The Blade Itself – reread

May 28th, 2012

Over the last few days I’ve been reading Joe Abercrombie’s seminal work of modern fantasy, The Blade Itself.  Alright, I confess, I have read it before.  About 90 times.  In fact there’s probably no significant body of text that I’ve read more times.  In a week this book will have been published six years ago.  Which means I was making the first (probably now unrecognisable) efforts at writing the first scenes maybe nine or ten years ago.  Although I had made the very first (utterly unrecognisable apart from some of the names) abortive efforts at writing those scenes about seventeen years ago.  Which means I very much wouldn’t do things quite the same way now in all kinds of ways.  Which means it almost feels at times as if it was written by someone else.  Sometimes that’s a bad thing, sometimes a good – there were a couple of nice lines and gags I’d actually entirely forgotten.  At other times I knew the text so well I’d expect to read a line that had been taken out late in the editing and be shocked that it wasn’t there.  The notional purpose of rereading was to check whether there was anything I’d forgotten about that should find its way into the current book, particularly from the point of view of any returning characters (obviously I can’t say who but the sharp among you have probably already got your theories).  I’ve leafed through it now and again to check some detail or other but I haven’t actually sat down and read the entire thing for a good two or three years, I don’t think.  It was an interesting experience.  Occasionally a little wincy and frustrating but by and large a good deal better than I’d feared.  Some thoughts…

The writing’s a little lumpy, sometimes trying a bit too hard – why use one adjective when five are available?  Then you can repeat a couple of them later in the paragraph!  Hmmm.  A tendency towards providing pairs of nouns or adjectives when one, or perhaps none, would do.  A bit of dead-horse beating, you could say.  Sometimes it’s a bit foursquare, dwelling on who did what when, some unnecessary repetition and too much focus on technical aspects of positioning in a scene that really don’t matter at all.  He turned, then he turned back, then he turned again.  He could probably have turned less.  Or indeed simply looked forwards and delivered his dialogue.  But actually the writing was generally less embarrassing than I’d feared it might be.  Some of the descriptive bits are a little, I don’t know, lacking in sparkle, prone to become a bit listy and unimaginative, and sometimes there’s a slightly trying, breathless, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to tell you how ace this is,’ sense to things, but the dialogue is largely there, there are some really nice exchanges I’d forgotten about.  If there’s one relative strength that I’d identify it is the dialogue.  The different ‘voices’ for the different points of view generally work but haven’t totally settled down at this stage.  I actually found the prose-style with Ferro’s chapters worked really well although I was trying a bit hard for an emotional payoff there, and the Dogman just always worked right off, but Glokta’s internal voice I actually found rather surprisingly disappointing – works in some of the more reflective sequences where he’s just thinking, but comes across as trying too hard when it’s working as a commentary on action and conversation – sometimes a bit obvious and lacking in subtlety, I’d say.  It improved as things went on, though and undoubtedly had its moments.  Perhaps overused?

I’d say probably the biggest problem is with content and pacing.  The different threads don’t necessarily interact all that smoothly.  There are some really nice sequences at the Contest, in the House of the Maker, when the Bloody-Nine appears, but they tend not to coincide, coming as blips out of a flatline of occasionally rather dull hanging around rather than building together to a crescendo.  In general the first part works fine – although I think a slightly meandering sense remains from when the early chapters were first written more as test samples than as part of a larger, planned out whole – but in the second part you’re waiting for an increase in intensity and if anything there’s a relaxation, a bit of a dispersement and dilution as Ferro and the Dogman appear in their unrelated stories, there’s a little too much fencing with Jezal, though some of that works well, Logen is treading water and Glokta’s investigations into Bayaz, though necessary to fill out the back story, aren’t always thrilling.  There are interesting and exciting moments in there, and the characters and world are definitely laid out and built up in a largely entertaining and involving way, things do intensify as we come towards the end, but there’s no denouement to this book, if you like.  If you look at the trilogy as a single story that’s not necessarily a major problem, but I think it would have helped to have a rather more decisive structure to this volume – certainly it’s a criticism I often see and probably one that I’d largely agree with.  At one time I’d have said something like, ‘well, Fellowship of the Ring sets things up and then trails away at the end without at all standing alone,’ but Fellowship of the Ring is basically one thread, so that sequences like the flight from the Nazgul and Moria have huge impact.  I don’t know that the Blade Itself has anything on that sort of scale, and big events for one character tend to be slightly traded off against flatter stuff for others.  The second part in particular could definitely have been condensed considerably without costing much, I feel.

That said, despite the issues, I still like it.  A lot, at times.  Probably that’s unsurprising, since I like it in the way that you like that sandwich you make for yourself, on just the kind of bread you like, with just the right amount of sauce and the lettuce cut just bloody so.  I like the way it kicks off hard, I like the tone and the sense of humour, and I think the characters are pretty arresting, vivid and original right off and do pull you (or at least me) through the flatter sections.  Although nothing much pays off there is some reasonably cunning set up of various plot points, partly thanks I’m sure to the luxury of publishing the first book when I was already well underway in the writing of the third.  There are some really nice scenes, often when the characters suddenly encounter one another for the first time and the way others see them is contrasted with the way they see themselves.  And although the pacing overall is uneven a lot of the sequences have a nice internal rhythm.  There’s a good sense of timing, you might say.  Some rough edges, then, some things I wouldn’t do the same way now at all, but I nonetheless award myself high marks.  Unsurprisingly, some might say.  But it is handy, since the chances are large that your first book will remain in many ways your most important.

In conclusion, The Blade Itself is incontestably the finest fantasy debut that will ever be made … by me.

Oh, and the comment thread is getting a little spoilery, so if you haven’t read the First Law, firstly, I pity you, secondly, don’t read the comments, and thirdly, what are you waiting for…?

Posted in reading by Joe Abercrombie on May 28th, 2012.

85 comments so far

  • Fordy says:

    It’s a bit of a cliché – but probably true – than an artist is generally his own harshest critic. But then, I guess that’s how great art is ultimately created.
    More to the point, can you confirm or deny, that your other alter ego is in fact that of one Professor Elemental?
    If not, he’s clearly a close relative!

  • Dyrewulf says:

    The Blade Itself was refreshing: I’ve been devouring fantasy and science fiction since the 1970’s, and to my mind the best two ‘introduce the characters and kick off the plot’ books I’ve ever read are “The Blade Itself” and “Hyperion,” by Dan Simmons. The best part of “The Blade Itself” was that you don’t realize the novel is an introduction and gathering until the very end, at which point you start ticking your fingers off on the characters, an yet none of them fit the stereotype, which is fantastic. I’ve just reread the first three, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read them, and I can’t wait for A Red Country.


  • Jessica Hell says:

    I’ve read The Blade Itself probably five or six times. It’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read. Partly because it IS so fucking good, but also because it’s the book that introduced me to you, your work, your world – and for that, it will always be treasured.

    I read a lot. I write a lot. I’m a literature major at my university, and work as a writing tutor. Books are my lifeblood; my home library numbers around 950. I categorize by quality, and you are on the top shelf, next to my most beloved tomes: Tolkien, Dostoevsky, Milton, Cervantes, etc. I know you know you’re good, as you tend to admit in a cheeky sort of way, but I’m not sure you know just how good you really are.

    I just want to thank you, really. You’ve made me laugh. You’ve broken my heart, countless times. You’ve made me lose sleep and skip meals. I recommend you to everyone (The Blade Itself in particular) and you never disappoint. You’ve changed my life, Joe. So, from the depths of my twisted little soul, thank you. For everything.

  • Dyrewulf says:

    …oh, and kick your Webmaster, get hooked up with so my Avatar shows when I enter my email 🙂

  • David says:

    The Blade Itself and the First Law Trilogy have really brought me back to fantasy literature. Must have been 3 or 4 years that I last picked up a fantasy book and didn’t just put it back down after the first 10 pages. Hooray for good fantasy lit.

  • Iangr says:

    The Blade Itself was as rough as it needed to be.

    In retrospective, you could look at it now and find a million things to correct,but always the first effort is the most sincere/honest of them all.

    It’s like your old jeans.
    When you first wore them,you were delighted.Now,as life progresses and you put on weight or consider new colors,your old pair seems a bit….worn out,out of date.
    But they’ll always be comfortable as fuck and you’re gonna love them cause if they hand’t come in your life,none of the other jeans would follow.

  • Like the two gentlemen above, I also am a great lover of good books and I will definitely say that yours is (as put splendidly by my other favorite british author Terry Pratchett) “A refreshing fart in a room full of roses.” I do not enjoy fantasy or science fiction that is all chums and happy endings. I love grit, guts, cursing, down right shitty bastards, people who have no morals or who have a twisted sense of their own.

    I also love creative new ways in that stories are told, especially through the different eyes of different characters. I enjoyed particularly how one chapter or paragraph would end and another would begin in a similar or same way/phrase as it seemed almost lyrical.

    My favorite scenes of the whole trilogy though have to be when Logen turns into the Bloody Nine as you see exactly what he has been afraid of the entire series, and it is an insanely crazy perspective to read through. I love all the nature references that are used to compare his prowess and killing ability as well as how he can still hear “Logen” in the back of his mind but ignores him.

    I also really enjoyed how Bayaz turned out to be a real bastard with his own bastard agenda and what Jezal tried and failed to do and how it turned out for him. It makes me seriously rethink how Gandalf would have done things if he just decided to run the show.

    Anyways, I thought I’d let you know that I really enjoyed meeting you several years ago at Comic Con in New York as I chatted to you long enough to have your agent or someone important enough to wear a suit politely have me give you some space so other fans could get their whole trilogy signed from you. I still have that free copy of Best Served Cold as well and I also enjoyed reading that as well because no real revenge ever goes so damn smoothly as we are shown in the movies.

  • Ian Hickman says:

    I’m fairly new to the world you’ve created, only read The Blade Itself three months ago, and thus far only read it once. So some of the criticsm I’ve heard I haven’t picked up on, and what I did pick up on I only did after the event of reading.

    The characters are indeed interesting, and they certainly pulled me through the flat bits. During reading, nothing seemed to drag, and the flat bits only seem so retrospectively. Whilst engaged in the reading, I didn’t notice Logen “treading water”, for example. Compared to some other fantasy authors I’ve read recently the pacing was quickfire, so whilst in hindsight I agree some sections could have been condensed, for me it never felt an issue.

    I also rather liked the technicalities of positioning. Although it would be economical to omit all the small movements, and maybe it’s because I studied and work in animation, but knowing the little movements helped me create a mental storyboard.

    I did read the the trilogy as a whole, so I went straight from The Blade Itself to Before They Are Hanged, so that maye have skewed my view of the ending slightly, but I found the resolution quite enjoyable. Seeing the principal characters come together, and have their threads entwine felt like a mini-arc had been completed.

    Of course, in hindsight, Dogman, West and Glokta were still quite seperate, so the threads perhaps hadn’t entwined as much as I thought. But my gut reaction remains that it was a satisfying end to the novel. As the end of the first part of a trilogy it was excellent, and I personally believe when novels, or other media, are planned to have mulitple parts it’s not always fair to view them in a vacuum.

    So, good work.

  • Josie says:

    Well, I’m just a normal average reader. I’m not good at giving constructive critic, I didn’t even understand everything you just wrote about your book, since English isn’t my mother-tongue. All I can say is that for me your book (and the following as well) was awesome! I love the characters, I love your style of writing (yes, I read it in English), I love the different points of view and most of all I love Glokta’s internal voice! Definitely not overused in my mind. To me your books are perfect and definitely the best books I’ve read in a while. Better than Lord of the Rings, in my opinion. So I’m really looking forward to your next book.

  • Phil Norris says:

    Glokta’s internal commentary/dialogue was one of the things I loved about all three books, and something I’ve missed since.

    I had intended to give the trilogy, BSC & Heroes a re-read prior to (A) Red Country coming out but I think I need that fix sooner rather than later now.

  • Fondue says:

    Tempted to do a “director’s cut” now, Joe?

  • anthony says:

    It’s the book I wish I could have written. The dark humour, bleakness and harsh reality of the series is what makes it appealing for me, along with the unpredictability. I’m hoping it gets the TV/Film treatment at some point as I think it has huge potential to be better than Game of Thrones.

    Looking forward to Red Country, the Western is one of my favourite genres.

  • Slogra says:

    I’m a big-time stalker of your blog. I forget if I’ve commented on these boards are not. I’m… not a very good stalker, am I?…

    It’s good to see your power of self-reflection. The problems in The Blade Itself are often overcome by your strong and unconventional characters. I’m still impressed by the chaotic descriptions of battle.

    I recently gave a friend your book series, and he’s on Heroes right now. But he got through Blade the slowest because, in his words, “These characters are great and Glokta’s a bit of a badass, but… they’re not doing anything!” I myself reread the first book soon after and tended to agree. Logen and his ilk are like a tightened muscle. You can tell by the way you write the book that the characters CAN provide a powerful punch, but you don’t get the impact until the second book.

    My question to you is this: Did you realize these problems before you published your work? If so, did you just run out of time? Or are these problems so elusive that you’re only now able to recognize them, when it’s too late?

  • Michael says:

    Would the audibooks be too interpretative and subjective to be of use when doing a re-read (and have you ever listened to them)? Being a quick reader it is always a wonderful surprise to come across something you may have missed, misunderstood, or have forgotten completely.

  • Paul Hartwell says:

    Don’t beat yourself up, Joe. You had us at ‘Glotka’.

    Am myself just now toward the end of “Last Argument” and the conclusion of my annual re-read of your First Law trilogy. I can’t help but think that, with the success of HBO’s adaptation of GRRM’s masterwork, someone could and should be sniffing around for something like… well… yours. As I reread it this time I found myself casting the roles (Brad Dourif for Glotka? Of Deadwood’s Doc Cochrane fame, also Wormtongue) and creating little trailers in my mind with the dialogue and imagery to grab the intended audience. Oh well, it amuses me at any rate.

    Continue success in all things, Joe.

  • Maggie says:

    If you didn’t like Glokta’s monologues, as far as I can tell, it would be because the take the rest of the book by storm. People wait anxiously to see italics in the next chapter, because they know what it means. Glokta. The only character I’ve seen more people rave about due to sheer force of personality, wit, and charm is Tyrion Lannister. And that’s only after HBO brought Song of Ice and Fire into the limelight.

  • Thaddeus says:

    I only read it once, but I haven’t re-read a fiction book for over a decade now.

    The trilogy is amongst my all-time favourites. I know I’m in the minority, but I prefer it to Best Served Cold and probably The Heroes too.

    I remember thinking that the first book was generally a bit gradual/slow, early on at least, but I enjoyed the characters so much it didn’t matter (I’m usually more interested in characters than stories).

    Not published/successful/drunk on whisky yet, but when I read my own stuff (for redrafting) I’m often pleasantly surprised or shaking my head at how moronic a passage sounds.

    Anyway, you should be proud of it, Mr. Abercrombie. It’s an excellent trilogy.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Believe me, I have had much harsher critics.

    Aw, shucks.

    No doubt that, in spite of rough edges, first book you read by an author is going to have an impact that their later books never quite will.

    Not really, I must say. I think books tend to stand as a testament to how you were then. If I re-did it now, I’d only want to redo it again in a few years…

    Certainly problems in the fine detail of the writing I didn’t realise, or I would have changed them at the time. Problems with the overall pacing, no, those neither, I think you get too close to pick up on those. You learn to do things better, but your taste changes too. In a few years I’ll probably see it differently again.

    Interesting question. No, I haven’t listened to them all the way through, though I’ve listened to parts. I need to stop and make notes so I find reading a bit easier.

    Brad Dourif way too old now for Glokta, though a great actor. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest especially.

    Glokta’s stuff is great sometimes, just not quite as subtle as I’d expected. But, hey, as Bayaz says, ‘subtlety is wasted on the Northmen’…

    I don’t think you’re in the minority. There’s plenty of people who prefer the trilogy to the standalones. One thing I’m perversely proud of is that there’s no real agreement on what my best (or worst) book is.

  • Him says:

    My friends wife actually hugged me for introducing her to the books. it was emotional.

  • Chad says:

    The trilogy are clearly superior. There, that’s settled.

    *spoiler alert* (though I can’t imagine someone’s on this site who hasn’t read the books, but still).

    I thought the best part of the trilogy was setting up the old “I’ve seen and done some bad things” trope. Two books later, after, AFTER, we’d got comfortable with it (i.e., dismissed it for the tired trope it is), Ninefingers kills his friend Tal Duru Thunderhead while berserking. That’s the pinnacle! Nothing since has touched that moment (not that the other stuff is bad).

  • Mitchell says:

    I am 1/3 of the way through The Blade Itself for the 2nd time now, there is just too much out there that I want to read to be reading it the amount of times some of your other fans have. Not to say I have any less love for your work, yours happen to be the ONLY books I have reread in years, and some of the only ones I ever have. The character development in the first part of the trilogy allows you to feel like you have known the characters forever and is done so well that I truly don’t mind the trade-off for a little less action than in the latter 2 books. I will post again after I have reread the whole trilogy, but until then I just want to thank you for giving the world such an amazing body of work. I have never enjoyed anything quite the same way as I enjoyed every damn word you have put to paper.

  • Dogman'sBladder says:

    I think the two stand alone novels are better written than the trilogy, but I preferred the characters and scope of the trilogy. Most would agree that Joe is improving as a writer with every novel.

    I think from a writing standpoint The Heroes was the emergence of what I’m going to dub the Ubercrombie, now a named man.

  • James Webster says:

    For what it’s worth, the stand out part for me (apart from the Bloody Nine’s terrifying appearances) was actually a very funny but more subtle scene, when Ferro is asked to leave the room but takes her time about it, dragging her feet, flicking vases etc. out of pure bloody mindedness.

    Loved it. Pure character study, but really tickled me.

  • AntMac says:

    Mate, I am glad you are trying to learn all the time, because you are doing it hoping to make “better” works for us to enjoy, but I am worried that your standards might get too high, you might wear yourself out un-necessarily.

    The book was better than the sum of its parts, and the parts a damn sight better than you hold them in this post. Pacing? my goodness, it was exciting and moving nine ways from breakfast. Characters?.

    One character ACTUALLY isn’t human, she is a made thing with no pain and no colour sense and no mercy, and yet she still makes a lump block the throat of the reader, makes a man sitting at his reading, rail against rapists and slavers and other cruelties, because a character in a book has been in their hands. She is in the end as human as a person could be, but because this isn’t a fairytale you don’t go the easy route with her part of the tale and even that is as human as it comes.
    And she ain’t the best of the characters even!. Maybe. Though I love her so, the poor dear thing. 😛

    The book is so good I have stopped telling people “P.J. Farmers “World of Tiers” series is the best read in SF & F” and I did that for 30 years, Joe.

    Now I tell them “The First Law”.

    Keep striving at your craft for sure, Master, but don’t bust a valve at it, you are doing pretty damned good now.

    ( If I had written it, my head would be so big . . . I dread to think. 🙂 )

  • Spiderpope says:

    While i have absolutely no issues with the quality of the text, it’s really not a bad thing that you don’t consider it your best work.

    It’s far better for future work to be improvements on ‘The Blade Itself’ than for it to be the masterpiece that nothing since can live up to.

    Cliche it may be, but an artists best work is always their next project.

  • anthony says:

    I think the next book after Red Country should be at sea, like the Aubrey & Maturin novels….but bloodier.

  • Kreso says:

    For what it’s worth, despite some books I thought were amazing debuts (Bakker’s “Prince of Nothing” Trilogy, for example), “The First Law” trilogy is by far my favorite debut fantasy work, and on par with “A Song of Ice and Fire” as my favorite book series overall.

  • T.C. says:

    Joe, a question for you, if you would be so kind. I’m new to writing and have a tendency to get a bit OTT with rereading and editing, forever nipping bits here and tucking bits there. I’m curious to know, in your experience, does there ever come a time when you feel you’ve done enough or does it simply come down to increments of dissatisfaction? Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated.

    I’ve been up all night pulling my current effort to pieces, I can only imagine what it must feel like to revisit a book several years down the line.

  • Phil Norris says:

    Joe – “There’s plenty of people who prefer the trilogy to the standalones. One thing I’m perversely proud of is that there’s no real agreement on what my best (or worst) book is.”

    You don’t have a “worst” book, just varying levels of good books IMO. If I were asked to list them in any order of preference they’d go like this.

    1. The Heroes
    2. The Blade Itself
    3. Before They Are Hanged
    4. Last Argument Of Kings
    5. Best Served Cold

    BSC isn’t last because its the worst, in some ways it deserves a higher placing(plot & characters), but for me it sits in 5th place because of Monza. Not sure why but was never able to connect with her like I did with all the other “main” characters.

    Like I said in a post above I am planning on a full re-read, perhaps after 3 years (the last time I read BSC) my opinion of Monza will change meaning the list above will change.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    When I first started writing I’d go over and over every paragraph. Usually I’d start any writing session by going over what I’d done last time, and end any session by going over what I’d just done. I think that’s healthy when you’re finding your style, if you like. These days I achieve a better result much more quickly, and tend to revise in more efficient single sweeps. I’m also better at making use of other people’s opinions. I find you can get burned out on looking at something yourself, but opinions from others can give you a whole new lease of life. But it is a case of diminishing returns, and sooner or later you’ve just got to say stop, or you’ll never say stop.

  • David says:

    The author reviews his own work years later. I have to admit I love this concept, although you never see authors do it. Why is that? I suspect many assume it’s not going to be changed so why bother. In your case though it makes perfect sense. World building requires research. I wonder if George R. R. Martin rereads his work and how often.

  • Chevi77 says:

    I have just finished The Heroes this last weekend, and I can see where are you coming from regarding self-criticism. It is very clear how much your style and technique has improved since The Blade Itself.
    Whithout thinking that The Blade is a bad book at all, (it is actually pretty good actually; forget about “pretty”, it’s damned good reading) in BSC and The Heroes seems like you have a lot more experience in how to tell the story without beating about the bush, and gripping the reader by its neck to follow the action through the eyes of the narrator of the chapter/excerpt/paragraph. And specially in The Heroes.
    They are a lot more polished than the First Law. And perhaps because you have more experience and writing skill, there was less stuff to polish/trim/rewrite.
    But the Trilogy has the edge regarding size, scope and epic. While in BSC and TH we have two stories that are self centered, you can feel in the First Law that there is a stream of events behind everything that is happening. These big events are still present on the stand alone books, but to a minor degree (I love that Cold War feeling between Bayaz and the Gurkish Empire) And the First Law has Logen and Glotka, which in my opinion are two of the best characters ever in fantasy.
    As we say in Spain, comparisons are hateful, but I admire the approach you have towards analyzing your previous books to see in which ways you can improve. Keep on the good work!!

  • Weedypants says:

    “When I first started writing I’d go over and over every paragraph. Usually I’d start any writing session by going over what I’d done last time, and end any session by going over what I’d just done. I think that’s healthy when you’re finding your style, if you like. These days I achieve a better result much more quickly, and tend to revise in more efficient single sweeps.”

    Wow, and in those words there is hope for aspiring authors!

    I try to think of learning to write well as a bit like learning to play the piano well, or something, where “they say” you need your 10,000 hours practice to get really good. It’s just that often, when honing a single paragraph to ‘perfection’ takes hours and hours, you feel like you weren’t meant for it and won’t ever get there.

    By the way, thanks for being so open, Joe. Your critique of The Blade Itself is indicative of how you always conduct yourself here – honest, willing (secure enough?) to acknowledge vulnerability. It’s a breath of fresh air given that too many authors (those on writers’ forums) seem singularly incapable of evincing any self-doubt.

  • Vex says:

    My preference would go exactly the other way:

    1. Best Served Cold
    2. Last Argument of Kings
    3. The Blade Itself
    4. Before They Are Hanged
    5. The Heroes

    Which is not to say that The Heroes hasn’t been an absolute delight to read.

    By the way, I find it outstanding that you’re only around for six years. Congratulations, and what an outstanding contribution to the field of fantasy.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Phil, Vex,
    You see? This is exactly what I’m talking about with the lack of agreement. It pleases me, and hopefully indicates that different books offer a slightly different take on the formula.

  • Emcee Jay says:

    Lists? I love a good listing.

    1. Best Served Cold
    2. Last Argument of Kings
    3. Before They Are Hanged
    4. The Blade Itself
    5. The Heroes

    I’m a big fan of revenge tales, and I consider Best Served Cold to be one the best there is. It’s like Kill Bill, but with interesting characters (no one tops Cosca), an element of adventure, and a satisfying conclusion.

  • Jacob says:

    1. In Best Served Cold, Monza is arguably an unreliable narrator to some extent (Or you’re served explanations and flashbacks over time…) due to the fact that it eventually becomes known over time that in fact she was just as manipulative, treacherous, and immoral as the people who tried to kill her. Same with Benna’s character and twist. Yeah…broken down, heartbroken children who lived a rough life. Your mind hits the empathy button until you make it to the scene when you find out how they “acquired” all their gold. Also, the Ganmark duel was exhilarating (we got to see Cosca throw antique vases at enemies), the bank break in was fun, I personally shed a tear at Faithful’s death, the individual thoughts and betrayals that arise from circumstances. All the reasons I loved this book.

    2. Before They are Hanged gets the second place for me, solely for the letters back and forth between Sult and Glokta, the impending doom of Dagoska, watching Bayaz and his entourage go through the ruined city…

    3. Last Argument for obvious reasons. Final battles, Logan fights The Feared…Tul Duru’s demise, Terez and Glokta. Lukewarm ending.

    4. The Heroes was fun. Loved Gorst and his inner monologues and self-reflections over life and why he doesn’t obtain much respect despite having these talents of sheer brutality. In a sense, he sort of is the physical embodiment or manifestation of the nerd. We think or single talents of greatness are above the rest of the “mediocre” world, see ourselves as having better skills, and so on. The scene with Beck in the closet was…whoa. Calder was very relatable as a character though, due to his physical inability but having a strategist’s mind (once again, the whole geek thing)

    5. The Blade Itself was a bit rough for me at first. The duel was fun, learning about Jezal, watching Glokta in his murder mystery stands out to me. Bayaz blowing up the Practicals head, while still nude from a shower, was genius though.

    Each book has it’s promising feature, characters, motives, own thought, etc. I hope Red Country kicks me in the ass.

  • T.C. says:


    Thanks for taking the time to reply. I think I just needed some kind of affirmation that I’m not the only person to find the honing process difficult and at times frustrating. Hopefully, in time, I’ll find a better way go about it. I have handed over several pieces to well read friends and received some constructive criticism which I continue to take on board.

    I find this blog inspirational – it spurs me on, makes me want to aim higher and gives me much needed comic relief. Thanks again.

  • Adam says:



    The Blade Itself…

    …was raw. When writing gets too polished, it gets dry, its pacing becomes too targeted for its own good, it starts to feel a little too plastic and produced. Great styling for a non-fiction work, but I like it when a writer slows it down, maybe even dithers a little bit because of varying/contradictory ideas and adjectives. The Blade Itself was what I was thirsty for. It felt like something written with passion for the genre and for the moment. A Boom Or Bust statement on epic fantasy writing from a fan, for fans.

    There were moments in The Blade Itself that were pregnant with all of these ideas that would have probably been edited out by a more seasoned Joe. There was no tomorrow for The Blade Itself. Nothing guaranteed. The book showed a determination to give the reader a 360° view of everything the writer mulled over when crafting the scene. Yes, it made it a little bit lumpy, like homemade gravy. But who wants the store-bought stuff anyway?

    Warts and all: my favorite of all of your books. An introduction to your world – and one that succeeds in that so well, I count the days to each new release. The Blade Itself wasn’t a foot in a door; it was a battering ram accompanied by a blood thirsty army.

    So ummm… yeah. I disagree with your critique of your own work, sir.

  • James says:

    Great isn’t it?

    Not being able to decide which is your best work and the fans can’t agree either.

    I was thinking of Raymond Feist when I was reading this. Magician was far and away his greatest work, and everything else he did paled heavily in comparison. In my humble opinion of course.

    I think your writing has gotten tighter and more focused since you started, but I also miss the epic scope of the initial trilogy.

    I wanted to join in with the ranking your books malarkey, but genuinely couldn’t place them in order, so I gave up dismally.

    Except to say Best Served Cold is my favourite (I empathise with Shivers, disturbingly).

  • Ravenous says:

    Actually, I’ve always thought Johnny Depp would be a great actor to play Glokta. Both as the dashing Col. Glokta and as the crippled Inqu. Glokta.

  • Ed Knight says:

    I’ve actually enjoyed each book more than the last, which is fantastic since I loved The Blade Itself.

    It’s due in part to the expansion of the universe, the sense of familiarity with the characters and the cold war manipulating so many of the events. But also I think that Joe’s characterisation has grown stronger every book, from the incredible cast of Best Served Cold to relatively minor characters like Tunny in The Heroes (whose introduction serves as one of my favourite passages of text).

    Can’t wait for A Red Country.

  • Dogman'sBladder says:

    1. Before They Are Hanged
    2. Best Served Cold
    3. The Heroes
    4. Last Argument of Kings
    5. The Blade Itself

  • Graham says:

    Not sure I could put the books in order… but I do have two favourite moments.

    When West becomes Furious in Before they are hanged and “That’s entertainment” from Best served cold.

  • Tom says:

    Glokta is my favourite character in literature.

    More of him… NOW

  • Nathan says:

    Uhh, Mr. Abercrombie, they are all awesome. The Blade itself had an audacity and brashness that I very much welcomed. Have me emotionally invested in seemingly pleased with himself torturer? Have me laugh over people disappearing into bloody mists? Have me root for murderer after murderer? So what if there are a few warts. That’s talent, plain and simple, and if some of writing isn’t “technical” or “polished” enough for some, so be it.

    As to Red Country, anything I can do to get an advance copy? US release date isn’t until November. I’m happy to donate a finger if you can find a recipient…

  • Magen says:

    Definitely the best set of books I have ever read! The trilogy is my favorite due to a lot of reasons… but Logen being the main one. I have fallen in LOVE with all the Northmen, but him especially. I found his view on life, fighting and trying to be a better man makes him extremely deep. He is, by far, my favorite character in all the fantasy books that I’ve read. The Northmen’s dialogue and interaction with each other is priceless. It’s realistic and even though they don’t all have the best qualities, I still root for them!

    Also… Glokta is amazing! But so was Dogman, West, Jezel and Ferro (before she lost her mind haha)and all the other characters to be honest. I find that Joe is able to write characters without giving the backstory in the page beforehand and that is more than refreshing. You get to meet the characters somewhat like meeting a friend in real life. Reading about them for the first time makes you wonder what kinds of hardships they have had to endure, among other aspects of their life, and the more you read, the more you learn. Rather than learning every single thing about the character the first time the reader is introduced. This makes for excellent character development. One minute you’re hating the character, the next minute, you are sympathetic and hoping they come out on top. Nobody is perfect in Joe’s books and I love it!

    *******spoiler alert**********

    My *only* gripe is poor Tul. I felt his death was somewhat harsh, unexpected and I would have loved to see him live… But I understand why it had to happen. To show that Logen truly has no control over himself once he is the Bloody Nine. But like I said earlier, I love all the Northmen and any one of their deaths weighs heavily on me.

    I absolutely can’t wait for Red Country!! You’re amazing Joe!

  • Dogman'sBladder says:

    Do you have a ranking of favorite to least favorite for your books Joe, or is it as unthinkable as ranking your children?

  • Giasone says:

    As much as I enjoy and admire Best Served Cold and The Heroes, I still give pride of place to the trilogy. But when comparing any books, I think it has to be recognised that different novels can’t all be rated by the same standard. Some stories grip the reader and you keep turning pages to find out what is going to happen – BSC is an excellent example. Other books are interesting primarily for different reasons, such as a study of different people’s behaviour in a situation (perhaps The Heroes might be read with this uppermost in mind) or to explore a period of history, a society or a world (e.g. The First Law trilogy). These different criteria are not necessarily mutually exclusive, although one is typically of greater priority than another – the first being particularly dominant in popular fiction, while the latter are more pronounced in literary fiction. The pace of the trilogy reflects a different balance of criteria.
    In this regard I’d also add that one of the things I especially like about JA’s work is that, despite his/your self-avowed determination to focus on plot and character, rather than descriptive prose and world-building – I always seem to get a strong sense of the physical environment and landscape in which the stories take place, as if I was watching a film rather than reading. For example, in the early chapters with Logan in The Blade Itself I get strong impressions of the landscape – mountains, river, forest, moss-covered stones, mists, lake, the entrance to Bayaz’s retreat; or Adua, with its streets, buildings, gardens, sunlight sparkling on the water, the cool shadows of the House of the Maker, et cetera; or, as I envisage it, the mountainous terrain of Styria, with its rivers and complicated coastline of bays and inlets, looking like a landscape by Bruegel or some other Renaissance or early modern painter. And there is always a strong sense of the wider world beyond the immediate action of the story. The vision of the landscape is one of the great qualities of Tolkien’s writing and, despite my great admiration for GRRM, not something that I find so readily in ASOIAF as in The First Law books in particular.

  • AntMac says:

    Best Served Cold
    Before they are hanged
    The blade itself
    last argument of kings.

    Certainly Best Served Cold is ahead by a Nose. Best Torture Scene, Best Creepy Bondage Scene, Most Realistic Poisoning Scene, Best Slaughter in a Brothel Scene . . . it would clean out the Oscars, I tell ya!.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Yeah, ‘filmic’ is a word that gets used occasionally, and as is often the case with discussion of writing I’m never entirely sure what quality of the writing it is that creates that sense. I always think of myself as relatively light on description, but maybe that’s not the case.

    Best Creepy Bondage Scene – Job Done. Best Served Cold certainly wins for intensity of unpleasant sex and violence.

    I think your opinion on that is going to change rapidly. You like different books for different reasons at different times. But maybe we’ll have some answers after this read-through?

    I’m not sure I buy the thing about writing getting too polished and over-produced. Sometimes jagged or raw is what you want, sometimes a lot of careful thought goes into creating that effect. Sometimes smooth and silky is what you’re after. Incidentally I think armchair critics much too often associate smooth, clever prose with good, when in fact it’s just one of many valid style choices and can often be quite inappropriate and annoying. But sometimes prose is just lumpy, clumsy, bland. I’m not saying that’s always the case with The Blade Itself by any means, but sometimes there’s a lack of artistry to some of the passages, and actually a lack of variety of style. Now, I think that’s compensated for by a certain exuberance and energy that comes from it being a first effort. I think there’s an inevitable development to a writer’s career in which a first book introduces their style and central concerns in a way that maybe has greater impact than will ever come later. That loss of originality is compensated for by an increase in craft, maybe…?

  • Michael says:

    I have no sense of loss of originality in the progression of your prose. The thing for me is that I don’t read any external influences in your work. I haven’t read anything similar, by any other author, ever.

  • Hawkeye says:


    Well said Michael. I feel the same way. Joe’s work is wonderfully original. It always feel’s fresh, never tired. A joy to read even when your favorite character’s are failing miserably.

  • Weedypants says:

    “Incidentally I think armchair critics much too often associate smooth, clever prose with good, when in fact it’s just one of many valid style choices and can often be quite inappropriate and annoying.”

    “… a first book introduces their style and central concerns in a way that maybe has greater impact than will ever come later.”

    When I post here I maybe come across as an arse-licking fan. But damn, genuinely, I vacillate between agreeing with you, Joe, and being startled by your insight.

    Too often lesser authors employ smooth, clever prose that’s equally smooth and clever throughout, regardless of situation and character POV. It isn’t that hard for the well practiced to use commas and “ands” and sharp, evocative, alliterated nouns to achieve pretty descriptions of nature. It is harder to stay focussed on story, character, world.

    In terms of the author’s central concerns and impact, I felt that the war or anti-war theme of The Heroes enabled you to achieve some impressive (if sardonic) intensity:

    “Oh, flower of manhood! Oh, the brave boys! Oh, send them to war no more until next time we need a fucking distraction.”

  • Adam says:

    Well Joe, I’m not going to debate too much on that with you for fear of sounding like one of those guys in the Wiki entry on Peter North arguing the output of his appendage.

    I just hope my original post didn’t sound like some back-handed compliment. Your “armchair critics much too often associate smooth, clever prose with good, when in fact it’s just one of many valid style choices,” sums up my feelings pretty well.

  • Wig-Jig says:

    The world needs more Harding Grim.

    …yeah, I know.

  • Anna says:

    Glokta’s internal voice is one of my favorite things ever in any book! Everyone I know who has read this agrees. When recommending the books, it’s one of the things I point out. That and the… different tones? Glokta wouldn’t speak, think or act like Logen. Everything about the chapter or section reflects that and it makes sense. When I start a chapter, I know just about immediately who is talking to me, so to speak. I have never read another author who does this. Not really.

  • Jordan says:

    What the hell, here’s my list of Joe’s books:

    1. Before They Are Hanged (because it’s the one where people are the least shitty to each other)
    2. The Blade Itself
    3. Last Argument of Kings
    4. Best Served Cold
    5. The Heroes

    Love all of them, but can’t deny I love some more than others.

  • Hawkeye says:

    Here’s my list, since everyone is doing it.

    1. Before they are hanged. Battle with the Feared was just so great.

    1.a The Heroes. Loved me some Curnden Craw.

    1.b Blade Itself. Intro to so much good stuff.

    1.c Best Served Cold. Shivers is my boy.

    2. Last Argument. I was one of those a little let down by the ending of the major story lines.

  • Magen says:

    I really hope they make a series of the trilogy if nothing else. I don’t think one movie could capture one book. Although if they made 5 or 6 movies I would be more than happy with that. I can’t wait for the day! Gaaahhh I can’t imagine who Logen would be. Do you have an actor for him Joe? It would be interesting to see how you view him somewhat.

    I have somebody for Glokta, but I’m afraid I’ll get laughed off the thread for suggesting it. :/

  • beelbeebub says:

    If we’re going about picking possible a Glockta, I’m going to go right ahead and put Jude Law out there. Ian McShane for Bayaz while we’re at it…

    And as for getting laughed at, Vinnie Jones for Practical Frost, at least he doesn’t have to speak!

  • Matt says:

    After reading this post, you have convinced me that you are an awful writer. I hope that was the point because it worked!

    ::serious face::

    The Blade Itself started pretty slowly for me but at some point I became totally enthralled. I’m not too sure where that point was though. Somewhere within the first chapters you found exactly what you needed to do and you’ve done it pretty much ever since.

    I was not too fond of Best Served Cold but I loved The Heroes. So, there are bumps but I think you’re on a great style of writing. Even if your new book is a total dud it’ll still be one of the best fantasy books in recent times.

  • AntMac says:

    They could never do justice to the best thing in the book, in the form of a Movie.

    And the best thing is “The characters”. They are too good to waste in the sort of visual short attention span format that all movies end up falling into.

    The Characters demand a TV series, time to bring their varied, human, twisted selves to light.

    In a movie, or even a trilogy of movies, so short, such a visual media, Glokta could only ever be a kind of cruel sick joke. Dogman a sidekick. Furious a bully. Dear Ferro just some sort of funny foreigner running gag.

    They could never be given enough time to be people, and then I would be sad.

  • Giasone says:

    There’s an great interview with Toby Whithouse, the creator and primary screenwriter of ‘Being Human’, in which he concludes by remarking on how his writing has become more streamlined over time. Interesting to compare this with your own comments on your earlier work. For anyone interested, the interview is at:

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Ha. Funnily enough I met Toby Whithouse at the latest SFX Weekender. He was one of the contestants on the SF&F Just a Minute I took part in. By all appearances a very nice guy…

  • Neil W says:

    On Glokta you say “…sometimes a bit obvious and lacking in subtlety…” I read his internal voice as being over the top in everything – self-pity, contempt for others – and also that he was aware that he was over the top. And slightly amused by it. That was his choice, to be over the top and amused rather than despairing.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Neil W,
    It’s more the technicalities of the way it’s used than the tone that I had a problem with. In the Blade Itself his thoughts often just echo what we already know in a not particularly entertaining way, sometimes what we’ve just been told in prose or in someone else’s dialogue. There isn’t always enough of a sense of his own voice infusing his thoughts. Used too often as an unsubtle means for me to keep the reader up to speed. I’m reading Before They are Hanged now and finding it much improved there, though it’s easier when you don’t have so much background to lay out.

  • Sword1001 says:

    My list would have Best Served Cold at the top, and the Heroes at the bottom. I did enjoy TH, but I thought it had too many POV characters for one stand alone novel – was Coporal Tunny’s voice really required? Perhaps it was, I’m no story teller (!), but for me he took the focus away from the main characters and didn’t really add much.

    I think I just preferred BSC as it felt a lot more focused, revolving around a small group of characters with a defined mission and end. It rarely meandered away from the main group/story

    My one hope for Red Country is that it’s more BSC than TH in that respect

    Also, I was disappointed that after BSC, Shivers was relegated to background character in TH – with no POV 🙁

    Minor gripes though! Keep up the good work mate

  • Giasone says:

    Thanks for tip off – I’ll check the SF&F JaM on Youtube, since I’ve come to love ‘Being Human’ (though not as much as ‘The First Law’ trilogy, of course…)

  • Niklas says:

    I love all your books, especially The Blade Itself. The only thing I got a bit tired of midway through the trilogy was the constant frowning. But with Before They Are Hanged the frowning stopped, and I started to miss it again.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Oh, yes, the frowning is still with me. Eyebrows are the other go to response…

  • AntMac says:

    Well, their world has much to frown about, a frown on your face makes people hesitate to fuck with your touchy grumpy looking self, and most of the people can hardly like themselves for their lighter, carefree impulses. Thats if they could find such impulses with a weeks provisions and a map.

    And best of all, it makes the perfect foundation to start from and slowly, happily, spread your evil grin across.

  • JMa says:

    Hope you all have read Joe’s short story in “Swords and Dark Magic”. It’s practically part of The Heroes. Great introduction to Craw and his Dozen. I loved The Heroes probably because I was able to read this first and throughout the novel I felt sad for those who might’ve missed the short story. Ha ha, losers!

  • Giasone says:

    Read it and enjoyed it, JMa. BTW, ‘S&DM’ is a great little anthology, well worth adding to one’s personal library.

  • James Webster says:

    I actually liked how we lost the POV of Shivers in The Heroes. Then we got to see him as others see him, without the sympathetic internal voice, but as the terrifying, massively violent character he became…

    In the same way I loved seeing Logan through the eyes of Jezal the first time they meet. Until that point, we have had nothing but Logan’s internal voice, and no real idea of what he looks like. Indeed until then, I had the impression he was a bit rat-like.. sure, a scrapper maybe, but not particularly imposing amongst his own kind.

    Then we get Jezal describing this hugely scarred, hulking great brute, seemingly less civilised looking even than Fenris, of all people!

    I like this technique. And I may well be wrong, but I think it is not even until The Heroes that we get any idea of what the Dogman looks like?

  • Andrew says:

    I started re-reading The Blade Itself recently as well. I agree that there’s some great dialogue in there, one that sticks out is Glokta’s response to Arch Lector Sult asking if he spilled information when he was tortured. As for all this ranking thing people are doing I absolutely love The Last Argument of Kings, I can genuinely open it up at any random page and be instantly engaged.

  • Uncle Iroh says:

    I have just discovered this author and these books and am enjoying them… Though I have to say, why has no one ever brought up hoe Bayaz is clearly a nod, or an homage if you will, to the Uncle Iroh character from Avatar? I find them insanely similar, in an awesome way, so I’m curious now if this was intentional or just an insane coincidence.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Uncle I,
    Haven’t read/seen Avatar (of the airbender variety), don’t know much about it. So I plead not guilty to intentional imitation on that one, at least. Read the whole series and let me know whether you still see the similarity…

  • Morgan says:

    I am an unctuous little bastard and I bow to all of your published works in one sentence rather than a paragraph (I love them all)!

    I am not a hypercritical reader nor am I educated well enough to decrypt word-usage/structure/plot etc.

    The only instance where I paused a moment and said, “man, what the hell is going on?”, occurred when Glokta continued to regard Bayaz as a fraud for a considerable time period after the party emerged from the House of the Maker.

    Glokta is logical, skeptical, cynical, blah blah (awesome) … all traits I highly admire. Why did it take Glokta so long to change his perspective towards Bayaz as being an actual magi?

    The book is obviously incredible. I am such a fan boy I had to post something. I love the moral relativism in your novels.

  • […] Abercrombie has been reading “Joe Abercrombie’s seminal work of modern fantasy, The Blade Itself“: The writing’s […]

  • […] The Blade Itself Before they are Hanged Last Argument of Kings […]

  • mayank says:

    The trilogy is the best trilogy i have read in a while.

    The scene where Bloody-nine is first introduced in TBI is the best scene i have ever read. Up to that point i kept wondering why this gentle-giant is so feared and why he has such poor opinion of himself.

    i read “The Night Angel trilogy” by Brent Weeks. Its quite different than your work but some of the characters and the plots and situations are so similar to yours that i ended up thinking he has copied from your books.

  • Uncle Iroh says:

    Well, I finished the series… And Bayaz is pretty much nothing whatever like Uncle Iroh. I think it was his penchant for tea and fire that led me horrifically astray. Oh, and also the original and unique story when I’m normally used to not being fooled by a character.

    Also, I have to say that Glokta is possibly my favorite hero ever written. Yes, I am calling him a hero. No, I will not use quotes, nor will I place the word “anti” in front of it. I was routing for him the entire trilogy, and am very disappointed he hasn’t made a reappearance yet! (just finished Best Served Cold).

    I think I keep reading these books now hoping desperately to find a character with some redeemable qualities, and so very delighted as each one shows their bad side.

    Well, besides Glokta, of course. Oh, and of course Cosca, the hero of Best Served Cold.

  • KMags says:

    I am currently doing a reread of this novel myself after a few years. I just recently purchased them for my brother for his Bday and decided a reread was in order to discuss with him. I found that a few years later i am still enthralled with a lot of the same aspects of your writing style which i enjoyed the first time around. The characters much like a G RR Martin have a real grayness that leans towards the dark. Each character has the capacity to redeem but “You have to be realistic about these things” 🙂 I also through the 5 novels really enjoyed the way you had a trilogy in mind and no more. You moved on to other aspects of the same world but kept a freshness which i think gets lost by other writers who do 8-15 books series. I can’t wait to discuss with my brother when he finishes and as a songwriter myself i always think it is a mark of a success if you can listen to your own work years later and not want to throw it in the fire 🙂 I take that as a win. Thank you again i have really enjoyed the work.

  • Tom says:

    I’ve had all three books for years now and because of life (the universe, and everything) I haven’t gotten around to reading them until now. I’ve simultaneously been listening to the audible version whilst taking part in that mundane drivel we all have to do like folding laundry and gainful employment. I have to agree with everyone else, Glokta’s internal voice is some of my favorite internal dialogue ever. The audible version really makes it that much better. Steven Pacey, the voice actor goes so far as to make Glokta’s internal and external voices different, which is something I didn’t think to do when I tried my best to read The Blade Itself when it was gifted to me in college. I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing myself lately and I’ve had to strive really hard not to mimic your style because I’m very aware that I love your writing style, PARTICULARLY Glokta’s internal voice.

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