Friday, November 09, 2007

Lisa's Take - The Blade Itself: First Law Book One (Joe Abercrombie)

Picture: A book with a cover that looks like worn, blood spattered parchment. Intriguing to say the least. Now imagine you pick up said Intriguing Tome and turn it over to see that the top comment is by Scott Lynch - who happens to be your Favorite Author Of The Moment. If you were Lisa in this situation you'd let out your patented "book squeal" (which is a hushed combination of a surprised utterance and thrilled giggling) and drop said book onto your (already alarmingly large) pile of books your about to purchase. If you have a JD present, he would at least have the presence of mind to read the back and flip the book open to check and make sure this is a Good Idea, but seeing a chapter entitled "Never Bet Against a Magus" would remove any lingering qualms.

This sounds ideal, yes?

Sadly, not so much. I'm afraid I've had my book choosing skills completely questioned to the point that I may never be able to select a new book without thorough research again. Okay, that's an exaggeration - but damn there could be no bigger let down than my self-imposed hype of this book compared to what it delivered. This is by far the most disappointing book I read this year - not only because I had such high hopes, but also just because it was Just Bad. Yes, with a capital J and B. I did something with this book that I haven't done since I read the first Wheel of Time book. When I read that one I dog-eared the bottom corner of every page that was a flagrant fantasy cliche or LoTR rip-off. This time around I dog-eared every page that had a plot or character inconsistency, PoV screwup, or bit of text that just made me laugh with incredulity. Yeah, it was that awful.

Let's start with the plot. I can't give you a plot summary, because, well... there wasn't really one. This book had no beginning, middle, and end. It was a mishmash of badly done, interleaved Point of View snippets that seemed to do a lot of... setting up, maybe? But they never really went anywhere. Even once the characters started converging there was just this sense of "yup, they sure did overlap. Didn't see -that- coming. No sir." There's a storyline following some unrest with the barbarians in the north. There's the escaped slave and overlord uprisings in the south. There's the country stuck in the middle that has some (laughable) political intrigue, a contest to Make A Champion (TM), and denial about impending wars. Finally there's a bit of Mandatory Magical Elements so that the book can officially qualify as fantasy. Eventually these plots interleave a bit. Mostly they just get told separately, and you can see the obvious and clearly defined ways in which they're going to impact each other.

Let's move on now to talk about the characters. Like I mentioned above, Mr. Abercrombie tried to write this book through character PoVs. He... did not pull this off well. He starts off with 3 major PoVs, then adds a 4th about half way through. That's ok. But then mixed in he (accidentally? I should hope not intentionally) would have random characters that had never had a PoV before pop in with a few pages or observations. That was badly done and made the whole plot setup feel very.... jumpy. Then, to make matters worse, in the second half of the book where characters stopped overlapping he did a fairly awful job of keeping PoVs well separated. At one point I had to stop and re-read a couple of pages because he jumped without warning from one PoV to another in the middle of some action and didn't make it clear, so I was left going "wait, why would he think that? He doesn't even know.... Oh." The worst part is that all of this could have been remedied with better editing. Someone needed to read this through and pay closer attention to "whose head we're currently in, where they are, what they know, and who they're interacting with."

Ok, PoV complaints are delineated. Now we can talk about character stereotypes, inconsistencies and cliches! I actually just made a list of all the characters I wanted to touch on, and it got a little lengthy. Forgive me for the places where I don't use names, many of them already escape me and I don't have the book immediately handy.

First we have our main PoV characters:

-Glokta of the 4 has the most potential to be interesting - he was the king's darling who was tortured and mutilated in the last war. Now he has a broken and rebellious body and works in the Inquisition as a Torturer because no other government branch will have him. He's at least marginally entertaining as he's one Jaded Motherfucker... unfortunately the whole Torturer thing feel like it's pulled route from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which takes some of the creative shine off of it.
-Jezal is a military officer. He's an egotistical prick. He (predictably) subscribes to the Rich Common Belief that Poor People Without Noble Lineage shouldn't be allowed to be officers, and looks down on anyone who fits that bill appropriately. Oh, except that he then (predictably) falls in love with the commoner sister of his commander (where said commander got to be a commander by winning the Make A Champion (TM) contest mentioned above). He rails a lot against love but is (predictably) subject to that Cruel Mistress' whims. Oh, he's training to win this year's Make A Chamption (TM) contest to make his father proud and win recognition.
-Logen is a Northern Brute of a man. He was a champion in the north and has seen many battles, as the scars that disfigure his face and body prove. But underneath that brutish exterior is a tender and remorseful (but yet) intelligent and calculating mind.
-Ferro is an escaped slave who's out for VENGEANCE AGAINST THE WORLD! She's as mean and vicious as you could possibly imagine.

Next we have the two characters who aren't really PoV characters, but who have a couple of PoV moments erroneously snuck in:
-Major West: Jezal's commander. He was a commoner who won the Make A Champion Contest and won his command. Of course no one respects him, but he's a fine gentleman; enterprising, honorable, and of the highest moral values.
-Ardee West: West's younger sister who has no use for the pomp and rules of high society, and yet rails against the confines of being a commoner. Also she's made of past scandal, is a seducer of men and a huge lush. Of all the characters so far she manages to be at least mildly original and interesting. Too bad she's not a real PoV character.
-The Dogman became the leader of Logen's band when Logen was thought dead. The Dogman himself is interesting, but the rest of his crew is inconsistent - they are at first portrayed as the worst kind of scum, entirely without feelings or morality. Bad Men all around. But then they get going on this whole moral and honor thing... and it just doesn't quite grep.

Finally we have the non PoV characters
-Bayaz is every stereotype you've ever heard of a wizard (that doesn't look like a wizard). Does Teh Magicks, follows his own set of rules, is prone to hidden agendas and flashes of anger - all while trying to come off as a guiding and grandfatherly influence.
-As for the rest of the minor characters, there's the King who is slovenly and uninvolved, his sons of whom one follows the king's footsteps and one is of upstanding moral character, the princess betrothed who hates her fiance, the Higher Ups in The Inquisition who are cold and schemey, the King's aid who's trying to steal the throne out from under him, and the Dude who Jezal eventially fights in Make A Champion contest who is clearly a heartless brute but then gracefully concedes the win and even lifts Jezal up to the world!! Note that I went back and removed the 7 or so instances of "predictably" from the previous sentence. There is literally not a single character here that is unique, new, or inspired. There's ONE Inquisitor that has a few lines of involvement who entertained me for being cheerfully schemy, but he got depressingly little screen time.

I promise I'm not hyping up these descriptions (with the exception of a few "predictable" asides). They really are just that hackneyed. In a lot of the cases it's like he came up with a character and then went "that's to plain and overdone, let me spice it up!" But then in adding that spice just made the character that much more cliched. Then top everything off with a healthy dose of "not sticking to the characterization I put forth" and... there's not much salvaging to be done.

That wraps up the character gripes, the plot gripes, and the consistency gripes - but I have one more thing to complain about. This is actually the first problem I had with the book, before all the other flaws came to light. It's silly but it bugged me a lot, right from the beginning. All of Mr. Abercrombie's characters "speak" their guttural utterances. "Aaaaargh!" or "Oof!" or "Uh." or "Er..." are very common conversational lines. Now, there are cases in which this sort of dialog can be humorous - for instance when Jezal has his first conversation with Ardee and she's commenting on his (not so) renowned wit - and all he can come up with for a reply is "Er..." That situation's ok and if it's done just right can even be amusing. But when some dude is getting tortured and you're obviously trying to build a very intense, graphic and violent air to the scene? It's not appropriate to have him say "aaaargh!" after each torturous action. You might try "a hoarse shout of pain" or perhaps a "bloody gurgling cough" but "aaaargh!" over and over just doesn't cut it unless you're specifically trying to go for comic relief. Who knows, maybe if this first little knit-pick hadn't set me on edge I wouldn't have been so hard on the rest of the book... but then again, maybe not.

Well, with all of that text I hardly feel like I need a closing paragraph, but I suppose in good form I should wrap things up explicitly. Don't waste your money on this book. Don't waste the effort required to borrow it from me, or the brain power necessary to slog your way through it. Hell, probably just reading this review was more time than you ever needed to dedicate to The Blade Itself. Really any good, dedicated fantasy reader would skip this review all together and dedicate the 15 minutes you save to emailing Scott Lynch and ask him why he so maliciously deceived me. I suppose I should have thought of that an hour ago!


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