The Blade Itself - Joe Abercrombie
This is one of the impressive batch of debut novels that came out last year; I would have read it sooner, but my first copy turned out to have a binding error and half the pages were missing (dammit!). This now rectified, it turns out to be an interesting mix of epic and urban fantasy, sidling cautiously round the edges of clichés only to slap "kick me" signs on their backs and run away. It's clearly a first novel - the writing is slightly clumsy in places and the worldbuilding is standard and a bit sloppy - but the characters are fantastic, and merit a read regardless of where the plot ends up.
In the North, one barbarian chieftain has declared himself king and subdued all the other tribes; only his ex-champion-turned-enemy Logan Ninefingers remains free. In the South, a Prophet has risen from among the desert slavers, and the new Empire is preparing to make war. And in between is Midderland and the city of Adua, nominally capital of the world but now riddled with corruption and indolence; fancy nobles swan about even as the government is undermined from within and their strongholds abroad begin to fall. Into this mix come some ancient wizards out of legend, bringing news that their old adversary is on the rise, and that this is the worst possible time for everyone to be squabbling...
The story is unveiled through the viewpoints of several of the players, whose characters take many of their aspects from cardboard-cut-out fantasy while just avoiding being cardboard-cut-outs themselves. Logan's blood-soaked reputation is rendered surprising by the man's intelligent and pleasant nature; arrogant young noble Jezal is a prize arsehole blind to his own faults, and generally lacking in hero-qualities; even the embarrassingly feisty heroine has a genuine drink problem and a darker history than you'd expect. Best of all is the crippled torturer Glokta - once the dashing hero of the last war, then broken in the enemy's dungeon, you can practically see the bitterness dripping off the page as he hobbles around trying to unravel the corruption in the city's heart. We don't even know yet if he's a hero or a villain, but I can't wait to find out.
The one drawback the characters have is their occasional tendency to let the plot lead them around by the nose; while their thoughts were consistent, there were more than a few out-of-character actions that serviced the story but didn't do the character-integrity any good. Still, that's a rookie error that I'm sure will be ironed out in future instalments. One other problem I noticed was the inadequacy of the geographic description - it wasn't until nearly the end of the book that I realised that Midderland was on an island. I can appreciate the decision not to include a map, but in this case the description didn't really make up for the lack.
The sequel, Before They Are Hanged has just come out in the UK, with a cover just as pretty as this one. While getting books of two different sizes will muck up the pleasing symmetry of my library, I'm not sure I can wait for the mass-market paperback to come out - in fact, I'm not sure I can even wait until my next payday (though I have less of a choice in that matter). This may not be quite as polished as some of the other debuts from last year, but it's still a great read, and I'm keen to see where the story is going. If it's as full of cliché-busting goodness as this one, I'll be glad of my impatience.