The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (2006) 536 p.

I’m trying to read a bit more fantasy after successfully dipping back into the genre with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (and less successfully with Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun). Joe Abercrombie’s novels seem fairly popular as swashbuckling fantasy adventure yarns, and he gets extra points for writing a trilogy rather than an ever-extending ten-book “cycle” or whatever they call them these days.

The Blade Itself, first novel in the First Law trilogy, revolves around Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled torturer; Jezal dan Luthar, a spoilt young noble; and Logen Ninefingers, an infamous barbarian warrior. (I feel compelled to point out that if you want to “single-handedly redefine the fantasy genre,” as Abercrombie apparently did, you probably shouldn’t begin with a main character who is a barbarian warrior from “the North.”) Events draw them together in Adua, the capital city of the Union, where preparations for war are underway and magic is returning to the world.

There were two reasons I found this book difficult to get into. The first is the plot, which starts out fairly slow and obtuse, but picks up a bit towards the end (when it irritatingly ends just as it starts to get interesting). The second is Abercrombie’s writing style. I’m not expecting Peter Carey when I read a fantasy paperback, but what particularly drove me up the wall was Abercrombie’s dialogue attribution. Characters in The Blade Itself rarely ever “say” anything. Instead they shout, bellow, scream, thunder, hiss, yelp, mutter, mumble, murmur, snap, chuckle, grumble, blurt, snarl, whimper, bark, stutter, stammer, grunt, croak, wheeze, roar and even intone – fucking intone! I did not make a single one of those up. In one particularly ugly case (page 391) a character actually “froths” his dialogue, which must be very messy. In another (page 98) a peasant manages to mumble “in a broad accent” – quite a trick.

I shouldn’t have to point out why writing Tom Swifties is bad. One of Elmore Leonard’s cardinal rules of writing was: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” (I’m also partial to Stephen King’s advice, which is simply: “Don’t do this. Please oh please.”) Personally I believe you can sometimes, sparingly, get away with shouted, yelled, whispered and maybe hissed. But Abercrombie’s use of these words isn’t just beyond the pale, it’s on the Dingle Peninsula. (And maybe I should have saved that obscure description for a time other than criticising someone else’s writing, but whatever.)

This might sound snobbish. This is, after all, a fantasy novel, and the genre is not renowned for the restraint of its prose style. The reason it bothered me so much – beyond the fact that I’m hard-pressed to remember a novel with so many Swifties – is that Abercrombie is certainly capable of better writing. The dialogue that his characters are huffing, crying and yelping their way through is not half bad. It’s not as witty or clever as something in a Martin novel, but it’s not far off, either. His editor should have seen this. As it stands, I was tripping over a bark or a roar or a bellow every other sentence and it was taking me right out of the story, along with his constant use of adverbs and excessive physical descriptions of people and locations.

All this junk hampers what is actually pretty decent writing. Abercrombie’s fight scenes play out with impressive clarity, with brutal clashes and smart manoeuvres and people fucking up and hitting the wrong thing. His characters are all realistic, unlikeable yet sympathetic, and well-balanced against each other – particularly the way that, through cycling chapter POVs, we see how they appear to each other. There is a refreshing lack of Mary Sues, which I didn’t expect from a writer who thinks it appropriate to have a character intone his dialogue. And although he has continued Martin’s modern “dark” fantasy tradition in which terrible things happen and the good guys don’t always win, there’s a strong undercurrent of wit and humour which prevents the novel from feeling bleak.

Despite strong flaws, The Blade Itself is a good novel and Abercrombie – while I would hesitate to call him a good writer yet – certainly shows promise. I’ll read the rest of the First Law trilogy at the very least. I just hope that he tightens up his writing style, or that his editor grows some balls and tells him to.