The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Better than Death” and “Sore Thumb”

Being the sucker that I am for all things Joe Abercrombie, I get quite a kick out of seeing how he structures his foreshadowing and layering of information to create a sense of reality to his imaginings. It’s something a lot of authors aren’t good at, resulting in things being dropped into the story that seem to come from nowhere or never spending the time to invest in a character and their situation. Not so with this book, series, or anything with Abercrombie’s name on the cover. He really understands storytelling and it’s no more evident than it is in this week’s chapters….

“Better than Death”

To the point: Yulwei reveals to Ferro that he’s taking her to Adua. She rejects the notion, but follows him anyway. They come across a band of slavers that offers to sell a young girl to Ferro. She gets mad.

Beating Around the Bush: A Gurkhish officer questions Yulwei and Ferro regarding an escaped slave armed with a bow. Hidden behind the Magi’s power, Ferro appears to be a simple boy, not even worth conscription into the army—an army which the Emperor, Uthman-ul-Dosht, has sworn will sweep away the pinks in Dogoska.

The soldier waves them along.

On the road Ferro wonders at their destination. Despite her willingness to follow Yulwei out of the desert, she’s reticent about his intentions. Their destination is across the Circle Sea to Adua, by way of Dogoska. Ferro could not be more surprised, believing as she does that the Union is full of godless pinks. She describes them as nearly subhuman compared to the Gurkhish, who as Yulwei points out, she doesn’t hold in the highest esteem.

Ferro switches tactics and argues she has unfinished business in Guskhul, killing the Emperor. Yulwei chuckles at the notion. The Emperor will have to wait. Ferro owes him.

En route to Dagoska, Yulwei stops to observe a fortress where many Gurkhish ships are docked. At least twenty, many large enough and in large enough numbers to take Dagoska from the bay. It suggests an alliance with someone from the north, Styria perhaps. Regardless it makes their mission even more urgent and Yulwei redoubles their pace. Ferro couldn’t care less. The pinks aren’t even people after all.

As they move through Gurkhal lands they came across another group of soldiers, slavers this time with people from the recently rebellious Kadir in their train. Evidence of a failed rebellion, and the Emperor’s despotic attitudes, Ferro watches as the Emperor’s men do to others as they once did to her.

Important Characters Introduced: Uthman-ul-Dosht the Emperor of Gurkhul (he’s been mentioned before, but I forgot to mention him here).

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

“These pinks, they don’t think like us, like real people! We’ve no business with their kind! I’d rather stay among the Gurkhish! Besides, I’ve scores to settle here.”

Interesting to see the stereotypical barbarian style character refer to the pale-skinned-people as less than human. Isn’t that something normally reserved for the dusky skinned folks in fantasy novels? It’s a small thing, but not an insignificant one in a series challenging some of the expectations we have about what epic fantasy is supposed to look like.

Killing him could have filled that empty space, if only for a while. That was how it worked.

Just another horrifying look into what makes Ferro tick. It’s a line that sounds sociopathic, but actually humanizes her for me. She feels a need to fill up a void inside her. Isn’t that a hint that there’s something in there that can be put back together?

Sending the Message: A chapter mostly continuing to emphasize the hollowed out nature of Ferro’s emotional state, “Better than Death” is also chock full of plot nuggets and world building hints. As I hinted at in the beginning of this post, Abercrombie uses small almost throw away scenes or, in some cases, small paragraphs, to give us a hint at the things to come or flesh out his world in a way that makes sense within the narrative. Here we have two of those moments.

One, Dagoska is going to be ground zero for the conflict between the Gurkhish and the Union. The ships are being built for a purpose and this little scene, which Yulwei lends import, gets us thinking about what’s to come. You may recall in “An Offer and a Gift” the Dagoska representatives lobby the Crown for more resources to shore up the walls. Abercrombie is layering us with tidbits about the situation south of Adua so that when the powder keg explodes it’s really something we’re not only expecting, but believe in wholeheartedly.

Second, we learn more about the Gurkhish Emperor, Uthman. We know that he condones slavery, as indicated by Ferro’s troubles, but it’s confirmed in “Better than Death” that he’s also hell bent on scouring the Union from Dagoska. War is inevitable. We’re also shown what that slavery really means here. With Ferro’s impressions it’s been somewhat abstract. In this chapter, Ferro is offered a girl from the slave train for coin. The woman is debased and shamed and Ferro can do nothing to stop it. Even killing the tormenter lacks purpose because the kind of behavior on display is so pervasive throughout the Empire. It’s frightening and designed to make us like the Union despite the fact that their society is nearly as unequal and problematic. Oops, did I just stumble into some more controversial political topics?

 

“Sore Thumb”

A Little Ditty: Logen leaves the silk cell the Closed Council has put them in to walk through Adua. He’s awed by its size and foreign nature. He returns to his room to sleep, but wakes when a ghostly apparition of his long dead wife appears. Reality is warped and the room explodes, leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling. Bayaz believes it is an Eater’s work.

Stairway to Heaven: Logen looks out over Adua from his luxurious rooms. He’s frightened by it. “Never properly dark or quiet. Too hot, too close, and too stinking,” he sees Adua as terrifying because he can’t fight it. He avows to go into the city to face it, because there’s nothing else to do but face a fear.

Bayaz joins him at his perch, reminiscing over the way Adua used to be when it was “barely more than a huddle of shacks, squeezed in round the House of the Maker likes flies round a fresh turd. Before there was an Agriont. Before there was a Union, even.” He’s bitter at the way he’s been received after all he’s done to make the Union what it is today. Logen takes his cue and leaves.

Wandering through the city Logen sees many things—the construction of the pavilions for the Contest, a running Jezal dan Luthar, a statue of Bayaz, and a drilling band of professional soldiers. The latter offer a more accurate portrayal of the Union soldier than Logen has seen. The most impressive, and perplexing, sight is the House of the Maker, a “man made mountain of dry, stark, dead stones.” Sitting on a bench at its base Logen encounters a woman, heartier than the pale creatures he’s seen in the streets. She treats him not as a monstrosity, but like someone equally as out of place as she is.

Later in the night, Logen wakes with an urgent need to relieve himself. Stumbling around in the dark, uncomfortable with southern plumbing, he encounters an apparition in the shape of his long dead wife, Thelfi. Suddenly the room explodes in searing light, followed by a crash, and a sound like a splintering tree. Opening his eyes, Logen finds the chamber changed, a gaping hole in the ceiling and the woman gone.

Bayaz enters, unsteady, but unperturbed. He declares it safe, blaming “An Eater, perhaps. Sent by Khalul.” Logen asks what an Eater is. The question goes unanswered as Bayaz falls into an exhausted sleep until Malacus enters. “It’s forbidden,” he whispers, “to eat the flesh of men…”

Important Characters Introduced: Khalul.

Minor Characters Introduced: Thelfi.

Quotes to Remember:

‘I gave them this,’ hissed Bayaz. Logen felt the unpleasant creeping sensation that always seemed to accompany the old wizard’s displeasure. ‘I gave them freedom, and this is the thanks I get? The scorn of clerks? Of swollen-headed old errand-boys?’

Temper. Temper. Bayaz gives us something of a Major West moment here. He’s seemed always in control thus far. He’s slipping. Merely a moment of frustration or something of his true nature shining through a false veneer of cordiality?

No plants clung to that looming mass, not even a clump of moss in the cracks between the great blocks. The House of the Maker, Bayaz had called it. It looked like no house that Logen had ever seen. There were no roofs above, no doors or windows in those naked walls. A cluster of mighty, sharp-edged tiers of rock. What need could there ever be to build a thing so big? Who this Maker anyway? Was this all he made? A great big, useless house?

Not the most stunning quote. Really just workman like description, but important. Logen is asking the same questions we’re asking. What the hell is all this mythology than Abercrombie is hinting at? We need more information! WE DEMAND IT. Thankfully we’ve got a crooked-nose-scarred-spirit-seeing-whacko on our side.

Compositional Analysis: Following the model from the previous chapter, there’s a similar kind of delicious setup going on in “Sore Thumb.”

We’re starting to get very real confirmation that Bayaz isn’t just an insane person who thinks he’s the original Bayaz, but the genuine article. This makes him quite ancient and perhaps infinitely more powerful than he’s appeared to this point. Although he has flexed his magical muscle, he hasn’t done anything that’s on par with the wizards of epic fantasy (see the Grey, Gandalf). As the chapter concludes we get some hint that perhaps he drove off the attack. Physical exhaustion was a problem after his fire summoning on the road to Adua and here he just passes out.

Before doing so he mentions someone named Khalul and Eaters. We’ve heard the term Eater before and a savvy reader probably connected the dots a while ago, but Malacus does so explicitly in the last line of the chapter. It is forbidden to eat the flesh of men is one of Juvens’ laws of magic and it seems the Eaters break it. Creepy. And thoroughly intriguing. Who is Khalul though? And who does he work for? We know Eaters are after Ferro. Logic would dictate Khalul is in cahoots with Uthman.

We’ve also got the Contest being setup and Jezal hustling through the square. I feel like it might have been easier to just put up a neon sign for the reader that read, “Contest! Coming soon!” I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m totally ready for some fencing. I’ve been reading The Princess Bride to my daughter recently and the Inigo/Man-in-Black scene was like an appetizer. Bring on the Gorst!

Two other quick notes. Ok, not so quick. First, the girl Logen meets on the bench is quite clearly Ardee and it’s fascinating how she interacts with Logen. She’s depressed and self destructive. Yet, it’s easy to empathize with her. In fact, she’s by far the most empathetic (only?) character in the book. She seems a victim of a system that beats down the lower classes, but does the same to women, giving Ardee West a bad case of double jeopardy. Somehow I’m thinking her relationships with the men in her life are going to get messy. And there’s no women in the book for her to talk to… so… yeah.

Second, Logen’s observations of the unit of Union soldiers is a fun bit of foreshadowing. It’s a little too overt in the grand scheme of things, but Abercrombie is laying the ground work for how the Union will continue to screw things up. Even a well trained unit designed for battle on Union terms is going to fail in the North, where nothing goes as planned as the land is as much your enemy as the men trying to kill you.

The more I think about it the more I wonder if this whole series shouldn’t be retitled, “The West Family: Drawing the Short Straw”.

 

Next Week: Glokta puts Bayaz, Quai, and Logen to the question… without his tools.


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

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