The first novel in the First Law Trilogy and debut fantasy novel from New York Times bestseller, Joe Abercrombie.
Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught in one feud too many, he’s on the verge of becoming a dead barbarian — leaving nothing behind him but bad songs, dead friends, and a lot of happy enemies.
Nobleman, dashing officer, and paragon of selfishness, Captain Jezal dan Luthar has nothing more dangerous in mind than fleecing his friends at cards and dreaming of glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules.
Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then Glokta hates everyone: cutting treason out of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendship. His latest trail of corpses may lead him right to the rotten heart of government, if he can stay alive long enough to follow it.
Enter the wizard, Bayaz. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he’s about to make the lives of Logen, Jezal, and Glokta a whole lot more difficult.
Murderous conspiracies rise to the surface, old scores are ready to be settled, and the line between hero and villain is sharp enough to draw blood.
Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he’s a damn fine author. Say one thing for The First Law Trilogy, say it is a popular name on lists ranking the best Fantasy series—and for good reason. Joe Abercrombie is an author that continues to evolve and inspire the genre as it moves forward from its roots in Lord of the Rings into something more modern. The first book in this series, The Blade Itself, did a lot to capture my imagination when I first read it, though it did take its time getting there.
The Blade Itself is a slow start for Abercrombie that gradually grows into a sprawling epic that features two trilogies, three standalones, and a collection of short stories. The slow start, in my opinion, is entirely forgivable because of what spawns out of it. Characters that are referenced in this first work are brought back time and again, and the change in some (Caul Shivers, Calder, and perhaps Bremer Dan Gorst) takes several books to finally reach their peak.
The Blade Itself starts with Logen Ninefingers, a famous warrior, running from his violent past towards a dubious future. This is only further complicated when a series of mishaps lands him at the front door of Bayaz, a powerful wizard known as the first Magi. Logen and Bayaz are the throughline that ties the first trilogy together, both because they tend to drive the main plot and because many of the characters interact with them directly to advance their own plots.
As a multi-POV work, the narrative then switches to my favorite fantasy character of all time, Sand dan Glokta. Glokta works for his majesty’s inquisition and is investigating malfeasance of the Mercer Guild through the dark streets of the capitol. A former hero of his country, Glokta was captured and tortured until he became little more than a crippled husk of a man. Haunted and cruel, it is the Glokta chapters that first caused me to fall in love with this book.
That’s the thing. I could list so many other characters that have stories that weave together to create this story: Jezal dan Luthar, Ferro Maljinn, the Dogman. It’s impossible to summarize the plot without referencing them all in some way. And therein is Abercrombie’s brilliance—character work. Each character feels unique and real and plays more than a typecast role. By the end of the first trilogy, you will feel like this world is alive and breathing.
But the criticism that could be leveled at The Blade Itself is that the plot really doesn’t get going with full force until the next book, Before They Are Hanged. You could also make the case that Abercrombie doesn’t show his entire potential until two of the standalone entries: Best Served Cold and The Heroes which both take place after The First Law trilogy.
I won’t lie, there will be times in this first book where you will be wondering what we are moving towards. And I don’t blame you, I really don’t.
However, let me put this out there: the time required to get this series moving is in no way egregious, and it is still fun on the way to get where it is going. No one would mistake this for a Malazan-level learning curve. Really, if anything, Abercrombie grows as an author alongside his reader. You won’t mistake his worldbuilding for Brandon Sanderson, but I enjoyed my time with the Abercrombie books far more because of the richness of the characters rather than the detail of the world.
By the time we get to the second trilogy, many of these plot threads and world details come together and become something greater than the parts of the whole. Even I, a guy who isn’t super into grimdark, found things to love and be inspired by. It is a touchstone series for a reason, and reading it will greatly increase your enjoyment of those that come next.