And so we conclude Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. When I began this project in August, I had no idea it would take this long to get through the first book. Nor did I have any concept of how much I would enjoy the journey.
I wrote a review of Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance that described how impressed I was at his ability to maintain the reader’s interest in four people over such a massive span of words and scenes. The same is true here, but with a different twist. Sanderson has lots of events, constant action. Every chapter has some kind of reveal or nugget that urges the reader forward. He’s a master at it. Abercrombie, in The Blade Itself, is something of the opposite.
It stuns me how little happens. Instead, the narrative subsists on the back of meta commentary and not so much character development as character establishment. The first installment of The First Law is an unadulterated prologue to the trilogy, in no way attempting to be a complete novel that stands on its own. It’s a huge achievement.
Summary: Logen tries to make friends with Jezal and finds it impossible. He makes a go at it with Quai and finds the apprentice intractable in his gloom. Bayaz storms in and demands to know where Ferro has run off to. Logen is tasked with tracking her down.
He finds her, surrounded by three men threatening her to come with them. Evaluating the situation, Logen can tell it will come to blows and leaps to his new “teammate’s” defense. Once the three are subdued Logen asks what Ferro has done, but she has no explanation. Before they can catch their breath more men appear, lead by a woman with short red hair. The pair of bedraggled warriors flees across the Agriont’s rooftops.
Eventually, they find themselves trapped and surrounded. Logen takes a beating and finds himself on the verge of death when something comes over him and the Bloody-Nine takes hold. The change turns the tide of the battle and Logen lays waste to the attackers, including another Northman who mocks him for taking the Bloody-Nine’s name in vain.
When the fury leaves him Logen is left shattered, bleeding and weak. Ferro helps him back to Bayaz. The Practicals track them there and insist on arresting Ferro before Bayaz turns one of them into pink mist. The Magi commands the group to help Logen to his feet. They’re leaving. Now.
Important Characters Introduced: None. It’s the second to last chapter!
Minor Characters Introduced: Dead practicals.
Quotes to Remember:
Killing weapons, meant to kill. Well, so much the better, Logen told himself. If you say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, and one thing only, say he’s a killer.
I’m going to have some thoughts about this below.
Logen might have pitied him, but Logen was far away and the Bloody-Nine had no more pity in him than the winter. Less even.
Love how this is described. Logen and the Bloody-Nine are two separate and distinct entities. Sort of. More below.
Analysis: Ok. So, obviously, this chapter cannot be discussed, and frankly there isn’t much else in it to discuss, without addressing the question of is he or isn’t he. In other words, are Logen and the Bloody-Nine the same person, two distinct people in one body, a split personality, or something else all together? We can speculate, but at this point in the trilogy the evidence to support any of those theories just isn’t there. But, in the interests of preparing for future speculation, what does “The Bloody-Nine” show us?
First, it shows that Logen is aware that another presence lives inside him, regardless of how or why it manifests. Furthermore, we know that Logen sees himself as a weapon, a means of destruction, well before he is overtaken by the berserking alter ego (per quote above). We also know that Logen, as himself, feels pain and weakness. He is strong, but not inhumanly. Even the more minor wounds he takes defending Ferro have real consequences on his capacity to fight.
The kicker though is that once Logen becomes the Bloody-Nine all that becomes irrelevant. He is fierce, displaying super human strength and pain tolerance. His voice even seems to change as he becomes some force of nature imbued with supernatural capabilities. Or, he’s just really pissed off and has an adrenaline valve busted. Which is it?
Oddly Logen does retain some measure of self-awareness. He can communicate, and express himself. When Stone-Splitter challenges the Bloody-Nine’s claim to the name, Logen responds with laughter and not rage… well… not at first! When the Bloody-Nine leaves Logen it’s like all the bones have been taken from his body and he melts into bruised and battered exhaustion. Is this merely the result of the cumulative damage Logen’s body has taken or is it similar to the exhaustion that Bayaz experiences after his magical activities?
“The Tools We Have”
Summary: Glokta approaches the West home, calling on Collem West’s sister at the Major’s request. He recognizes quickly her acerbic personality and finds himself drawn to it. In Ardee, Glokta sees something of himself and the two come to a mutual understanding of sorts regarding his concern for her welfare.
His next stop is the Arch Lector’s office where he awaits his commander’s attention with Vitari, the practical most recently trounced by Logen Ninefingers. Ushered in by Sult’s secretary, Glokta finds the Arch Lector chewing Superior Goyle out for botching the arrest of Ferro. Dismissed with prejuduice, Goyle glares as Glokta with unabashed hatred.
With Goyle gone, Sult reveals that Superior Davoust in Dagoska has disappeared. In Dagoska, the situation is deteriorating. The Gurkish are flocking to the peninsula and already outnumber the Union garrison ten to one. With the army committed in the North only three regiments remain in Adua, and they are needed to contain the peasant uprising throughout the kingdom. Sult charges Glokta, the new Superior of Dagoska, with discovering what’s wrong in the South and defending Union soil against possible Gurkish incursion.
Despite his reticence, Glokta accepts. To protect him, Sult attaches six more practicals to his staff, including Vitari, the beaten practical currently lurking outside the doors. As the pair leave, Glokta relishes walking with someone in as much pain as he is, wondering all the while, “Why do I do this? Why?”
Important Characters Introduced: C’mon, really?
Minor Characters Introduced: Superior Davoust.
Quotes to Remember:
“I know how you feel. I’m such a fool I knocked half my teeth out and hacked my leg to useless pulp. Look at me now, a cripple. It’s amazing where a little foolishness can take you, if it goes unchecked. We clumsy types should stick together, don’t you think?”
Right off the bat Ardee and Glokta seem to find common ground. She is completely unbowed by his deformities and he’s completely at ease with her crudeness. Not to mention both have spent a lifetime trying to live in agony, either physical or emotional. Where is this relationship going?
Has one man ever had such a range of deaths to choose from? The corner of his mouth twitched up. I can hardly wait to get started.
The chapter ends when Glokta asks, why do I do this? It’s clear why though, isn’t it? He is extremely driven by challenges, by proving himself. Whether it’s the Contest in his youth, or against the Gurkish on that bridge, or by taking on an entire nation as a politician, Glokta wants to win.
Analysis: So ends the first book of the First Law Trilogy. And it ends with the beginning of the journey, Glokta on his way to Dagoska to relieve a missing Superior and Bayaz’s Team of Misfits® heading to the Old Empire for the Seed. The inverse nature of that from a narrative perspective is absolutely inline with what we’ve experienced so far throughout this read of The Blade Itself.
Abercrombie seals it with the final line, “Why do I do this? Why?” It’s a question not often asked in fantasy. Or rather, it’s a question often with an easy answer. I do this to save the world! I do this because I must! I do this because mine lady love doth perish if I shan’t! But, here Glokta has really none of that. He seems to bear no loyalty to the crown beyond the fact that it provides him interesting challenges. His pain is such that death or inactivity, at least, would be a relief. His why is far more challenging a question.
I would posit Glokta’s why is because saving the world, or in this case the very petty and corrupt Union, is something to keep his mind off how awful his future looks. There is no goodness in that decision. It’s merely a human decision. A very authentic human decision I would argue. The same is true of Logen throughout the book, and Ferro too. They agree to Bayaz’s plan not out of a sense of duty, but because they’re making the best decisions for themselves that are left to make. In that, despite all the evidence of darkness and grimness and grit and grime, The Blade Itself is a novel of humanity. It’s a novel of people dragging themselves the last inch when it would be so much easier to roll over and give up.
There’s something powerful in that, don’t you think?
Next Week: Er… that’s it! Do you think Tor.com will let me do this for Before They Are Hanged? Find out next week!
[Ed note: Friday morning, April 25th to be exact!]