Tolkien Gestures Book 18: The Blade Itself

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, we start another multi-part, dark fantasy series which are all the rage, it seems.

One of the things that has often struck me when reading comics is the different between “adult” content and “mature” content. “For Mature Readers” has been become a bit of a “thing” since the early 90s and the so-called “Dark Age” but there has often been a disparity between something calling itself “mature” whereas really it’s just characters that swear a lot and kill people whilst talking about sex, and therefore just being something I wouldn’t let my 8-year-old read rather than something properly “grown up”. Its not to say some of that blood, sex and swearing hasn’t been great and all, but i’m not sure it needs the label “mature”.

I’m starting to feel something similar about the apparent vogue for “Dark” fantasy. I’ve read a few on the trot now, and even mostly enjoyed them, but they seem solidly intent on interpreting “Dark” as a combination of insanely complex backstories and largely unlikeable characters all being unrelentingly unpleasant to each other. Again, this is fine and all, but I’m not sure it’s as satisfying as it could be.

Now, The Blade Itself, that I found satisfying, despite ticking most of the above boxes.

In some respects its hard to put simple difference between it and say, Gardens of the Moon or A Game of Thrones. It’s unashamedly the first part of a bigger story. Its a crappy world which is largely full of bad things and people. Most of the characters are, frankly, bastards. But they’re actually really complex, interesting, well-drawn bastards, it makes the whole book feel grown up as opposed to simply “gritty” or “complex”. It’s all deliciously messy and theres a sense that a lot of the book’s drama is rooted in character, not situation, which means it feels more like a conventional novel than a genre piece more interesting in showing off its exciting created world.

Actually the world is, if anything, a little sketchy, and I kinda like that. Theres no pages of maps, for instance, and I didn’t miss them at all. It’s reflective of the tight focus on the characters, which in many ways are a narrow enough selection that the author doesn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining too many disparate backgrounds. Most of the action takes place in the central city of The Union, which in fairness is a fairly standard fantasy city in many ways but has a nice proper renaissance feel to it rather than owing a little too much to the genre’s more medievilist roots.

Back to the characters then, and what it really reminds me of is James Ellroy, with his triumvirate structure of many of his novels, characters orbiting around each other before coming together and wandering off again, as well as the steadily corrupting noir atmostphere. I’d be interested to know if it’s a co-incidence or actual inspiration.

So, a conclusion? Well I guess, finally and near the end, a book that hits all the right notes for me. A bit like Tigana it is focused more on complex characters than complex worlds, and for once it’s “on to the next book” nature hasn’t annoyed me but made me order the rest…which I guess is always the point!

Next up: Temeraire, by Naomi Novik. Warning: may contain overlap with the Dissecting Worlds Podcast!

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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