If you enjoy masterfully fleshed out characters, realistic worldbuilding and dark humour in your escapist fiction, then Joe Abercrombie’s wickedly sadistic take on epic fantasy, ‘The Blade Itself’, should be your next read.
‘The Blade Itself’s’ title is lifted from an English translation of Homer’s Odyssey ‘The blade itself indeed incites violence.’ Presented on the opening page, this quote sets up Abercrombie’s bleak meditation on humanity’s relationship with violence. He feels laser-focused on taking classic fantasy archetypes and deconstructing them within a more realistic and logical setting. Abercrombie uses ancient wizards, barbarians, fallen heroes, and cocky swordmasters, so he can ground them within his gritty world. The result is a fully realised cast of highly entertaining characters who allow Abercrombie to explore the horrors of war, hero-worship, guilt, and trauma to a dizzyingly exhilarating effect.
The stand-out character, prisoner of war turned head torturer, Sand Dan Glokta is a prime example of Abercrombie’s approach to writing fantasy. After fighting on the frontlines and being captured by the enemy before the events of the novel, Glotka is permanently disabled by his captors. Instead of the pain giving him empathy, as would be traditional for a heroes backstory, it morphs him into a nihilistic wreck. This complex and surprisingly entertaining character is used to explore the cyclical nature of violence and the horrors of post-traumatic stress. Abercrombie’s inverse on the traditional fantasy warrior story makes for fascinating reading if you are looking for a thick shade of grey in your protagonists.
Recommending ‘The Blade Itself’ does come with some content warnings, there are moments of extreme violence with evocative descriptions that often make it a tough read. Despite this, Abercrombie imbues the novel with a pitch-black self-aware sense of humour that’ll have you laughing with one breath and wincing with the next. A pop description would be Terry Pratchett meets George R.R.Martin, but Abercrombie breathes enough originality into the story that it becomes its own thing.
I would whole heartedly recommend this for readers who enjoyed Game of Thrones' gritty style of fantasy or anybody looking for a more modern take on classic stories like The Lord of the Rings.