Gather round, ye speculative fiction fans. It is time for another critique post. Last time, I reached into spec fic’s distant past and dredged up A Spell for Chameleon, but today I take on a more modern offering: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. I don’t know anything about this book, other than that it’s been compared favorably to A Song of Ice and Fire, and the cover art looks like a piece of parchment with some blood on it. So obviously we’re in for a light and fluffy read.
We start with a prologue, though as we’ll find out soon enough, this is really chapter one. It’s titled “The End,” which is an odd thing to call the opening of your book. I’m not a fan of giving each chapter a title, but who knows, maybe this one will feature the end of something important.
Start With Conflict
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.
The Dogman had been with him until a moment before, he was sure, but there wasn’t any sign of him now. As for the others, there was no telling. Some leader, getting split up from his boys like that. He should’ve been trying to get back, but the Shanka were all around. He could feel them moving between the trees, his nose was full of the smell of them. Sounded as if there was some shouting somewhere on his left, fighting maybe. Logen crept slowly to his feet, trying to stay quiet. A twig snapped and he whipped round.
There was a spear coming at him. A cruel-looking spear, coming at him fast with a Shanka on the other end of it.
A slow beginning is probably the most common problem I encounter in stories, both published and unpublished. Abercrombie avoids that by starting his story with a life-and-death battle for survival. There’s immediate and obvious conflict here: the conflict over whether Logen will live! This certainly isn’t the only way to open with conflict, but it’s an effective one. Of course, this could be a decoy, opening with a fight in the prologue to cover for a slow beginning, but for now it’s an excellent moment.
Beyond starting with conflict, Abercrombie shows some serious wordcraft chops. He uses strong verbs like “plunged” and descriptive adjectives like “rasping.” Even the nouns are good, describing the “slush” and “wet pine needles” that Logen is sliding over. This description gives the fight urgency and helps paint a picture of Logen’s environment, both of which are essential when throwing the reader into an action sequence like this. We need to feel like the fight is important, even if we don’t know anything about it, and we need to visualize it; otherwise it’s boring.
The fly in this opening ointment is the “Dogman.” First, that’s an unusual name compared to something as normal sounding as “Logen.” Maybe later we’ll get some context about naming conventions in this setting. More importantly, it’s not clear who the male pronouns in paragraph two are referring to, Logen or the Dogman. Was it Logen or the Dogmen who was a bad leader for being split up from his boys? Without this context, it’s even hard to tell if the Dogman is a friend or an enemy.
Despite the Dogman issue, I’m giving this opening a stamp of approval for getting right to the action with some good wordcraft. Nicely done, Abercrombie.
Remember Important Description
“Shit,” said Logen. He threw himself to one side, slipped and fell on his face, rolled away thrashing through the brush, expecting the spear through his back at any moment. He scrambled up, breathing hard. He saw the bright point poking at him again, dodged out of the way, slithered behind a big tree trunk. He peered out and the Flathead hissed and stabbed at him. He showed himself on the other side, just for a moment, then ducked away, jumped round the tree and swung the axe down, roaring loud as he could. There was a crack as the blade buried itself deep in the Shanka’s skull. Lucky that, but then Logen reckoned he was due a little luck.
The Flathead stood there, blinking at him. Then it started to sway from side to side, blood dribbling down its face. Then it dropped like a stone, dragging the axe from Logen’s fingers, thrashing around on the ground, at his feet. He tried to grab hold of his axe-handle but the Shanka still somehow had a grip on its spear and the point was flailing around in the air.
So… what’s a Flathead? And what’s a Shanka? I have no idea. The book seems to be using the terms interchangeably, without identifying what either of them are. I know Logen is fighting one, but otherwise I’m at a loss. These paragraphs are all about Logen fighting someone or something, but without any description, it’s like he’s fighting an empty white cut-out. This is especially odd because Abercrombie was so good at describing everything else about the fight. I can picture Logen’s environment perfectly, but not his opponent. It’s like Abercrombie laid out all the trimmings of a Thanksgiving dinner but forgot the turkey.
Description is important in any story, but it’s critical in speculative fiction. Without description, readers can’t be sure if a new character is a human, a fairy, or a bizarre space alien. This problem could have been solved with just a few lines of text, something to paint the broad strokes about what Logen is facing. Then Abercrombie could have gotten back to the fighting and smashing.
Of course, we also don’t know what Logen looks like at this point, but that’s less of an issue. Readers will usually assume the point of view character is human unless given reason to think otherwise.*
Stay Consistent With Your Perspective
“Gah!” squawked Logen as the spear cut a nick in his arm. He felt a shadow fall across his face. Another Flathead. A damn big one. Already in the air, arms outstretched. No time to get the axe. No time to get out of the way. Logen’s mouth opened, but there was no time to say anything. What do you say at a time like that?
They crashed to the wet ground together, rolled together through the dirt and the thorns and the broken branches, tearing and punching and growling at each other. A tree root hit Logen in the head, hard, and made his ears ring. He had a knife somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where. They rolled on, and on, downhill, the world flipping and flipping around, Logen trying to shake the fuzz out of his head and throttle the big Flathead at the same time. There was no stopping.
It had seemed a clever notion to pitch camp near the gorge. No chance of anyone sneaking up behind. Now, as Logen slid over the edge of the cliff on his belly, the idea lost much of its appeal. His hands scrabbled at the wet earth. Only dirt and brown pine needles. His fingers clutched, clutched at nothing. He was beginning to fall. He let go a little whimper.
First, I really like that Logen whimpers in this scene. And even though I don’t normally approve of fancy dialogue tags, “squawked” charmed me. It’s not often that you meet a badass fighter-dude who whimpers and squawks. Normally they’d be grunting, stoically glaring, and grunting some more. This is a refreshing change that makes me like Logen more, even though I know nothing about him.
Unfortunately, the perspective in these scenes is getting a little confused. Most of the story is in third person limited, so shifts into the second person with “you” can be confusing. These moments are supposed to be Logen’s inner thoughts, but that’s not always clear. The narrative distance is also fluctuating. Sometimes it’s so close that we’re supposed to understand a “you” statement is coming from inside Logen’s head, but other times Abercrombie uses distancing and phrases like “he saw” and “trying to.”
In close narration, you directly describe the character’s actions and experiences. Putting in unnecessary telling only makes the description more remote. Not every story needs to be super close all the time, but it’s best to be consistent whenever possible.
This was also where I realized that despite how close the narration is, I don’t have a good idea of Logen’s emotional state. He whimpered, but was that in pain or in fear? Is he angry at having to fight the Shanka, or does he have a grudging respect for their prowess? The narration is very close on Logen’s actions but not his feelings, which makes it harder to invest in him.
Describe the Important Things First
His hands closed around something. A tree root, sticking out from the earth at the very edge of the gorge. He swung in space, gasping, but his grip was firm.
“Hah!” he shouted. “Hah!” He was still alive. It would take more than a few Flatheads to put an end to Logen Ninefingers. He started to pull himself up onto the bank but couldn’t manage it. There was some great weight around his legs. He peered down.
The gorge was deep. Very deep with sheer, rocky sides. Here and there a tree clung to a crack, growing out into the empty air and spreading its leaves into space. The river hissed away far below, fast and angry, foaming white water fringed by jagged black stone. That was all bad, for sure, but the real problem was closer to hand. The big Shanka was still with him, swinging gently back and forth with its dirty hands clamped tight around his left ankle.
“Shit,” muttered Logen. It was quite a scrape he was in. He’d been in some bad ones alright, and lived to sing the songs, but it was hard to see how this could get much worse. That got him thinking about his life. It seemed a bitter, pointless sort of a life now. No one was any better off because of it. Full of violence and pain, with not much but disappointment and hardship in between. His hands were starting to tire now, his forearms were burning. The big Flathead didn’t look like it was going to fall off anytime soon. In fact, it had dragged itself up his leg a way. It paused, glaring up at him.
If Logen had been the one clinging to the Shanka’s foot, he would most likely have thought, “My life depends on this leg I’m hanging from—best not take any chances.” A man would rather save himself than kill his enemy. Trouble was that the Shanka didn’t think that way, and Logen knew it. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when it opened its big mouth and sank its teeth into his calf.
Logen is hanging off a cliff. He feels a weight pulling him down. He looks to see what its. Abercrombie describes a number of natural features, and then finally gets around to mentioning the Shanka hanging onto Logen’s foot. Readers expect the most important thing to be described first. When there’s a bunch of scenery description, it suggests an image of Logen hanging there by himself, because surely another humanoid would be mentioned earlier. Then, when the narration actually does get to the Shanka, readers have to go back and edit it into their mental picture.
Worse, the narration implies that Logen knew about the Shanka before he noticed all the beautiful wilderness. In a closely narrated story like this, the POV character shouldn’t be able to mislead the reader. That kind of subterfuge makes it difficult to trust anything that’s happening, which isn’t a good fit for the epic action story that Abercrombie is telling.
I do like it when the Shanka bites Logen. A bite is a visceral wound that the reader can’t ignore, especially when the narration is this close. This is also the first indication we get that the Shanka aren’t human. It’s not a very strong impression, but we at least know their teeth are larger than normal. This moment would have been even more effective if Abercrombie had established that in advance. I’m not fond of how the bite is used to paint the Shanka as unthinking brutes, because dehumanizing the enemy is rarely a good idea, but we can’t have everything.
At this point, it’s a little annoying that I don’t know what Logen looks like. I’m imagining him as Hugh Jackman because of how close his name is to “Logan,” but something more specific would be nice. Surely we’ll find out eventually.
Perspective Confusion Can Hinder the Climax
“Aaaargh!” Logen grunted, and squealed and kicked out as hard as he could with his bare heel, kicked a bloody gash in the Shanka’s head, but it wouldn’t stop biting, and the harder he kicked, the more his hands slipped on the greasy root above. There wasn’t much root left to hold on to, now, and what there was looked like snapping off any moment. He tried to think past the pain in his hands, the pain in his arms, the Flathead’s teeth in his leg. He was going to fall. The only choice was between falling on rocks or falling on water, and that was a choice that more or less made itself.
Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than to live with the fear of it. That’s what Logen’s father would have said. So he planted his free foot firmly on the rock face, took one last deep breath, and flung himself out into empty space with all the strength he had left. He felt the biting teeth let go of him, then the grasping hands, and for a moment he was free.
Then he began to fall. Fast. The sides of the gorge flashed past—grey rock, green moss, patches of white snow, all tumbling around him.
Logen turned over slowly in the air, limbs flailing pointlessly, too scared to scream. The rushing wind whipped at his eyes, tugged at his clothes, plucked the breath out of his mouth. He saw the big Shanka hit the rock face beside him. He saw it break and bounce and flop off, dead for sure. That was a pleasing sight, but Logen’s satisfaction was short-lived.
The water came up to meet him. It hit him in the side like a charging bull, punched the air out of his lungs, knocked the sense out of his head, sucked him in and down into the cold darkness…
This is the chapter’s action-packed finale, and it’s excellent. We have a dramatic struggle, a long fall, and a sudden stop. Quite the conclusion. Unfortunately, the book’s POV issues are still causing trouble. First we get more of that distancing language, “he tried” and “he saw.” We’ve covered why this disrupts a close narration, but it’s particularly annoying in the climax. Then we have another sudden shift into second person with “you.” Even though those are supposed to be Logen’s thoughts, they still look like mistakes. This one is extra confusing because it’s referencing Logen’s father, and then the next sentence feels like his father is planting a foot firmly on the rock face.
Of course, we can deduce from context that Logen’s father didn’t spontaneously appear, but it’s enough to throw the reader during a critical moment. The climax is still good, but it could have been better with a little more attention paid to the perspective.
Another nice thing about this moment is that I finally have a sense of what Logen is feeling: first he’s afraid of falling, and then he’s satisfied that the fall has dispatched his enemy. Granted, I know both of these because of telling rather than showing, but it’s still good to have a better understanding of the protagonist.
However, now that we’re at the end of the chapter, it’s clear that “The End” is a meaningless title. This isn’t the end of anything, unless it’s a cheap ploy to make us think Logen might be dead after his fall. Spoilers: he’s not. Maybe the chapter title has some deeper meaning that will only become clear later, but that’s a lousy way to name your chapters.
Make Context Clear
The next chapter officially starts Part 1, but it picks up right after Logen’s fall, which is why the previous chapter isn’t really a prologue. I don’t know why Abercrombie or his publisher decided to label the chapters this way, but here we are. This chapter is titled “Survivors,” and it starts with a Homer quote about how the presence of a weapon can incite violence. The novel’s title is derived from this quote, so I see why the author included it, but it feels out of place. The quote is a philosophic musing on the nature of violence, which absolutely does not fit with the savage struggle for survival that the book has so far been about.
Now it’s time to address the elephant in the room, which is that it’s not clear what this story is about, or even what genre it is. “Logen” is a name that’s right at home in high or modern fantasy, or even scifi. He’s fighting someone with a spear, which could mean fantasy, but it could also mean he’s a space traveler stuck on a low-tech world. I know nothing about Logen’s background or motivations, so it’s hard to gauge what’s going on.
Assuming this is a fantasy story, I cannot for the world tell you what kind of fantasy story. It could be flintlock fantasy, with Logen having lost his guns in the wilds, or it could be akin to Conan the Barbarian: a land of scattered tribes and untamed wilderness. Logen’s fight with the Shanka has given me no insight into what larger conflicts are happening in this world, or even why he’s here. Consider the prologue for A Game of Thrones. When that was over, we knew about the Wall, and the noble houses, and that there was a supernatural evil in the frozen north. Those all served as hooks to keep us reading. So far, this book has only one hook: Logen himself.
But maybe we’ll get more in the next chapter. We start with Logen picking himself out of the water where he fell, checking his injuries and putting himself back together until…
He still had his knife in the sheath at his belt, and he was mightily glad to see it. You could never have too many knives in Logen’s experience, and this was a good one, but the outlook was still bleak. He was on his own, in woods crawling with Flatheads. He had no idea where he was, but he could follow the river. The rivers all flowed north, from the mountains to the cold sea. Follow the river southwards, against the current. Follow the river and climb up, into the High Places where the Shanka couldn’t find him. That was his only chance.
It would be cold up there, this time of year. Deadly cold. He looked down at his bare feet. It was just his luck that the Shanka had come while he had his boots off, trimming his blisters. No coat either—he’d been sitting near the fire. Like this, he wouldn’t last a day in the mountains. His hands and feet would turn black in the night, and he’d die bit by bit before he even reached the passes. If he didn’t starve first.
“Shit,” he muttered. He had to go back to the camp. He had to hope the Flatheads had moved on, hope they’d left something behind. Something he could use to survive. That was an awful lot of hoping, but he had no choice. He never had any choices.
Abercrombie wastes a perfect opportunity to give the story more context. The first chapter was non-stop action, making it difficult to insert any kind of backstory or explanation for what’s going on. Now there’s no excuse. Logen has a long moment to regroup and take stock of his situation, with no one immediately trying to kill him. This would be the perfect time for him to consider what brought him here. Is he looking for something? Was he exiled?
Instead, we get some backstory of what happened immediately before the attack and more description of the environment. This does nothing to address the question of what’s going on here. Granted, I do like that some of Logen’s problems stem from not being fully dressed when he was attacked. Too often fantasty stories assume that every character magically has time to put on their armor before an ambush. But cool details are no substitute for establishing a plot, and this book is quickly losing its chance to do so.
Oh well, perhaps this last line is an indication that we’re about to get some context. At least we can find out why he never has any choices, right?
Seriously, Make Context Clear
[Logen finds where he and his companions were camped, and scavenges the camp for some useful supplies.]
There was a tattered blanket snagged on a branch, wet and half caked in grime. Logen pulled it up, and grinned. His old, battered cook pot was underneath. Lying on its side, kicked off the fire in the fight maybe. He grabbed hold of it with both hands. It felt safe, familiar, dented and blackened from years of hard use. He’d had that pot a long time. It had followed him all through the wars, across the North and back again. They had all cooked in it together, out on the trail, all eaten out of it. Forley, Grim, the Dogman, all of them.
Logen looked over the campsite again. Three dead Shanka, but none of his people. Maybe they were still out there. Maybe if he took a risk, tried to look—
“No.” He said it quietly, under his breath. He knew better than that. There had been a lot of Flatheads. An awful lot. He had no idea how long he’d lain on the river bank. Even if a couple of the boys had got away, the Shanka would be hunting them, hunting them down in the forests. They were nothing but corpses now, for sure, scattered across the high valleys. All Logen could do was make for the mountains, and try to save his own sorry life. You have to be realistic. Have to be, however much it hurts.
“It’s just you and me now,” said Logen as he stuffed the pot into his pack and threw it over his shoulder. He started to limp off, as fast as he could. Uphill, towards the river, towards the mountains.
Just the two of them. Him and the pot.
They were the only survivors.
Nope! The only extra context we get is knowing for sure that the Dogman was Logen’s friend, something we should have known from the beginning. We don’t even find out what Logen meant about not having any choices. Instead, he rummages around his camp, takes a few useful supplies, and leaves his comrades for dead. Then the chapter ends. It’s very frustrating to have no idea what’s happening after two chapters. For all I know, Logen and his friends were out on a camping trip. There’s no chance of finding out more in the next chapter either; it’s about some inquisitor arguing over how much torture he’s allowed to do.
Imagine getting two chapters into Game of Thrones and not having any clue who the Starks were. We don’t need Logen’s entire backstory, but we need more than this. The only tidbit we get is that he and his buddies fought in wars across the North, wherever that is. From that, we can probably rule out that this is a scifi story, but that’s about it.
It’s too bad because Logen leaving his comrades for dead is a very powerful statement. It says this is not a story where the characters will take foolish risks in the hope of getting what they want. Logen making friends with the pot is good too; it’s a cute moment that signals how desperate he’s become. Together, these elements set a strong tone, and coupled with more context, they could have made a really strong end. As it is, I don’t feel a need to continue reading.
Tense Scenes Can Include Context
Now that we’re finished reviewing the text, I asked Google what a Shanka is, what a Flathead is, and if they’re the same thing. It seems they are indeed the same thing, a species that’s analogous to an orc. They seem to be this world’s generically aggressive humanoid, fighting everyone they run into because of inherent evilness.
First of all, it’s bad manners to call a fantasy species two different names before even describing what they look like. That leads to extra confusion. Second, I’m disappointed that fantasy authors are still including such one-dimensional species in their worlds.
Even so, an old-fashioned orc beat-down can still be entertaining if it’s described properly. Here’s one way Abercrombie could have addressed the problem:
ExampleLogen swore and threw himself to one side, slipped and fell on his face, rolled away thrashing through the brush, expecting the spear through his back at any moment. He scrambled up, breathing hard. The Flathead’s hulking form advanced on him, a wickedly sharp spear held in its elongated arms. The creature’s gray lips parted to reveal jutting fangs.
A Flawed Start
My biggest complaint about this book is that even after reading over 2,500 words, I have no idea what it’s about. Once again, I asked Google, and it turns out this is an epic war story spanning three empires and two fronts. I would never have predicted that from the first two chapters. The best guess I had was that it would focus on Logen’s struggle for survival. I couldn’t even begin to guess at how Logen fits into the bigger picture of this war. A beginning doesn’t need to lay out exactly what’s going to happen later, but it should give readers some idea what to expect, even if those expectations are going to be subverted. Right now I have nothing.
Another notable problem is how dude-centric the first two chapters are. Logen is male, and the Shanka reads as male, even if the narration uses “it.” The story also mentions at least three of Logen’s companions, all dudes. This is not a promising start for gender representation. In fact, when I looked it up, only one of the seven major characters is a woman. That might have slid by a few decades ago, but these days it’s a major black mark.
Despite its problems, I have seen far worse openings than this one. The Blade Itself has immediate conflict, excellent action, and an intriguing protagonist. The book’s main problem is that in its drive to keep things moving, it never stops to establish a throughline. Abercrombie presents us with conflict but nothing that feels like it will last an entire book. That’s why I call this novel “rushed.” We miss a few critical items like what a Shanka is, how Logen feels, and what the heck he’s doing out in the wilderness. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book, even if the wordcraft continues to be entertaining.
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