That's what The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie, is. For a series opener, and a debut no less, it is peerless. No other fantasy fiction offering of recent times has managed to maintain this reader's attention, appreciation and fascination as well as this one did. To be sure, there have been some good opening installments to series in recent times, as well as some quite remarkable debut novels, but The Blade Itself has, in this reader's opinion/review, an unobstructed view.
Abercrombie's characterization was wide ranging. The worldviews of the central characters were disparate and believable. Logen, the Dogman, Jezal and Glokta, as point-of-view characters, covered a great deal of ground in terms of background, temperament, intelligence and wisdom. I have, and thus believe most have, known or met individuals very much like these four.
I found the world-building to be excellent in a most unique way. Abercrombie provides the reader with "all you need to know." No maps. No days or leagues travelled. Only basic terrain and topographical elements are provided. It reminded me of playing Silent Hill on the Playstation in the early 90's. The game gripped you and creeped you out because it left you isolated. At the time, it was a cheap gimmick of game makers to encase everything in night/darkness/mist to keep the need for programming to a minimum. Out of the darkness, the player would be assailed by zombie humans and dogs mere feet away. After the first few days, I had to play the game during the day or, if at night, with the lights on and the shades pulled so I couldn't see the pedestrians walking past my window (street level apartment). Abercrombie uses this technique of limited view/exposure to perfection.
Which leads me to the item I enjoyed most about Abercrombie's work. It's perfect for the ill-adjusted, overly analytical, nearly obsessive compulsive perfectionist. Seriously though, it provides great depth of subtlety that teases and tickles at the intellect and imprisons one's attention. Granted, the world-building example is a fairly obvious one.
A slightly less obvious example, is the noticeable independence of Abercrombie from sex and violence to advance his tale. Certainly, sexuality and violence do exist within the book, but noticeably less so than his contemporaries. I find that Abercrombie is able to plumb depths previously unseen precisely because of this. Clearly, Abercrombie has no need to stun, shock, horrify and amaze [see, Carnival Barker] like some two-bit, fan-fic pulp generator. Abercrombie leaves the reader more than enough room to let their own imagination work. In many places throughout The Blade Itself, Abercrombie exits the reader from a torture scene before the work begins. Abercrombie exposes the reader to crass sexual comments and the occasional prostitute, yet that's the worst the reader sees/hears/reads. In many of these instances, I find Abercrombie leaves a scene vague enough that one's own mind begins to "fill in the blanks" so to speak. This reader was left, on more than one occasion, with the notion, "I can't believe I just thought that!"
An even less obvious example of Abercrombie's subtlety is his inclusion of the full spectrum of temporal elements of, and impact to, the personality. The Union's Inquisitor Glokta is a man with a past and little hope for the future. Glokta had once been a societal darling. He came from the appropriate breeding, had more than adequate education, had the admiration or envy of all his comtemporaries and became gloriously famous by winning an annually held fencing tournament that was the pinnacle of physical competitiveness in his society. Glokta was then captured by the enemy during war-time. Over a period of two years, give or take, Glokta was tortured endlessly. The Glokta that emerged was not ever going to be physically competitive again. He wasn't charming, admired, envied or handsome anymore. The Glokta the reader is presented with is a man who is completely dominated by the change his life took from what it was, to what it is. Abercrombie employs Glokta to reveal, to the reader, the past, however jaded Glokta may be.
In the King's Own, an elite military unit in the city of Adua, is a young captain just learning how to fence. Everything is easy for Captain Jezal Luthar. Winning at cards is easy. Snubbing and insulting his friends (perhaps well-worn acquaintances is more appropriate) is easy. Getting girls is easy. Jezal is youth personified, with no sense, knowledge or understanding of the past. Indeed, his only vague and nebulous concerns regarding the future are the generically juvenile desires for admiration, acclaim and acknowledgement. Abercrombie leaves Jezal to acquaint the reader with the present, however successful, and yet still inadequate, Jezal may be.
To the far north is a man named Logen. To those of the far north he is known as The Bloody Nine. It is a name proudly earned and ignominiously spurned by the man himself. Logen has survived the past, he endures the present and is constantly preparing and readying himself for the future. Sometimes it is the extraordinarily near future, but he is aware, preparing and ready at all times. Abercrombie thrusts Logen into the reader's presence as a forceful reminder that the future is coming.
By way of these characters, and their perspectives of past, present and future, Abercrombie subtly guides the reader on an adventure through great swaths of the human condition. Perhaps guide is the wrong word. As has been discussed, the reader is, essentially, a cursor at the end of Abercrombie's literary mouse. He points and clicks, then you are reading, imagining and engaged.
Abercrombie will prime your expectation, bait your anticipation and tempt your imagination. If you've not read The Blade Itself, be good to yourself and do it now. I could continue to ramble on (my one latent talent), but I've got Before They Are Hanged staring up at me with pages just starting to....