“Battles may sometimes be won by the brave, but wars are always won by the clever.
Do you understand?”
On July 11, 2023, I made a horrible mistake and do not regret it. I bought The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. And then I read it. Let me tell you, this guy has me hooked. And by hooked, I mean crusty meathooks right through the ribs and worse, while I’m hanging from his every word, I am thanking him for it. F*cker. In the 30 days since that initial purchase, I have read not just The Blade Itself but five other Abercrombie books besides! I’ve clawed my way through the First Law trilogy, burrowed into the Age of Madness trilogy, and scrabbled with book one of the World of the First Law series. I swear if I could, I’d be like that kid who received a letter from Maurice Sendak and was so excited he ate the letter. I want to eat these books. Joe put Eaters in the Circle of the World…let me be a BOOK EATER.
This man’s ridiculously well-crafted, gloriously gritty, and thoroughly engrossing stories are like crack cocaine for my brain. Now, normally, I’d be reviewing one book or one series. But that concept doesn’t fit Abercrombie’s sweeping contribution to the pantheon of fantasy grimdark fiction. I guess it’s that whole “the sum is greater than the parts” thing. I simply couldn’t work out how to talk about just one book when the entirety is much, much better. But in this case, the parts are so deliciously good, the whole is more massive than the House of the Maker (which is a staggeringly large edifice looming over the highest towers of Adua, capitol city of the Union.)
When thinking about this recent obsession, what strikes me is how much I love all the characters. And when I say love, I mean it in all capital letters written in scrawling red paint at least four feet tall. And when I say all, I mean each and every one, no matter how small or mean. Here’s an example…or four.
Sand dan Glokta was once the premier swordsman in all of the Union and set hearts aflutter wherever he went. After spending several years in Gurkish dungeons paying for his involvement in the war between Gurkhul and the Union, Glokta emerges a broken, crippled man living in constant agony with injuries which will never heal – both physical and mental. After all, teeth can’t be regrown and some hatreds are rooted too deeply to ever be exorcised. He joins the Inquisition and becomes one of the most feared Inquisitors in its ranks, eventually rising to the highest office in the organization, Arch Lector. He is ruthless, brutal, and very good at his job. Because of his disabilities and revolting physical presence, Glokta is a sympathetic character. But, man, this guy is a vicious motherf*cker because of those same traumas. It is really, really difficult to dislike the man…and very easy to be thankful he’s a fictional character. Meeting him in person would be singularly unpleasant. (He features in both the First Law and Age of Madness trilogies.)
“Ah, what a hard life it’s been. Thug and torturer is a real step up for you, isn’t it? Everyman has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?” – The Blade Itself
The Dogman is a Named Man from the North, a loose-knit association of tribes and clans across the Circle Sea from Union lands in Midderland. Named Men are notorious fighters and earn their names through exploits in battle. Dogman earned his name as a tracker and scout and readers first make his acquaintance in the company of the legendary Bloody Nine AKA Logen Ninefingers. It would have been easy to write Dogman off as a shallow, inconsequential, space filler. But what does Abercrombie do? He gives a Named Man an actual heart with the wits to question what’s right and the conviction to do what must be done. Through the course of First Law and into Age of Madness, Dogman grows from a follower to a great leader and peace maker, respected by friends and enemies alike. And he’s not even a “main” character! But gah, his presence is absolutely necessary. He’s the cunning, brutal killer I’d most like to sit down to tea with, just to discuss the state of my garden.
“All this effort, and for what? Everything the same as ever. Whose side is it we’re on now?” Dogman waved his hand over at the men slogging down the road. “We supposed to fight this lot? When do we get a rest?” – Before They Are Hanged
Savine dan Glokta. Yes…you read that right. Glokta. She is the adopted daughter of the infamous Sand dan Glokta. Savine makes her debut in the Age of Madness series and is as beautiful as her father is repulsive and rivals his ruthlessness in her business dealings. Oh Savine is scrumptious! Wickedly smart, she is always at least three steps ahead of everyone in her circle of influence…and her circle encompasses every person with an idea in their head. She is an investor and there isn’t a single man or woman with two coins in their pocket who doesn’t have an opinion about the way she does business. Savine could not care less about opinions. Her one concern is profit. Until…(there’s always an until, right) she is caught up in the first skirmish of a rebellion and her once secure future is suddenly, terrifyingly precarious.
“We all have regrets,” murmured Savine. Haroon at least could blame God for his. She could only blame herself. – The Wisdom of Crowds
Continuing the fathers and daughters theme, Dogman’s daughter, Rikke, is an absolute treat. But, much like those licorice snaps in Harry Potter, she is just as likely to bite back as she is to be sweet. Born in Dogman’s seat of power, Uffrith, Rikke is different. Prone to fits and sh*tting herself, it is suspected she possesses the Long Eye. Readers meet her on page one of A Little Hatred, book one of the Age of Madness trilogy. And sure enough, she’s recovering from a fit and has indeed pooped her pants. She is also on the run from enemies of her father who want to do despicable things to her. Immensely funny, Rikke is a breath of fresh air in her direct dealings and plain speaking. It’s almost sad when she learns to hold her tongue and play at politics. But it turns out she’s so good at it, you can’t help but be super proud of her!
“Why folk insisted on singing about great warriors all the time, Rikke couldn’t have said. Why not sing about really good fishermen, or bakers, or roofers, or some other folk who actually left the world a better place, rather than heaping up corpses and setting fire to things? Was that behaviour to encourage?” – A Little Hatred
Of course, no epic grimdark fantasy would be complete without a bunch of wizards and Abercrombie delivers in grand, duplicitous fashion on this front as well. Bayaz, First of the Magi, is a piece of work and stalks through each book. Alternatively benign and cruel, Bayaz literally has his fingers in everyone’s pot and cannot be prised away from the goodies. His millennia of influence shaping the rise and fall of nations throughout the Circle of the World reduce the machinations of men to inconsequential natterings of ants in their dirty tunnels. He is the puppeteer and every leader of every nation is his marionette. Ambivalence is not in his vocabulary.
I could go on extolling the virtues and villainies of a host of others, like Ferro the justifiably vicious demon-blooded woman bent on vengeance or Practical Vick Teufel who learned in the labor camps to always choose the winning side or Caul Shivers who sees more than most in spite of his silver eye…but I’ll restrain myself. (Feel free to hit me up via comment or email if you want more…) Instead, I’ll expound on Abercrombie’s gift of life to characters who are neither wholly likable nor wholly despicable. He writes women who would cut your throat for thinking they’re simple window dressing – complete with periods! (And he gets them right! Almost like he’s the owner of a uterus!) He writes men who would be offended by simple thuggery – complete with regrets and heartfelt apologies. If you consider the way he carries their stories, memories, and influences throughout all the books set in the Circle of the World, you’ll be astounded at how subtly and expertly he does it. I hate/love him for it. Makes me want to throw my keyboard across the room when I try to write anything.
Speaking of subtlety, contemporary concerns such as racism and homophobia creep into the narrative like sneaking zucchini into a chocolate cake. And then he exposes them for the nasty business they are and makes the offending parties regret it. Super satisfying.
And before I forget, swirling throughout the immaculately chiseled characters there are battles and wars being fought. Personal battles, personal struggles, fist-fights, gang brawls, glittering swordplay, brutal melees, teeth flying and swallowed, noses crunched, heads split in twain! I expect fantasy and grimdark to have sword fights (or world-appropriate equivalents) although, admittedly, I usually read them quickly, with just one eye to make sure I don’t miss any important bits of information. Not so with Mr. Joe. His fight and battle scenes are so well choreographed, so “possible,” that I read every single stinking word. I felt the whoosh of steel flying past my cheeks. Grunted with the thud of flatbow arrows in my chest. Sighed with relief when a battle axe missed my head by the breadth of a gnat’s ass. I was re-reding these scenes just so I could survive them again!
I’ll wrap this up by saying I love these books and will buy everything Abercrombie writes for the rest of his life, happily paying his rent in perpetuity. I spent so much time thinking, “I hate this person and love that I hate them,” and “I love this person and I hate that I love them.” I cheered for the “bad guys” and booed the “good guys.” I rooted for both the downfall of civilization and the desperate attempts to rebuild it. I mourned births and celebrated deaths…and vice versa. To reiterate, I want to eat these books, gorge myself until I am a slick bureaucrat in Adua, a raving hillwoman in the North, an Eater from Gurkhul, a seductive merchant from Sipani, a humble farmer in Angland, an eternal Magus from everywhere and nowhere. Nevertheless, in the interest of personal productivity, Joe Abercrombie is a menace and must be stopped.
Now for the nuts and bolts pertaining to this particular post and world:
The First Law Trilogy
The Age of Madness Trilogy
- Best Served Cold (2009)
- The Heroes (2011)
- Red Country (2012)
- Sharp Ends (2016) – collection of short stories