your preferred order when it comes to reading, then I definitely don’t fault you. I actually have not delved into other grimdark books because they are difficult to read. I personally think Abercrombie provides more than the gray characters and violence but has paved the way for other writers of the genre, exploring new worlds and ideas that color outside the lines.