The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself
Joe Abercrombie

At the world premier of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Parisians famously rioted in response to the dissonant music and avant garde ballet. Listening now with ears that know what the 20th Century holds in store for music, it’s difficult to imagine what might have shocked the concert goers. A determined act of imagination is required to push back through time and put oneself in the place of music fans used to Chopin or Rachmaninoff to see what all the mayhem was really about. No easy feat, that. Likewise, without a little time travel back to the mid-2000s, the opener of Abercrombie’s debut series doesn’t seem like the sort of thing to set off a firestorm. A good book to be sure, but I would not have imagined it to be a genre changer.

To research this post, I started reading up on the history of grimdark, soon disappearing down a rabbit hole of passionate defense and angry diatribe. As I understand things, George RR Martin is the father of grimdark, but it was Abercrombie who really pushed it into the fantasy mainstream. Now, the genre is trapped in an escalating battle of grimness and darkness, with each new publication grittier and more hopeless than the last. It is, apparently, the death of a genre, if not most of Western culture. When we are all scrabbling savages, living in dirty hovels and stewing our mothers to fend off starvation, Abercrombie and his crew of morally compromised characters will be to blame.

Going back to music, it’s very hard to get offended by Stravinsky when I spent high school listening to hilarity like this. Likewise, I enjoyed The Blade Itself, but if someone told me I should be shocked at its depravity, I wouldn’t know how to answer. It didn’t strike me as all that cutting edge. To be very clear, this is not because I have leveled up my grimdark and can out-grit a master like Abercrombie. In fact, I do poorly at the sight of blood, dislike killing bugs, and don’t swear. That’s how gritty I am. I also don’t read enough fantasy to speak authoritatively on the subject, so it’s not that I’ve grown coarse and moved on to even harsher books. We are forced to turn the clock back a bit to interrogate my feelings of being merely whelmed by the rampant darkness (though impressed by the quality).

Others more versed in fantasy will have to chime in here, but I’m very curious why it’s taken until the mid-2000s for this to become A Thing. A confession: I bounced off Game of Thrones several years ago and never tried Martin again, but I guess the death of a particular character is the most paradigm shifting event in fantasy since Tolkien. At least, that’s what several columns would have me believe. And yet, the whole dark and grim thing doesn’t seem to have exploded until the riotous bloodshed and cynicism of The First Law Trilogy did well. Glen Cook has been plenty dark for almost thirty years now, but nobody seems to have noticed. Likewise, Elric, Malazan, Thomas Covenent, and many others have come and gone without defining a sub-genre. It’s only now that epic whingefests about how Abercrombie & Co. are soiling – SOILING! – beloved fantasy tropes are popping up to amuse us with their butthurtedness. Why now?

I’m even more baffled when looking at other genres. SF came to terms with this back in the 1970s, with Hammer’s Slammers and other Vietnam-influenced books. Westerns had their own period of gritty revisionism that probably reached its peak with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Nobody batted an eye at James Elroy’s hallucinogenic noir. I even remember being angry at the hopelessness and lite-nihilism of Steinbeck’s The Pearl when forced to read it in 4th or 5th grade, having heated conversations with my friends that sounded an awful like grimdark’s detractors do now. So why is fantasy up in arms now? Were things really that innocent and heroic for lo these many years?

I’m trying to figure out why exactly Blade generated the heat that it did. Running through the grimdark playbook, is it because of frequent use of an f-word that is not “forsooth?” I thought that the internet and premium cable networks had put an end to that sort of worry. Is it the violence? Abercrombie spills plenty of blood and guts here, but that hardly seems unique to grimdark. In fact, one of the most gleefully and gratuitously violent fantasy novels I can remember is the first Elminster book, from the ever subversive Forgotten Realms tie-in universe. Is it the cynicism? First, I’m not sure how anyone can be aware of current events and not be cynical. Second, did nobody read Glen Cook all these years? Utopian he is not, but nobody attacks The Black Company. (As well they shouldn’t.) Is it the lack of a white-skinned farm boy of destiny, clad in shimmering, prophetic light as he smites the unredeemably wicked and restores some past age of glory? I, er, well, there isn’t much of that in Abercrombie. On the other hand, isn’t that the sort of thing we left behind in, oh, maybe 9th grade? I realize that many of us read to escape the grubbier parts of our own existence, but morally shallow, Disney-esque narratives not only ruin my suspension of disbelief, but insult my sense of reality. Maybe I’m weird.

I couldn’t write grimdark, I’ll be the first to admit, but I enjoy the respect it shows for my intelligence and grasp of the real world. (Or at least good grimdark. Grit won’t save crap.) I am not yet on the Abercrombie-as-fantasy-author-diety bandwagon, but I will finish The First Law. I’m even looking forward to it.

6 thoughts on “The Blade Itself

  1. This post is so damn good it needs a full post for a response. But I am having too much writers block for that these days.

    Abercrombie may be Lord Grimdark but he isn’t the darkest around; at least not in grit or death count or whatever. Fairly or not he often gets blamed for all his imitators–He is the Korn of epic fantasy.

    No, where he shines is in the way he twisted tropes around without seeming too. So we get the young noble and we are find ourselves rooting for him in a fashion; then slowly realize he is a little shit. And now all his interactions in our own minds are suspect. And when people on forums complain about Ardee being a so and so those who actually read the book realize that we only see her through the eyes of a spoiled child.

    Or Logan, the grizzled old vet of the series. He is awesome, one of my favorite characters and oh so easy to root for. But again, take a deeper look as we read on and maybe he really is a villain and we are not catching it.

    And the trope bending has only just started in the first book; keep reading my friend. You may find yourself hooked…

    • I will definitely push on in this series. Something like The Barrow was definitely edgier than Abercrombie; I have been lucky to avoid bad grimdark this far.
      Reading about awful people is proving to be remarkably entertaining. I look forward to Logan offing numerous people in horrific fashion.

  2. “… the death of a particular character is the most paradigm shifting event in fantasy since Tolkien.”

    Come now, Cedric Diggory wasn’t THAT big of a deal.

    Aside from that, I can only agree with Nathan above; an excellent post. As someone else who only occasionally dabbles in fantasy, I can still recognise that, given the levels of sanity and rationality evidenced by many on the relevant message-boards and blogs, ‘reading up on the history of grimdark’ goes waaay beyond the call of duty. Like preparing for swimming the Channel by spending weeks sitting in ice baths, or preparing for a marathon by repeatedly slamming your bollocks in a car door. There’s groundwork and then there’s needless masochism 😉

    On a less facile note, the last of Richard Morgan’s trilogy is out fairly soon, I think. That might be an interesting compare/contrast, although I might have to leave it to people with more testicular fortitude than myself.

    • I’ve only read Altered Carbon, so I want to wrap up Morgan’s SF before hitting his fantasy offerings. Altered Carbon was pretty bleak; yet another reason I am surprised that fantasy readers make such a big deal out of this stuff.

      I’ve read a lot more fantasy than usual the last year or two, but try to only get the very best. (Jemisin, Bennett, Abraham, etc.)

  3. Fantastic post. But, did you enjoy The Blade Itself?

    I came to The Blade Itself having read very little fantasy. Grimdark aside, it was ground breaking for me. The violence! the grit! the language! but what shocked me the most (and I think what got this series so much attention) was that I actually sympathized with the characters. I found myself wanting to see Logan lose his cool, wanting to know what Glotka had up his sleeve for the next person he was going to torture. These were horrible people, and I couldn’t get enough of them.

    I enjoyed the hell out of The First Law, and suddenly find myself wanting to reread them, but I haven’t felt the need to read much of Abercrombie’s other novels.

    • I did, as a matter of fact. The Blade Itself didn’t stand out to me as much as some other fantasy I have read lately, but it was great fun. I want to wrap up the trilogy and see what happens. And yet, I still feel surprise that this was such a big deal. Mid-2000s people! Anti-heroes and grubby violence have been around for awhile!

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