Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

A slow burn. That’s what you’re getting yourself into if you read The Blade Itself. Cleverly executed characters going about their daily lives while the threat of war looms in the background.

[Note: this review was originally posted on Goodreads. Follow me for more updates and reviews]

While the title and the cover design make this look like an action heavy novel strewn with violence, it really wasn’t. There are some action scenes, and when they come they are fairly brutal, but the action is not the focus, thank God. I usually find myself board when half the novel is descriptions of characters swinging swords and parrying and whatnot.

The Blade Itself felt more like a character focused hardboiled detective novel with a coming of age tournament arc and a travel log. The several different styles of story mashed together actually worked well.

We follow several disparate characters who’s threads eventually intertwine. Logan the barbarian, Bayaz the magi, Luthar the soldier, and several others. Most are fleshed out and fully realized. You’ll find yourself rooting for quite a few of them, even when they’re at odds with one another.

No character is all sterling, and none are evil. They feel conflicted and their motivations feel compelling (though we don’t always know what a characters motivations might be). But none are as compelling as one of the best characters I’ve read in a fantasy novel, Sand dan Glokta.

“Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?” -Glokta from The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Glokta is a war hero now crippled by torture who’s survived to become a torturer himself. Due to a series of discoveries, Glokta is promoted and empowered. He’s charged with investigating merchants who’ve neglected to pay the kings taxes, and what follows is an engrossing detective story.

While we get to peer into several (but not all) characters minds, with Glokta we get full access. It reminds me of reading some of the best hardboiled novels, especially while Glokta says one thing and thinks quite another. In my mind, Glokta is the hero of this story, even if by appearances he is the least heroic of all the character types.

Apparently there’s a comic book adaptation too. Neat.

Despite his grisly job, I found myself so invested in Glokta, I was able to overlook some of the novels faults. But there are faults. Chapters following Logan’s former band of warriors weren’t that interesting. These characters, along with Ferro, felt like cookie cutter one-dimensional fantasy fair. I think they were included to add extra action scenes, but because I never found myself invested in Dogman or Threetrees and especially not Ferro, when the action came I never really cared what the result was.

Picking on Ferro more, her chapters never felt consequential. She’s a former slave who’s seeking vengeance for what’s been done to her people. She will remind you of that over and over again, often spouting the one liner, “Vengeance!” in case you’re not clear on that point. The only purpose of her chapters is to get her from point A to point B. She inevitably arrives, and it’s a big fat “so what?” If I were the editor here, I’d have fought strongly to have her cut entirely. But who knows, maybe she’ll be important in the next book.

All that said, I never wanted to put the book down. Yes, it sometimes felt aimless, but I was so engrossed in the moment to moment storytelling that I didn’t really care. I was compelled through the narrative, eagerly awaiting the next turn (or Glokta chapter). Yes, sometimes I had to read a Ferro chapter, and I found myself rolling my eyes, but they would end and the story became fantastic again.

So, despite it’s weaknesses, I still give this novel a very high recommendation. It’s one of those stories that feels like more than the some of its parts, and some of the characters were among the most compelling I’ve ever read in fantasy, even if others were not. If you read it, you’ll enjoy it. I’m very much looking forward to the next entry in the series.

Planning a Novel: The Spark of an Idea

While writing Grim Curio is still in full swing (but nearing its end), I’ve been thinking about future projects a lot lately. I have two other novels in the works, The Gin Thief episodes and an untitled novel I’m co-writing with my wife, Tana.

She’s not much into social networking or blogging, but she’s a voracious reader and you can follow her on Goodreads. Last year she read well over 100 books and this year she’s already on track to surpass that.

I’ve been asking her for a while, “When are you going to write your own novel?” and she shrugs.

She’s the reader, I’m the writer. But I knew there was a story inside her if I could just coax it out. So during an hour long drive, I grilled her. I started with the broad questions. “If you were to write your novel,” I asked, “What genre would it be?”

She was skeptical of my motives, but after a little coaxing she opened up. “My favorite books are mash-ups of Science Fiction with a Fantasy element,” she said. Turns out, she likes the Sci-fi aesthetic, and magic systems from novels like the Mistborn trilogy. Sounds good to me.

“I really like the plot of Treasure Island,” she said. One of my favorite novels. Scored a big point with that one. “I’m interested in a science fiction retelling of Treasure Island with magic and a heist.”

I was taken aback. “That sounds amazing. I’d totally read that. In fact, I’d totally write that.”

We tossed ideas back and forth, getting more and more specific along the way. And what we came up with was this.

It’s a mess. But it’s also a jumping off point.

Let’s say you’re interested in writing your own novel, but don’t know where to start. What can you take away from this?

Find someone to bounce ideas off of

As it turns out, Tana has more interesting ideas than I do. Go figure. She’s read everything under the sun. She’d throw me an idea, and I’d build on it and throw it back. Pretty soon we had the seed of what could be a promising story.

It’s important to remember that there really isn’t such a thing as a bad idea in this stage. It’s ok to say, “That’s been done before,” or “I’d rather see something like…” But don’t shoot the other person’s ideas down. They are doing you a service, and if you want their continued support, be encouraging.

Start broad, then go more and more narrow

You’ll notice that in the beginning there wasn’t a specific idea. But as we explored settings and themes and plot structure, we began to get more and more specific.

Of course this isn’t the only way to go. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to create a novel this way. But it seems to have worked well.

Alternative ways to begin a novel include: start with a character, start with the plot, find an idea you want to explore, find an aesthetic, or just find a book you want to emulate. It really doesn’t matter where the spark of the idea comes from. Just find a something you love and run with it.

Ideas change

What you brainstorm here will likely not be your final product. What sounds amazing in the idea generation phase may be terrible once executed. There’s no way to know until you do it.

Embrace change. Pivot once you realize something isn’t working. Don’t hold yourself to your early ideas, because in the end it doesn’t matter how you started, only how you finish.

Realize that this is just the first step

The work is only just beginning. An idea isn’t worth the paper it’s written on unless you follow through with it. Writing a novel is a lot of sustained hard work. Be prepared to follow through for months and months in the trenches, taking fire and shooting back until… you’re novel is written I guess. Not a great analogy, but I’m keeping it.

That’s all I have for today. Hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes. If you’re looking for more on this subject, checkout my blog post called Find Inspiration, Generate Ideas, and the Myth of the Perfect Concept.

Book Review of The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn #1)

Note: This review was originally posted on Goodreads on April 10, 2017. It has been slightly updated here.


The Final Empire is an excellent fantasy novel which far exceeded my expectations. I’m new to Brandon Sanderson with one exception.

I’d tried to read The Way Of Kings last year, and I put it down after 5 chapters because I found one of the characters very trite and annoying. But after reading The Final Empire, I may need to go back and give it another shot.

Our belief is often strongest when it should be weakest. That is the nature of hope. –The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My wife recommended The Final Empire, and I realized this was the same author a few chapters in. The opening didn’t grab me here either, but she insisted that it would be worth slogging through. Lucky for me I gave it a chance because what I read was would become one of my favorite fantasy series ever.

The beginning

Action as a hook doesn’t work for me because there’s no emotional resonance. Until I care about the characters, I really don’t care about the action. But once you pass this brief requisite “hook”, the characters start to connect and the setting begins to get interesting. Next we’re front-loaded with world building, still without a character to really hold on to. More trudging on.

But after you climb these early, awkward steps it starts to get interesting. And then it gets fascinating, captivating, magical.

The Plot

The plot itself isn’t what’s engrossing here. It’s a standard hero overthrows the evil villain story. What’s interesting is how Brandon Sanderson is able to craft a standard villain into a believable human being with doubts and insecurities. It’s equivalent to making Sauron from Lord of the Rings a character you can relate to.

He does this in numerous ways, but primarily through the use of journal entries. As we read the diary of a man who’s about to rise to supreme power, we see that he was not always the evil emperor who enslaves us today. There was a time where he was just a person like you or me.

I consider myself to be a man of principle. But, what man does not? Even the cutthroat, I have noticed, considers his actions “moral” after a fashion.

Perhaps another person, reading of my life, would name me a religious tyrant. He could call me arrogant. What is to make that man’s opinion any less valid than my own?

I guess it all comes down to one fact: In the end, I’m the one with the armies.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

There are many revelations, and I won’t give any of them away, but they culminate into a brilliant “Ah ha!” moment when the reader finally sees [not a spoiler, you learn this in the beginning] why the Hero of Ages is now the Lord Ruler. Brilliant character development and story telling here.

That’s all subtext though. I know.

The actual plot follows a thieving crew who’s been hired to overthrow the lord ruler. It takes a fairly predictable path, but that’s ok. What’s interesting are the two protagonists whose relationship grows so subtly throughout the book.

There are probably a thousand different moments of slight character progression as they transition from one mentality to another, or as they loose or gain insecurities, or grow just a little closer to another character. It’s fascinating to see all this constant movement feel so natural, and it’s brilliantly done.

Setting

This is fantasy, and it contains a unique magic system. It’s fun, limited, and believable. Some people have one magic ability, others have many, and the rest have none. I enjoyed the fact that the magic behaved differently than magic I’ve seen before. It turned out to be a mix of Jedi and Matrix powers, and the combination was fun.

The environment is believable enough. It doesn’t stray too far into fantasy lane, meaning there aren’t any elves or ogres or goblins, etc. The ash the constantly falls from the sky was a really nice touch, and the mist itself is an ever-present thing. I enjoyed how the mist felt like a character at some points. It’s these details that carry the setting and keep it interesting.

Writing Style

Brandon Sanderson’s writing is direct and clear at all times. He doesn’t really get bogged down with metaphors or imagery, opting instead to be clear and concise. Prose flow well without getting in the way. It works well when there’s so many intricacies to the plot that any confusion would hamper the story.

He smiled despite the grief he felt at the deaths of his men; he smiled because that was what he did. That was how he proved to the Lord Ruler-and to himself-that he wasn’t beaten.
The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Some writers like to get readers to think through their prose, but Brandon Sanderson likes to get writers to think through his characters and their relationships. I guess what I’m trying to say is: the writing never stood out to me in a bad way, but never stood out in a great way either. It works well and delivers the ideas it needs to effortlessly.

Conclusion

Read this book! Other than the beginning, I don’t have any gripes. This was one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, up there with Name of the Wind (if you know me, you know how high praise that is). So give the man some money and have a great time reading.

Review of A Darker Shade of Magic

I recently finished reading A Darker Shade of Magic and, as usual, I left my review on Goodreads (follow me). What I’ve been neglecting to do is share my reviews with you guys, readers of this blog. So I’m gonna start doing that now. Over the next few weeks, I’ll copy over some of my reviews so they live here as well and in the future I’ll post all my 3.5 stars and higher reviews here.


Read this review on Goodreads

A Darker Shade of Magic coverWhat was setup to be an interesting exploration of a setting that involves parallel worlds and follows a charming MC turned out to be a run-of-the-mill, fantasy action story where intrigue is paid off with cliché, and the stakes are artificially lowered through a dash of deus ex machina. So, there were good parts and bad parts.

I really loved the first third of A Darker Shade of Magic, written by V.E. Schwab. The slow pace let the author explore MC Kell and the parallel worlds he inhabits. I felt like his character was well fleshed out and the pace of reveals was perfect. Not to mention his awesome coat.

Then we get to Delilah, and the story goes south. Where Kell feels like a three-dimensional character, Delilah feels like a more violent, less intriguing, one-dimensional version of The Artful Dodger. Her motivations rarely go below surface level, her actions are often kind of dumb, and when she’s shown as a badass it feels contrived.

Speaking of unearned, let’s talk about the climax. Ok, so I didn’t hate it, but I expected way more given the setup. The second half devolves into a fairly basic chace sequence, followed by a standard “dramatic showdown” with the villains. Will good triumph? Of course, but will good actually earn their inevitable victory? Solid no.

What’s more, the villains are wholly uninteresting. They are bad, and because they are bad they want to take over the world. They do bad things to show how bad they are like drink blood, touch people in weird ways while they talk, have a floor made out of bones, etc. etc. If you’ve played any video game ever, you’ve seen these guys before.

Spoilery stuff follows

I think this was my greatest disappointment. We get to the end, and all of the baddies are defeated because their bad people. Literally, that’s it. The good guys might strike the final blow, but if the baddies weren’t so mean to their subjects, then they totally would have won.

If an editor had told the author, “we get that their villains, could you tone it down a smidge” the author would have been forced to find a new, more interesting demise. Too bad this didn’t happen, cause the end could’ve been so much better.

End of spoilers

As it was, the final chapters chalk full of deus ex machina (the hand of the author comes in to save the characters, not the actions of the characters themselves), which was very disappointing.

I enjoyed aspects of A Darker Shade of Magic. I like Kell and wish this would have been more of a character focused story around him. I’m told the sequels solve a lot of these issues, so I think I’ll pick them up in the near future, but to be honest, I’m not chomping at the bit to dive into them. However, the first third of the narrative gives me hope that from the ashes of this book a better story can rise.

3.5 out of 5


MY RATING SCALE

5 – Excellent. Either this book was incredibly enjoyable, or I learned something that will improve my own writing.

4 – Fine. The book was pretty good/fun, but was held down by several issues.

3 – Meh. The issues in this book hampered my enjoyment.

2 – Not for me. I didn’t like it, but I can see why other people might.

1 – Not for anyone. I hated it, probably didn’t finish reading, definitely didn’t take the time to write a review.

Note: I don’t write fully negative reviews. Books I don’t like will be given a star rating on Goodreads with no review. As a writer, I don’t want to add my voice to a conversation that might negatively affect another writers income.