Aug 14 2013 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “The Survivors” and “Questions”

The First Law Joe Abercrombie The Blade Itself Some of last week’s commenters pointed out flaws in my argument about Joe Abercrombie’s status as the Earl of Grimdarkitude. They made some good points. The beauty of this relationship though is I get to say they’re wrong. Isn’t that tremendous?

Ok, they’re not wrong, but they misunderstood me.

I don’t really like the term grimdark. It’s awfully misleading by intimating that grimdark is the point of the story. If done right, grimdark is never the point. Joe Abercrombie writes it, but the themes he manipulates have nothing to do with the grit he embeds in the narrative. In the case of the First Law Trilogy, he is challenging the very underpinning of the epic high second-world fantasy (epic high, did I just write that?).

I hope that clarifies my use of grimdark. The word is an adjective, not a monolithic classification. Cool?

On to this week’s chapters…

The Survivors”

Blissfully brief: Logen wakes up, surprised to be alive, and heads back to his camp to get two very important items: his boots and an old cook pot.

Dramatic Reenactment Du Jour: Our intrepid hero (or is he?) Logen Ninefingers awakes on the river bank, coughing heartily to divest himself of the fluid in his lungs. Quickly realizing that without shoes, a coat, or any other sundry items, he will not last long in the harsh northern hinterlands. Despite his fear that the Shanka may be lying in wait for him at his camp he has little choice but to return to it.

Logen arrives at the camp and finds it empty. He laments the loss of his friends—Threetrees, Dow, Dogman, Forley, and Grim—who now must surely be dead. Although he sees no sign of their corpses he decides to strike out alone. Just him and his pot.

Important Characters Introduced: Threetrees, Dow, Dogman, Forley, and Grim

Quotes to remember:

It hurt bad, but his foot still moved well enough, and that was the main thing. He’d need his foot, if we was going to get out of this.


No coat either—he’d been sitting near the fire. Like this, he wouldn’t last a day in the mountains. His hands and feet would turn black in the night, and he’d die bit by bit before he even reached the passes.

It’s not often in fantasy that an author treats his reader to such interesting passages at these. Only Joe Abercrombie would point out that an unhealthy foot is harder to deal with that a gash in the side. And I don’t know about you, but I find frostbite RIVETING. Not really. Somehow Abercrombie makes it work, what do you know?

You have to be realistic.

YES!!!!! You do, don’t you?!?!

New readers are probably confused why I’m a little excited. To be blunt, this is probably the most iconic quote in the entire series. It echoes through every bit of Logen’s character and, to some degree, the First Law Trilogy in its entire.

Incoherent rambling masquerading as analysis: I guess it wasn’t THE END despite the prologue’s title. If Abercrombie could be sued for false advertising his readers would own him heart and soul. In Survivors we get a glimpse of who Logen really is when he isn’t running for his life or falling off cliffs. It’s not a terribly interesting picture at first blush.

Practical, isn’t he? So very practical.

Where most fantasy characters would be searching for a weapon, Logen is more concerned with girding his feet and warming his torso. He’s less mournful for the loss of his crew (what cool names they have!) than the condition of his old coat. In fact, his greatest expression of pleasure is at the discovery of an old pot, not that none of his mates are obviously laying dead on the cold ground. You do have to be realistic, after all.

There isn’t much else lurking in-between the lines here. The opening chapter of The Blade Itself is almost simple in its dedication to building the image of Logen in our minds. Abercrombie makes us think of Logen as simple, or barbaric, or both. Will that hold true? Abercrombie has been so honest with us so far, how could it not?



Readers Digest: Inquisitor Glotka, a man crippled beyond belief, begins torturing a confession out of a representative of the Guild of Mercers. He’s interrupted by his boss and scolded for being overzealous in his pursuit of the merchant class. He escapes with a warning before his super big boss shows up and demands he make the Mercer implicate the Master of the Mints.

Man, this is getting complicated. I thought this was a Joe Abercrombie book?

What a tangled web we weave: Inquisitor Glotka walks down a hall, the agony of each step a reminder of his shattered body. He comes to a set of stairs that leave him baffled. Who invented such sordid things as stairs? Through great agony he makes it to the bottom where he enters into white-walled, blood stained chamber.

Inside sits Salem Rews, a fat, naked member of the Guild of Mercers, who’s been evading the King’s taxes. Next to him lurks Practical Frost, Glotka’s muscle and an all-around charming guy. Before Glotka puts Rews to the question, he asks nicely. Why has he been embezzling? Who are his co-conspirators?

The interrogation is interrupted when another Practical, this one named Severard, calls Glotka away to meet with Superior Kalyne. A bit priggish, Superior Kalyne accosts Glotka for his overzealous pursuit of the Guild of Mercers whom, up until now, have been able to operate with impunity relative to the crown. Glotka notices the Superior’s fine furnishings in his office, wondering if the Mercers’ writ of freedom was bought and paid for. The Superior seems on the verge of throwing Glotka to the wolves when Practical Severard strolls in, a chest of confiscated Mercer gold in his arms, and provides the Inquisition’s leadership with incentive to leave well enough alone.

Before Glotka can get back to his interrogation he’s waylaid by the Arch-Lector, or more descriptively, the head of the Inquisition and one of the most powerful men in the Union. As the conversation develops, the Arch-Lector reveals elements of Glotka’s past. A nobleman, champion fencer, and Union war hero, the crippled Inquisitor was once a man on the rise. Captured by the Empire, tortured, and broken, then rescued against all odds, his star fell, with the only the Inquisition to take him in. At the end of their heart to heart the Arch-Lector commands Glotka to add a name to Salem Rews’ confession—Sepp dan Teufel, Master of the Royal Mints.

First Law Comic

Glotka finally returns to his interrogation room where he finds the Mercer’s tongue loosened. Rews pens his confession and fingers Teufel. But, a torturer’s work is never done. Glotka orders his Practicals to stay ready, for Sepp dan Teufel must be found… TONIGHT!

Important Characters Introduced: Glotka, Practicals Frost and Severard, Arch-Lector Sult

Minor Characters Introduced: Superior Kalyne, Sapp dan Teufel, Salem Rews, Sult’s Practicals(?)

Places of Note: Angland, “the Empire,” Adua, the Union

Quotes to Remember:

If Glotka had been given the opportunity to torture any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of steps.


If Glotka had been given the opportunity to shake the hand of any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of the chairs.

These two quotes, two pages apart, are such a delightful demonstration of Abercrombie’s writing. He’s isn’t just funny, but also clever. By creating these devices within the text he says to his reader, pay attention not just to what’s happening, but how I’m saying it. This is not often the case in much of the fantasy that Abercrombie is satirising.

“Is this where I beg for mercy? Is this where I crawl on the ground and kiss your feet? Well, I don’t care enough to beg and I’m far too stiff to crawl. Your Practicals will have to kill me sitting down. Cut my throat. Bash my head in. Whatever. As long as they get on with it.”

Glotka, ladies and gentleman. Abercrombie gives us a man who truly has nothing to lose. Death would be a relief from pain. What is such a man capable of?

Pedantic Pontificating: My goodness that’s a lot of walking down hallways, am I right? Hey, crippled guy! Walk to this room. Just kidding, go to this room. Oh, so sorry I’m going to need to redirect you over here. Abercrombie is about as nice to Glotka as Michael Jordan was to the Utah Jazz.

Anyway, Glotka’s pretty screwed up, right? His legs barely work, he missing all kinds of teeth, his spine is crooked, and he’s got some severe nerve damage. All thanks to the mysterious “Empire” who is at this point unnamed. Glotka apparently fought, rather bravely, in a war between the Union and the Empire, before getting cut to ribbons and unceremoniously dumped into the Inquisition. And now they’re pissed because he’s too good at his job. Well, welcome to the Union!

Intermixed with all this delicious character building, Abercrombie also begins to roll out something else. Rews is involved in some tax evasion, which apparently Superior Kalyne is complicit in, and Arch-Lector Sult is working at cross purposes to everybody. Or so it seems. Something is afoot in Adua, but what?

Beyond the plot, Abercrombie begins to unveil the world to us bit by bit. We have Angland to the North. “A filthy stink of violence and corruption,” to hear Glotka tell it. We also know Logen is up North. Any connections to be made? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The Inquisition itself raises some intriguing questions of its own. Each Inquisitor seems to have a pair of Practicals, who, at least for Glotka, exist as extensions of his will—the power behind his punch. They wear masks that hide who they are, while the Inquisitors openly flaunt their affiliation. Why? There’s little revealed of the Arch-Lector’s masked tandem, but Glotka pays them notice. They may bear watching.

Alas, there are few lines to connect this early in the game, but rest assured I’m watching Joe Abercrombie like a hawk. He’s having dumplings for dinner.


Next Week: Sadly, we did not arrive to the first chapter of Jezal dan Luthar. I am sorry. But, this Glotka chapter had so much to chew on that I felt compelled to let it breathe. Forgive me.

In our next installment, we get Logen high on hallucinogens and Jezal drunk as a skunk. It’s a week of Joe Abercrombie fugue state fiction. Don’t miss it!

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.

1. drc413
Woot for another 1st law post - tyvm!

Point of contention - isn't it "Glokta", not "Glotka"? I know it's kind of a petty issue, but he is my favorite character, after all...

I find the whole Inquisitor/Practical setup very inventive - how do you come up with the title of "Practical"? Is there any historical basis for that position/title?
Philipp Frank
2. KillTheMule
Thanks for pointing out that web comic, didn't know before :)

Wasn't it kinda important that Glokta sends Rews to Angland, instead of having him killed?
Justin Landon
3. jdiddyesquire
@drc413 DOH! Yes.

@KillTheMule Yes. I should have mentioned that.
Pablo Sorribes
4. Paalo
Nice and deep analysis. Reminds me of good times in a certain cynical cripple's head...
Justin Landon
5. jdiddyesquire
@drc413 -- regarding PRACTICALS. I wonder if the term comes from "licensed practical nurse". LPNs are nurses who cares for "people who are sick, injured, convalescent, or disabled under the direction of registered nurses and physicians". I mean... maybe?

Or being a torturer isn't terribly easy, so it's only PRACTICAL to have some muscle? Or, tools are practical? And Frost and Severard and two of GloKta's tools?
Philipp Frank
6. KillTheMule
I understood that as a trainee or intern, you know, someone trying to learn the nuts and bolts of the job.
7. JoR
Easy with the jabs to Jazz fans. We're still sore about it.
8. a1ay
I find the whole Inquisitor/Practical setup very inventive - how do you
come up with the title of "Practical"? Is there any historical basis
for that position/title?

In the actual Inquisition, the inquisitors' assistants were called familiars. (The actual torturer was the alguacil, or bailiff.)
9. ostermei

Find what: Glotka
Replace with: Glokta

Replace All
Justin Landon
10. jdiddyesquire
@ostermei -- Hey at least my mistakes are consistent? Right? Right?!?!
George Bracken
11. jorgybear
The setting up of the importance of the cook pot is brilliant, when it comes to the part where Malacus falls sick while escorting Logen.

I LOVE Glokta! His constant internal dialogue is hilarious.

I took the term “Practical” to mean “the ones who actually do all the dirty work”, like tools. Glokta says slap, Frost slaps. I suppose they wear the masks because they aren’t doing the violent acts off their own volition, rather are following orders, so therefore shouldn’t have blame for those acts associated with them. Guns don’t kill people, people do. Practicals don’t torture people, torturers do.

I also love Abercrombie’s use of repetition throughout his books. I believe there are several instances where a chapter begins and ends with the same phrase, and Logen’s “catchphrases” are a brilliant example of this repetition. (A bit early to bring it up, but I LOVE the bit in Before They Are Hanged where Logen says “You have to…” and Luther interrupts with “If you say you have to be realistic…” (I can’t remember how that line ends, but it conjures the frustration of being on a long journey with a group or people who really get on your nerves).
Dustin Freshly
12. Fresh0130
Yeah, the Survivors is one of those chapters. I'm not sure it could have been done any better as a true introduction to Logen.

He's completely practical in the chapter, he deals with what he can do something about and everything else can wait until later. I recall initally have a problem with him giving up on his crew so early, even though we hadn't met any of them yet, but as I got more comfortable with his character it made perfect sense. He has to survive when we meet him, he can mourn later. On rereading it I found myself amused and oddly touched by Logen's emotinal reaction to finding his pot, especially with what comes later in the book. He can gloss over the loss of his crew but gets sentimental about his pot, guess that section must be a testament to Logen's coping skills or some such.

"You have to be realistic" is just such a well thought out running theme for Mr. Ninefingers throughout the First Law, whether he's actually being realistic or delusional as we'll see.

I'm half tempted to start keeping track of how many "Say one thing"s Logen says about himself through out the Trilogy. Fisrt up, he's survivor.

And then there's Glokta...

Everytime I reread these books I have no earthly idea why I didn't immediately latch onto Glokta, from the get go his constant jabs at the world, his situation, and everyone around him hit allot of my humorous notes. I still wince and then chuckle as we get Glokta's first encounter with stairs in the book. "An Adventure!"

We don't meet any truly black or white characters in the First Law and Glokta spends allot of his time further in the darker shades of gray than the lighter, and yet we see through his cynical world view and running commentary what could constitute the voice of reason.

Maybe that's why Glokta tends to stick out as favorite character for readers of the series. He's so contrary, he knows and says to himself what is right and wrong and then goes and does what's wrong because he's told to. He doesn't particularly enjoy anything he's up to in the trilogy for the most part and he tells you that he doesn't and why it's messed up, and then he grabs a hot pocker and starts maiming folks because it's his job. Glokta is figuratively wonderful character to read as a commentary on the series as a whole and real world on a wider scale.
Justin Landon
13. jdiddyesquire
@Fresh -- Get comment. I talk a little bit in this week's post about Glokta being the character Abercrombie actually is setting up to be "the good guy" to some degree. SHould be up soon.

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