I honestly don’t know how The Blade Itself came to be so highly recommended in the Reddit and Twitter bookspheres. It’s often described as “gritty, grimdark fantasy with biting humor and a tinge of hope,” but honestly, the only gritty thing about this was the sand-in-your-mouth feeling I got from the inconsistent writing. The humor and hope were both missing entirely, but you could find plenty of senseless abuse and bland combat instead.
Since reading and writing about terrible books isn’t usually very fun, I’ll try to keep this brief and just touch on a few of my biggest complaints with this book. There were some pretty major issues, but hopefully this won’t go too long. There will be spoilers.
TBI had six points of view – three main characters and three side characters. The first person we meet is Logen Ninefingers, a “fearsome and brutal warrior” on the lam from King Bethod’s court in “The North.” (Side note – why is every fantasy world struggling against mysterious forces converging on their “civilized society” from the North?) His claim to fame is his violence and – you guessed it – nine fingers. Logen and his tiny camp of rebels is being ambushed when we enter the story. After some skirmishing and mostly a lot of running, Logen promptly falls off a cliff, which understandably led his comrades to believe he died. Eventually, he struggles out of the river and through the rest of the North past mountains, forests, and bands of violent Shanka, a very hostile and ruthless race of humanoids. Amazing, right? No resources, hardly any gear to his name, and he travels across half a country by himself in the middle of winter. Super realistic.
All that aside, I had two main issues with Logen. First, we were supposed to believe he was a 30-something extremely violent right-hand man to Bethod. We were also supposed to believe he had a family, including a wife and kid(s) that he cared very deeply about and definitely didn’t abuse. Yeah, I’m not buyin’ it. This is either bad characterization or bad character representation, but either way, it doesn’t make sense. On top of that, in his viewpoint chapters, he acted, talked, and thought like he was in his late teens, early twenties at best. I honestly thought he was around 19 until he mentioned his family and being in his thirties. By the end of the novel, he did sound more realistic for his age, but I felt a cognitive dissonance between my perception of Logen and his supposed age for a good 70% of the book. Second, Logen is one of the flattest, most uninteresting main characters I’ve read in a long time. Basically the only distinguishing characteristic that sets Logen apart from every other brooding “hero” you’ve read about is his missing finger. And don’t worry, people point out his missing finger so often that you’ll have nightmares about it for weeks. Ten years from now, it’s probably the only thing I’ll remember about this book because it was beaten into my brain at every opportunity. Whatever stereotypical image you first get when you hear “grimdark, sarcastic, violent anti-hero” is probably exactly correct.
Sand dan Glokta and Jezal dan Luthar were two more stereotypes we had to read about – one a tortured torturer and the other a stuck-up noble who loves/hates fencing. It’s exactly as boring as it sounds. I won’t spend more time on them – Glokta was only marginally more interesting than Logen and Luthar was absolutely terrible.
Our side character points of view came from Ferro Maljinn, Collem West, and the Dogman. The Dogman is least worthy of more time – he is a side character of a side plot and only exists to keep a tenuous connection to the remainder of Logen’s band of rebels still struggling to get through the North. Ferro Maljinn is the only female character in our list of viewpoints, but she is far removed from the rest of the plot in a very literal sense – she is, physically, nowhere near the rest of the characters or action. Abercrombie also fell into the classic “mentally, physically, and sexually abused woman becomes cold-blooded killer whose only defining trait is extreme anger” stereotype when writing Ferro. I know next to nothing about her, other than her bloodlust and unwillingness to actually feel emotions. I’m guessing/hoping her story is fleshed out more later in the series, but I won’t be reading it.
Now on to my absolute least favorite character – Collem West. Where do we start with Collem West? From the time we first meet West, it is made clear that he came from a very abusive household with an uncontrollable father. He left the house once he was catapulted into the Union military despite his lowborn status by winning the royal fencing competition, leaving behind his sister, Ardee West. After several years, Ardee moves to Adua at Collem’s behest to escape the encroaching northern armies. Ardee, of course, becomes smitten with Jezal and often meets him in secret around the city. We don’t know much more about her than this and the fact that she drinks to quell her torturous memories of her abusive childhood. She hints that she blames Collem for abandoning her to join the military, but instead of actually expressing her feelings, she drinks herself into a stupor instead. Collem dismisses his own troubled thoughts on the matter and pours his focus into military training and Jezal’s fencing lessons. He takes every opportunity to talk about how he has to protect Ardee and how angry he will be if he finds out anyone is trying to court her. No real reason for this, other than the fact that she’s his sister and “commonborn.” Something something, protecting her dignity, something something, reputation. You know it goes. Towards the end of the book, he learns that Ardee and Jezal have been meeting and goes into this absolutely ridiculous, irrational, unholy fury. He beats the crap out of Ardee with no remorse whatsoever and very nearly kills her. This, from the man who spent most of the book talking about how much he hated his childhood and how guilty he feels for leaving her behind. He almost chokes her to death because she is starting a relationship with a halfway decent man who happens to be a nobleman. Luckily, he eventually comes to his senses and feels somewhat horrified/shellshocked. Ardee immediately runs and finds Jezal (who must never learn the truth), leaving Collem to his demons. We get a little bit more tortured inner monologue from Collem, then it cuts to the next day where it’s business as usual – the Union military is shipping off to the North to fight off the advancing troops and Collem just has too much going on to think about how he almost killed his sister. At the end of his chapter, he has faced zero mental or criminal consequences for his violent abuse.
Until I got to the end of the book, I was probably going to read the rest of the trilogy, but the unnecessary, horrific scene between Ardee and Collem absolutely ruined it for me. The plot is thin and the writing is stilted, awkward, and non-descriptive, the characters are terrible just for the sake of being terrible, and there’s nothing unique about the overarching story. 0/10, do not recommend.