I was unable to get invested in anything! I didn’t care about the fate of the world, since I knew nothing about it. See, I understand the need to avoid infodumps. And then there is this new tendency in fantasy to keep it action-packed and fast-paced. However, there is a pitfall; I know nothing about what's going on. In the beginning, it didn't appear close enough to our world for me to be able to project previous experience onto it. (Later, it turns out to be a bit too similar for my tastes, but that's another matter.) We are introduced to Shanka from the get-go, we even get another name for them soon, but it takes a while until we get any clue as to what they are or even how they look like. Until about a quarter of the book, it didn’t even feel like Logen’s story and Glokta and Jezal’s story took place in the same world! And then, out of nowhere, mages! And that's just the first half of the book. It might be that the author is merely trying not to bog down the pace, but it leaves the impression that maybe things weren't as much thought through as tossed in when convenient. It doesn't have to be pages of backstory, but I'm sure a line or two might have snuck in somewhere.
I didn’t care about the characters, who are flat. No, the tragic backstory does not give you the third dimension. I don’t need likable characters, but I need compelling characters in this kind of literature. One of my favourite characters is a villain cruel to the point Voldemort would find excessive and, unlike lordy Voldy, he’s read that Evil Overlord List. He is a horrible person who deserves to die a long and painful death, but he has very plausible reasons (not excuses!) he turned out that way and is so damn competent you cannot help but root for him. (The fact that his opponents are evil too helps.) Bottom line, I don’t care if your characters are sadistic bastards - but make them Magnificent (Sadistic) Bastards. And no, we’re not talking “realistically flawed” either. It might have been the intent, but they don’t feel like real human beings. Comparing this to War and Peace might seem ridiculous, but that’s the best example of characters being “real people” that I can think of. Just giving character a flaw and a sympathy-generating trait does not quite round it up.
So, no interesting characters, mix-and-match medieval-to-renaissance Europe with magic! setting, plot...is slow to go anywhere. The composition is completely off. Nothing happens until halfway through the book. The introduction of Ferro came out of the left field. Navigator wasn’t introduced at all; why was she? Or, if she is to play a greater role, why wasn’t she introduced from the start, like the rest? Then, we got extra point of view from Logen’s old companions and everything felt even more awry.
But wait, you say, I liked A Game of Thrones. Yes, but Martin, even with alternating characters, started with two basic plotlines, and linked them clearly from the beginning, then one branched into the third. Here, at the start, it feels like we are reading at least two different books. And then Logen’s companions and Ferro add two more. I had no idea what Logen had to do with Glokta and Luthar until about 30%. Yes, Martin introduced even more divergence in latter books - but there is a reason I felt the drop in quality as soon as A Clash of Kings. And diverging later on is different than diverging at the beginning and then gathering. Would Fellowship of the Ring have been as smooth if we started with Frodo, then switched to Legolas, then Aragorn, then Gimli, then Boromir, then back again until Rivendell? And we could have - there was so much going on in their respective parts.
But the worst failing of this book is the complete lack of atmosphere. In fact, I cannot help but wonder if Abercrombie and the rest of "grim&dark" crew are not mixing up "grim" and "grime". Such similar-sounding words, such different meanings.
Grime: soot, smut, or dirt adhering to or embedded in a surface; accumulated dirtiness and disorder
Grim: fierce in disposition or action, savage; stern or forbidding in action or appearance; somber, gloomy; ghastly, repellent, or sinister in character; unflinching, unyielding
Kind of like:
With Blade lying firmly to the left. There sure is a lot of grime, but not that much of serious grimness. I'm not really feeling that "grit" or "darkness" either. Sure, the world sucks, the war is brewing, but nothing out of ordinary for a fantasy novel. Yes, there are hints of sinister forces, but remember what I said about the lack of atmosphere? Here's where it comes in. I simply don't feel spooked or otherwise troubled.
That Blade is easy to read is the concession even most of its big detractors will give it. I will say that Abercrombie knows how to write action sequences. I won’t deny it got a little bit interesting past the 50% mark. However, just like with lack of information mentioned above, the avoidance of standard stylistic traps of fantasy has caused a problem of different sort. There is no personality whatsoever in Abercrombie's prose. Sometimes, more is less, but even the greatest of minimalists usually find a way to leave their own personal stamp upon few words they use. Plot points are painfully cliched, up to and including good ole reverse psychology - a character that is a privileged, indolent whiner gets told no one expects him to succeed, “mans up” and works his ass off to “show them all”. There is nothing that says “this is Joe Abercrombie”. Except, maybe, that light coat of grime. It’s like a textbook example of writing plain, action-packed story. Indeed, this is like book equivalent of action movie. No, wait. The introduction part of the action movie. There is no payoff whatsoever; minor "victories" are too predictable and there is too little tension outside the combat scenes, consequently making any achievement fall flat.
The Blade Itself is like a soy steak; it looks icky and smelly and potentially dangerous when seen from afar, but when you sink your teeth into it, it’s utterly bland. Not even disgusting, merely tasteless. But mostly harmless.
That said, if you want to feel dark and edgy without overburdening the little grey cells, this is a book for you to slurp in one go and then go and discuss the moral ambiguity and how government is corrupt and/or evil and/or idiotic. It’s not particularly offensive, ever-problematic female characters are more neglected than maligned, and for all that one of the protagonists is a torturer I think it might even be slightly milder than George R.R. Martin when he feels creative.