Wed
Aug 21 2013 5:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “No Choice At All” and “Playing with Knives”

The Blade Itself First Law Joe Abercrombie Remember last week when I told my commenters to shove it? Yeah, this week I look pretty bad. In my last post I misspelled Glokta. Glotka, as I spelled it, does not exist. He is a figment of my overactive imagination in which Glotka and I run away for a lust filled weekend in Styria. The comment section illustrated my mistake… several times. I apologize to Joe Abercrombie, my adoring fans of this reread, and my mom, who expects more from her son.

Live and learn, right?

This week we pick back up with Logen Ninefingers and, finally, get our first look at Captain Jezal dan Luthar. Do you think we’ll like him?

“No Choice At All”

Frodo sized summary: Logen reminisces about the past, hunts for food, and smokes some kind of weed, after which he’s visited by three spirits who warn him of a Magus seeking him in the South.

Boromir (the traitorous bastard) sized summary: Buried by snow inside a tiny cave, Logen awakes in a panic. Fearing a heavy snow deeper than a man is tall, he may never escape. He does, and although the sky is brilliantly blue, he realizes he’ll soon die if he doesn’t descend to lower altitude.

As he eats the last of his food, he remembers home. Where his father, wife, and children lived. Where he spoke of tactics with Threetrees and hunted with the Dogman. He flushed with anger when he and the Dogman crested the hill to see his home in ashes, anger to split Shanka as he split Shama Heartless at Carleon. If not for the Dogman he’d have flung himself at the Shanka horde that day. He thinks it would have been a fitting end for the Bloody-Nine, to die killing. But, say what you will about Logen Ninefingers, he carries on, and so he does—southwards, out of the mountains.

As he descends he finds a deer for dinner, killing it with a small knife. Settling down for a comfortable night around the fire, relatively speaking, Logen fires up his pipe and packs it with a lump of chagga. A few puffs later, and some memories of Tul Duru, the Dogman, Rudd Threetrees, Harding Grim, and Forley the Weakest, Logen is visited by three spirits. To hear them tell it, the last three spirits in the world. They offer him three pieces of information:

  • One, news of his own survival.

  • Two, Bethod is making war and has given himself a golden hat. To which Logen replies, Bethod is always making war.

  • Three, a Magus of the Old Time seeks for Logen in the moors to the south.

With his friends dead, Logen finds the spirits have given him a purpose. He will head south to seek this Magus.

Important characters introduced: Bethod (King in the North?)

Minor characters introduced: Shama Heartless (dead)

Quotes to remember:

It was a dwelling fit for a hero of Logen’s stature—two big sticks holding a load of damp branches over a hollow in the dirt.

Honesty is the best policy. Joe Abercrombie always feels honest.

Spirits cared little for the business of men, they were always weak on the details. Still, this was better than the usual talk about trees.

This just made me laugh. It’s so random.

All of the Thoughts: This is probably one of the oddest chapters in the entire series. Logen communes with spirits, but are they real? This is something to watch for as we work through the trilogy. How many supernatural forces are actually at work? Is Logen some kind of shaman?

We’re also given a look at Logen’s past for the first time. His family killed by Shanka. He refers to himself as the Bloody-Nine and the death of Shama Heartless, seemingly some influential man in the North. The spirits mention Bethod, who has a golden hat. Logen is familiar with him in a casual way, making us wonder who Logen is in the grand scheme of things. Clearly a man with a reputation, a man who has songs sung of him, but perhaps not a man you want to share space with.

Otherwise this chapter is another layer to Logen’s character. His lack of interaction with anyone has made his chapters rather boring to this point.

 

“Playing with Knives”

Abstract: Jezal dan Luthar beats his fellow officers in a card game, before heading off to fencing practice with Lord Marshall Varuz. Despite Varuz’s warning to the contrary, Jezal gets snot-slinging drunk that night, running into Glokta as he arrests the Master of the Mints.

Dissertation: Captain Jezal dan Luthar sits around a table with four men whom he calls his closest friends: Lieutenant Jalenhorm, Major West, Lieutenant Kaspa, and Lieutenant Brint. After breaking down their personalities in some detail, Jezal executes a coup de grâce on Brint, taking the poor man for every nickel he has. Without remorse for what he’s done to Brint, Jezal realizes he’s late for his fencing lesson with Lord Marshall Varuz. Major West follows him out.

Varuz puts Jezal through his paces while Major West looks on somewhat smugly. Varuz harangues Jezal for his piss poor attitude and display, lamenting that there are only four months left before the Contest. After working on his fencing Jezal sends him on a run to the Tower of Chains.

Jezal’s run is something of a tour through Adua. Passing through the Square of Marshals he sees the huge stone effigies of six hundred years of High Kings and their retainers, including the great Magus Bayaz. At the top of the Tower, Jezal is treated to a view of the city:

To the south the city was spread out below him, an endless carpet of white houses stretching all around the glittering bay. In the other direction, the view over the Agriont was even more impressive. A great confusion of magnificent buildings piled one upon the other, broken up by green laws and great trees, circled by its wide moat and its towering wall, studded with a hundred lofty towers. The Kingsway sliced straight through the centre toward the Lords’ Round, its bronze dome shining in the sunlight. The tall spires of the University stood behind, and beyond them loomed the grim immensity of the House of the Maker, rearing high over all like a dark mountain, casting its long shadow across the buildings below.

Jezal returns to Varuz and Major West, worse for wear, and goes through his fencing forms once again. Varuz chides him, remarking that Bremer dan Gorst runs ten miles a day and barely shows a sweat. He orders Jezal to run the wall of the Agriont and spar with Major West every morning. He amends his orders to include an end to carousing.

Six hours later, the card playing quartet are drunk as a horde of skunks. Tossed out of a bar, they see a massive, pale (and masked) figure accosting a man in an alley. Intervening, they are called off by Colonel Glokta, who is recognized by Major West and returns the sentiment. They reminisce about the last time they met, nine years ago on a ridge in Gurkhul. A young Collem West retreated. Glokta did not.

Glokta recognizes Jezal and remarks on his chances in the Contest. The two groups part ways, but not before West puts his foot in his mouth by offering to spar with Glokta sometime. The crippled torturer makes a pithy remark, and carts Sepp dan Teufel, Master of the Mints, to his lair.

Important Characters Introduced: Jezal dan Luthar, Major West, Lord Marshall Varuz

Minor Characters Introduced: Lieutenant Jalenhorm, Major West, Lieutenant Kaspa, and Lieutenant Brint, Crown Prince Ladisla

Quotes to remember:

Yes, the money was certainly useful, and there’s nothing half so amusing as humiliating one’s closest friends.

And:

The prince’s entourage of dandies cheer and shouted half-hearted encouragements at his receding back. ‘Bloody idiots,’ hissed Jezal under his breath, but he would have loved to be one of them.

These two quotes are so perfect in summing up the kind of man Jezal dan Luthar is. Abercrombie nails it.

The Blade Itself Comic Jezal

What up with Jezal: Jezal is a jerk, right? He’s a rich, self-impressed Captain in the King’s Own whose commission was bought and paid for by daddy. His friends are treated like servants, and he does not appreciate the men under his command. Sounds like a peach. Abercrombie has set up a paradigm where his most likeable character, the one most likely to be considered a good guy in the early going, is the crippled torturer. An interesting shift, isn’t it?

The Contest fascinates me in particular. Jezal’s competition, or at least primary competition, is Bremer dan Gorst. According to Crown Prince Ladisla, Lord Marshall Varuz, and Jezal’s own thoughts, Gorst is favored and to be feared. By contrasting Gorst to Jezal we’re led to believe that Jezal is a master fencer in his own right, albeit not one terribly concerned with being the best. He reminds me of someone born with natural talent, but never having to work hard for it leaves him well short of excellence.

On his run through Adua, Jezal sees a statue he identifies as the Magus Bayaz. I can’t help but make the connection between Bayaz and the Magus looking for Logen. They may not be one and the same, considering Bayaz has a statue (that usually means you’re dead), but there’s definitely some connection. We also get mentions of three places I want to know more about—the Agriont, the House of the Maker, and the Lords’ Round. I strongly suspect all three places will be significant in the days ahead.

There are also a ton of hints in this chapter to back story and the larger world. We finally learn that the mysterious ‘Empire’ that tortured Glokta is the Gurkish, and that Major (Collem) West served in the army with our erstwhile Inquisitor. There are also indications that Glokta was a great fencer in his day, making me wonder if indeed he won the Contest that Jezal is now training for. Most significantly, we see legitimate fear in West when he encounters Glokta. Not only because of his disability, but because of the kind of man he was and what he’s become since.

The plot thickens.

 

Next Week: Since two of the next three chapters are rather short I’ll be doing a trifecta in week 4 of the reread! We get a chapter from each point of view and meet, for the first time, Major West’s sister, Ardee. Same snarky time, same snarky channel.


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.

10 comments
Matthew Brown
1. morven
It's overall a pretty low-magic series for the most part, and most of the magic involves using the powers of the demon world (World Below, if I remember the term they used correctly). If the vision is real, it's one of very few that are arguably not that.

This also reminds me how much I loathe most of Jezal's chapters, though he does get a little better (largely because hard times hand him something of a clue, by the end).
drc413
2. drc413
This is the first interaction of Glokta w/ people who aren't either his superior, employee or victim. Abercrombie does a great job of making him both terribly witty and self-deprecating. He spends a lot of time thinking/talking about how his life can't get any worse, but I can't help but get the impression that some of it is a fraud - he still can take joy from witticisms and out-thinking others. There's something terribly freeing about being at rock-bottom.

Oh - and Luthar sucks. Anyone else think Abercrombie had some unpleasant experiences with rich, good-looking, spoiled, self-centered undeserving sociopaths in high school maybe? School jock or prom king type. Total tool. I'm not a fan of his chapters either.
Justin Landon
3. jdiddyesquire
@morven -- It's been a while since I've read the series through so I'm pretty fuzzy on all this, but I see this scene as very tied to whether or not Logen's Bloodynine personae is somehow magical. Or something.

@drc413 -- I find his personality in this chapter a little like the hunched over old man with his cane who likes to jab at young whippersnappers before he demonstrates his Kung Fu is still very strong. Or something.
drc413
4. jkdavies.practice
I too read Glotka... I still do in my head even if you spell it right... but then it took me years to wean myself off of saying Alsan instead of Aslan...

go snarky :)
Philipp Frank
5. KillTheMule
Hahaha I love that humour... "I'll conjure ancient and rare magic to summon the spirits of my forefathers... they're pretty boring, though!"

Jezal seems like a total ***, but strangely enough he rushes to help when he sees someone attacked in a street. I mean, he obviously didn't identify him (would have been interesting to see what happened otherwise, though), so it looks a bit like a selfless act, doesn't it?
Justin Landon
6. jdiddyesquire
@KillTheMule -- I don't have the book right in front of me, but I get the impression it was more because 'a nobleman' is being attacked. I also think Janelhorm makes the first move toward Practical Frost and Jezal feels compelled to go.
Philipp Frank
7. KillTheMule
Got it:

He became aware of some shouting on the other side of the road. Two men grappling in a doorway. Jezal squinted hard, strained against the gloom. A big man had hold of some well-dressed fellow, and seemed to be tying his hands behind his back. Now he was forcing some kind of bag over his head. Jezal blinked in disbelief. It was far from a reputable area, but this seemed somewhat strong.
The door of the tavern banged open and West and Jalenhorm came out, deep in drunken conversation, something about someone’s sister. Bright light cut across the street and illuminated the two struggling men starkly. The big one was dressed all in black, with a mask over the lower part of his face. He had white hair, white eyebrows, skin white as milk. Jezal stared at the white devil across the road, and he glared back with narrowed pink eyes.
‘Help!’ It was the fellow with the bag on his head, his voice shrill with fear. ‘Help, I am—’ The white man dealt him a savage blow in the midriff and he folded up with a sigh.
‘You there!’ shouted West.
Jalenhorm was already rushing across the street.
‘What?’ said Kaspa, propped up on his elbows in the road.
Jezal’s mind was full of mud, but his feet seemed to be following Jalenhorm, so he stumbled along with them, feeling very sick.


Yeah, you're right, "this seemed somewhat strong" isn't really an altruistic response. Seems he just gets carried along... but at least he doesn't try to chicken out, he ^^ Guess with him we have to take what we get.
Kim Papke
8. imbubbasmom
re: Glokta: I get the impression that Glokta is embittered at his treatment after his return. He became a torturer because it was the best way for him to stay in the public view and remind everyone what he has sacrificed for their benefit.

He's one of the best antiheroes ever written. His confrontation with Major West's sister and Jezal is very moving, almost a tearjerker moment. His yearning for what might have been is palpable. That scene marked a turning point for my feelings about Glokta, the vulnerable torturer/veteran/warrior.

NOTE: I may be getting ahead here; I don't have my book with me and it's really hard to stop at one or two chapters. This is one of my favorite series, and I'm enjoying this reread!
Justin Landon
9. jdiddyesquire
@imbubbasmom -- You're three chapters ahead, but that's OK. This is the comments. Anything goes here, including capybara cuddling. I don't know that I agree that Glokta is a torturer to stay relevant, as much as he's a torturer because he's an overachiever. He's a fencing champion, a war hero, but what can he be great at with a broken body? What skill does he have? I think it's an INTERNAL graitification rather than him trying to measure up to an EXTERNAL expectation.

Or something.
Kim Papke
10. imbubbasmom
Yes, I would agree with the internal gratification.

But I also think he's taking some satisfaction in hauling his broken self around to keep reminding his higher-ups that he is still here. He's still in people's faces, and I love his internal dialogue.

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