The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “First of the Magi” and “The Good Man”

We’re twenty percent through The Blade Itself and I don’t feel like we’ve really gotten anywhere with regards to the plot. Abercrombie has spent most of his time building Logen, Glokta, and Jezal in the readers mind, with a dash of Ardee and Major West for good measure. He’s been very successful in that endeavor, but I’m starting to hanker for some more meat.

This week’s chapters seem like a perfect kick-off to that request. We meet Bayaz, make contact with the King of the North, and get a parade of petitioners in Adua’s court. The result is indications of a brewing conflict between the North and the Union, as well as internal conflict between the nobility and the middle-class. Add to all of that the most powerful wizard in the world whose loyalties remain cloudy…

“First of the Magi”

Oddjob: Logen Ninefingers drags the very ill Malacus Quai to the Great Library where they meet Bayaz. As Logen and Bayaz get to know one another, Bayaz is paid a visit by Bethod’s youngest son, Calder, who is scared off when Bayaz flexes his magical might.

Jaws: Malacus Quai, apprentice to the mysterious Bayaz, is dying. Faced with the choice of leaving Quai to die or carrying him on his back for forty milers, Logen leaves behind his pack—cookpot included—and sets out for the Great Library, Quai in tow.

As the pair nears the trail markings that will lead them to the Library, Quai becomes lucid for a moment. He admonishes the northman, claiming that to speak with spirits is forbidden, and that Logen must not do it. Shortly there after they arrive, but not before Logen questions the direction of his life, “I can’t walk for ever, Malacus, I can’t fight for ever. How much of this horrible shit should a man have to take? I need to sit down a minute. In a proper fucking chair! Is that too much to ask? Is it?”

Once inside the library, Logen approaches a man dressed all in white, with a long beard, a hook nose, and white hair spilling from under a white skull-cap. Wells, the head servant of the Library, corrects Logen’s assumption that he is First of the Magi, at which point the butcher steps forward.

Bayaz is outwardly unconcerned for Quai’s health and seems intensely focused on Logen. Their discussions are short lived, however, when a messenger from the gate arrives to announce the arrival of Calder, youngest son to the Bethold, King of the North.

Logen and Calder seem to know each other well, with Calder being the more shocked by the other’s presence. Calder demands that Bayaz attend his father and recognize his dominion over the North. Bayaz laughs at the petty kingling and with a wave of his hand chokes off his air. Releasing him before he expires, Bayaz propels Calder out of the castle, humbled but no less angry.

With assurances that business can wait, Bayaz invites Logen to take his leisure within the Library.

Important Characters Introduced: Calder, Scale

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

At least it had stopped raining. You have to learn to love the small things in life, like dry boots. You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.

Remember last week when I talked about how Jezal was the man Glokta used to be? I wonder if this quote is a hint that Logen is the man Glokta is becoming—one with nothing to lose and a crushingly practical sensibility. Abercrombie uses the same line in both their points of view, “You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.” Interesting.

Hard words are for fools and cowards. Calder might have been both, but Logen was neither. If you mean to kill, you’re better getting right to it than talking about it. Talk only makes the other man ready, and that’s the last thing you want.

Included for being an awesome quote. IN YOUR FACE CALDER.

‘The magic leaks out of the world. That is the set order of things. Over the years my knowledge has grown, and yet my power has diminished.’

Earlier in the chapter, Malacus Quai hints at a “First Law” and then warns Logen to not do forbidden things, like communing with spirits. Now Bayaz indicates that magic is leaking out of the world, which would support Logen’s deduction during his spirit encounter that this would be the last time the spirits would appear. What does it mean? We’re not sure… yet.

Goldfinger’s Villainous Plot Analysis: More and more I’m starting to recognize the rythmic nature of Abercrombie’s writing. He focuses on certain turns of phrases or items and uses them throughout a chapter. In “First of the Magi” it’s Logen’s pot. First we see him leave it, “They’d been together a long time, but there was nothing left to cook.”

Then, we see him emote at its loss, “The pot was sitting forlorn by the lake, already filling up with rainwater. They’d been through a lot together, him and that pot. ‘Fare you well, old friend.’ The pot did not reply.”

Finally, we see him remember the pot, “Quai had been in an unpleasant place between sleep and waking since they left the pot behind two days before. The pot could have made more meaningful sounds in that time.”

These kind of beats within the chapter lend a great deal of connectivity to the prose. Then, when he uses lines like the “small things” line above in two character’s chapters it creates a dynamic symmetry for the reader to connect the dots. But, enough about that…

We finally hear from Bayaz! He’s been mentioned a dozen times by different characters throughout the book thus far, but he’s been something of a blank slate. No one really knows anything about him and many consider him a relic of the past.

What we know of Bayaz and the Magi:

  • Bayaz isn’t some wizened old man.
  • He does have magic, which he uses to choke Calder.
  • He’s got something of a bad attitude.
  • There was once a man named Bayaz who advised the first king of the Union.
  • His magic is weaker now than it once was.
  • He was apprenticed to Juvens, who once had twelve apprentices. Bayaz considered himself beholden to Juvens, but no longer with Juvens dead.
  • Zacharus, Quai’s former Master, is one of the twelve in addition to Bayaz.

Also of note in this chapter, we continue to see references to the Master Maker. In “First of the Magi” Bayaz calls a chain of flowers made by a young girl work that “The Master Maker himself could not have done better.” In Jezal and Glokta’s chapters we’ve seen reference to the House of the Maker, which no one has entered since being sealed long ago.

Color me intrigued.

 

“The Good Man”

Not Stairway to Heaven: Major West stands guard over the Lord Chamberlain Hoff’s audience. Hoff makes an ass of himself in front of the Mercers, a delegation from the North, a peasant, and, finally, Yoru Sulfur, a Magi sent to herald the return of Bayaz to the Closed Council.

Stairway to Heaven: Sweating in the Adua heat, Major Collem West stands guard during a public audience. Overseen by the Lord Chamberlain, Fortis dan Hoff, West struggles to maintain his rigor.

The first penitent is a farmer named Goodman Heath who seeks redress from the crown. His family has been put off their land by their landlord who claims they’ve not paid rent. Hoff treats him with disdain and shuffles him off to a lesser bureaucrat. The Chamberlain is offended by the peasant’s willingness to talk back.

Next in line is Coster dan Kault, Magister of the Guild of Mercers, who dresses “so ostentatious that the Emperor of Gurkhul himself might have been embarrassed.” Kault accuses his Majesty’s Inquisition of executing a plot to undermine the Guild and their business interests in the Free Cities of Styria. Hoff doesn’t show him any more respect than he does the farmer. Vault leaves sputtering words that sound much like threats.

A delegation from the King of the Northmen, Bethod, is ushered in. Four make up the delegation: two dangerous looking men, an older man with a great white beard, and a massive giant of a man swathed in a rough brown cloak. Hoff mistakes the bearded man, White-Eye Hansul, as Bethod’s emissary, but White-Eye corrects him and introduces Fenris the Feared, a more massive man Major West has never seen. Hoff treats them with a modicum of respect and offers them an audience with the King in Open Council.

The last man to come before the Chamberlain is Yoru Sulfur, from the Great Order of the Magi. Hoff is excited to see him, expecting to be entertained. Sulfur is something a disappointment to Hoff, but admits to having studied under the great Bayaz himself. He then states his purpose, “On the death of King Harod the Great, Bayaz, the First of the Magi, left the Union. But he swore an oath to return.” Hoff, clearly shaken by Sulfur’s announcement decides to grant the Magus an audience with the Closed Council.

Ordered by Hoff to keep the Magus’ appearance quiet, West trudges out, more concerned by fears about war in the North and his troublesome sister who he was fool enough to leave alone with Jezal dan Luthar. Before leaving the Agriont, West offers financial aid to Goodman Heath.

Important Characters Introduced: Fenris

Minor Characters Introduced: Yoru Sulfur, Lord Chamberlain Hoff, White-Eye Hansul, Magister Kault

Quotes to Remember:

If you could have stabbed someone in the face with the phrase ‘good day’, the head of the Guild of Mercers would have lain dead on the floor.

Snap. Just a great visual, isn’t it? A lot of authors rely on more florid prose to communicate lush imagery. Abercrombie finds a way to do it colloquially.

His staff was not shod with gold, had no lump of shining crystal on the end. His eye did not flare with a mysterious fire.

Ok, I think we get it. Magi aren’t really that cool looking in the Circle of the World. This is one of those times where Abercrombie is probably being a little too overt in his commentary.

Musical Theory of Stairway to Heaven: Well, in a chapter titled “The Good Man,” Abercrombie gives us a rather lengthy view of quite the opposite in Lord Chamberlain Hoff. He shows blatant disregard for anyone who doesn’t threaten his position, and then bends for a delegation from the North that he sees as a reasonable bunch of savages. He mocks the Magus until given the kind of proof that brooks no argument, and then treats the soldiers around him like servants.

Juxtaposed is Major West, who witnesses all of this with a sense of unease and gifts the most aggrieved petitioner with money, a limited resource for the common soldier. This is the first point of view chapter for West and it shows him to be much closer to the ideal fantasy hero readers have come to expect. He empathizes with the common man and seems genuinely concerned about the well being of the Union despite clear evidence that the government is failing its people.

More than any chapter to date, “The Good Man” begins to initiate several plot points. The Mercers have reacted to Arch Lector Sult and Inquisitor Glokta’s assaults. The Northmen are about to make their intentions known. Meanwhile, we learn that the government is completely dysfunctional and could become moreso if some Magus decides to reclaim his former place in the Union.

The use of the “audience with the crown” is something that’s been around a long time in fantasy, but I find it’s usually used in one of two ways. Either the King is hearing from a significant petitioner that furthers the plot (see Pippin and Denethor) or the King is shown a bunch of petitioners to demonstrate what a terrible King he is (see Baratheon, Joffrey). Abercrombie does something a little more clever in that he does it all simultaneously without being too transparent. He gives us the peasant to show the government is broken, the Mercers to show the conflict between the nobles and the merchant class, the Northmen to show future conflict central to the plot, and Yoru Sulfur to continue fleshing out the world’s back story and setting Bayaz up as a walking, talking plot MacGuffin.

Who knew the minutia of ruling could be so interesting?

As for that backstory, it seems to be increasingly likely that the Bayaz in the Great Library is the same man with a statue in Adua. We now know two students who claim to have studied under him, Yoru and Quai, and in “The Good Man” Yoru clearly draws a parrallel between the statue and the man who taught him.

There’s also a bit of an Arthurian prophecy here, insofar as Bayaz said he would return and one would herald him. Abercrombie cuts to the quick though when Yoru announces with a smile, “Well, here I am.” I suspect that when the Closed Council meets more will become clear. I can’t wait.

 

Next Week: Glokta keeps scheming with Sult, Jezal finds himself more interested in Ardee than a rich courtier, and the Open Council of the Union hears from its subjects! There will be minutia!


Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review, where his posts are less on-color. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

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