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Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν – Callimachus

I managed to slog my way through about a quarter of this tome before giving up from a sense of unbearable boredom. In hindsight, I can only ask myself how on earth I lasted so long. The answer, of course, is that The Blade Itself has a lot of good things going for it. The prose is good. The dialogue, though overly stylized and somewhat homogenous, is also good. Some of the characters – most notably Glokta – are compelling. Unfortunately, the deficits of this book far outweighs its positive qualities.

The primary sin of The Blade Itself is that it is intolerably bloated. There is too much dialogue, much of it boring. There is too much description, much of it irrelevant. There are too many characters, many of them boring and unlikeable. If I continuously repeat the word “boring,” it is only because it is the most apt descriptor for this book. By the time I gave up, I was literally groaning from the tedium. I simply couldn’t stand the thought of yet another thinly-veiled exposition dump, or yet another scene of interminable dialogue in which the characters posture menacingly at one another and show off their gravitas without actually doing anything.

Structurally this book is meandering and seemingly pointless, much like The Bold and the Beautiful or Days of Our Lives, neither of which I enjoy. I read over a hundred pages of this thing and if you asked me to tell you the plot, I simply wouldn’t be able to. That’s a huge red flag. The plot – if one actually exists amongst the endless tangential subplots – is simply too diffuse. This is not a story, it’s a bunch of things happening.

The irony of this book, perhaps, is that it develops its setting in painstaking, excruciating detail, but the setting itself simply isn’t inspired. What is it that makes this world unique? I couldn’t tell you. It simply reads like a pastiche of medieval or Renaissance Europe. There is no real sense of this being a unique place, it’s just a vague, shadowy, artificial knock-off of our own imagined past, combined with fantasy tropes. The only way I can describe it is beige. Do the characters have spiritual beliefs? No idea. Do they have unique cultural practices? Seemingly not. Does the setting have distinct ideologies? Not really. Does it have a history? Yes, but that history feels beige. Even the names of things are boring – The Union, The King of the Northmen, The First of the’s all so generic.

Other aspects of the setting are poorly conceived. For example, people are horrified and disgusted by Glokta’s lack of teeth, but this is supposed to be set in a pre-industrial society, where toothlessness would be extremely common. So why are people shocked?

The tedium of this book highlights a problem with worldbuilding novels – namely that truth, most of the time, really is stranger than fiction. As I attempted to suffer through Abercrombie’s endless scenes of politicking and military blustering, I kept thinking my time would be far better served if I was simply reading a work of narrative history instead, maybe something about the French Revolution, or the conflict between Marius and Sulla, either of which would have provided more exciting characters, more interesting twists, and, let’s face it, much more action. Real life conflicts have a sense of arbitrary chaos about them, which most writers simply fail to capture, Abercrombie included. And so, for all its apparent attempts to be thrilling and gruesome, The Blade Itself is simply more boring than real life. Which makes it a sort of anti-fiction, since, as Alfred Hitchcock so brilliantly said, fiction is supposed to be “like life, but with the boring bits taken out.”

A further irony of this book is that, despite its excruciating level of detail about almost everything, it occasionally shies away from detailing things that truly matter. For example, we know that Inquisitor Glokta has been horribly tortured and has been left with numerous chronic conditions, including a limp. We are told he has to ‘pee sitting down.’ But we’re never told about the exact condition of his junk. Don’t laugh, this is important. It’s the sort of uncomfortable detail the audience needs to know if they are to have a truly immersive experience, and really get inside Glokta’s head. Shying away from it – simply implying it – seems overly squeamish, a manifestation of tiresome generic decorum. Which brings me to another complaint. This book is touted as grim, dark, and even “delightfully evil,” but it seems altogether clean and wholesome compared to the casual brutality of many pre-modern societies.

It is also worth noting that there are almost no women in this book, and the ones that do briefly show up – at least in the first hundred or so pages – are somewhat cliche. This book, quite frankly, is a sausage fest. If you like men talking about fighting – and very, very occasionally actually fighting – then this book might be for you.

And so there you have it. I’m sure I shall win a few friends by savaging a book beloved by so many, including people I myself admire. But I found it intolerably dull. Reading this review, some of you may think I lack patience. That is true. I have very little patience and very little time. If I’m to read a book it has to be relentlessly interesting, and this book wasn’t.

The book itself incites deep slumber.

Review originally published on Goodreads

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