Aug 28 2013 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Teeth and Fingers” and “The Wide and Barren North”

First Law trilogy The Blade Itself Joe Abercrombie We are about to the point in Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself where things begin to take shape. Up until now the novel has been focused entirely on building characters, introducing the individuals to whom the reader must begin to find affinity. In a more traditional epic fantasy novel, we would now be LEAVING THE FARM.

I want to take a minute to talk about that particular trope and why it’s so often used in fantasy. The reality is that introducing a completely foreign world, full of confusing magic and political structures, can create a fairly unwelcome experience for readers. No “farm boy” opening causes many readers to bounce off Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. Instead of introducing the reader to the world as the “farm boy” is introduced to it, Erikson forces the reader to confront all of it from the point of a view of character who’s already well on his way to full understanding.

Peter V. Brett does it just the opposite. Each of his novels uses the “farm boy” to introduce a new component of his world. In The Warded Man it’s Arlen the classic farm boy. In The Desert Spear it’s Jardir the young warrior learning to fight demons. And in The Daylight War it’s Inevera the preteen priestess of a mysterious cult. Brett makes a conscious decision to ease his reader into each of his books by starting small and expanding the scope with each chapter—even deep into the series. It’s an extremely effective narrative technique.

Perhaps surprisingly, given how many tropes Abercrombie thumbs his nose at, The Blade Itself begins exactly the same way. It uses Logen as the “farm boy,” albeit in an unconventional way. He’s a grown man, with grown man problems, but he’s stuck in the North, away from civilization. He is himself somewhat uncultured, and certainly completely unfamiliar with what lies beyond the North. Abercrombie eases us into his world by showing us Logen’s character without world building distractions. Even Glokta and Jezal who are right in the thick of the canvas Abercrombie paints are introduced in extremely narrow circumstances: Glokta interrogating and Jezal fencing. They’re easy hooks.

I find it’s a great demonstration of Abercrombie finding a middle ground between doing something new and recognizing that sometimes tropes exist for a reason. Sometimes subverting tropes requires a scaling ladder rather than a siege tower. The result is comfort. The narrative has lulled us. We’re prepped and ready to absorb what’s to come.

But, first… Glokta…

“Teeth and Fingers”

Speedy Gonzalez: Glokta extracts a confession from the Master of the Mints by chopping off his fingers an inch at a time with a very sharp meat cleaver.

Slowpoke Rodriguez: Inquisitor Glokta finds himself short of time. The Arch Lector is on his way to hear of Sepp dan Teufel’s confession and the man seems unwilling to cooperate. Teufel recognizes Glokta as the former soldier who was tortured by the Gurkish before threatening to involve High Justice Marovia.

Glokta responds by giving Teufel a good look at what the Gurkish did to him. He describes in detail the condition of his mouth, the pain it evokes from him every day. Glokta calls the prisoner’s attention to a cleaver on the table. The threat is implied as he urges the Master of the Mints to confess and be sent to the mines in the North. Teufel declines.

At Glokta’s direction Practical Frost holds Teufel still while Glokta methodically chops away at his fingers inch by inch. Finally, Teufel confesses and all is right in the Inquisition.

Important Characters Introduced: None

Minor Characters Introduced: High Justice Marovia

Quotes to remember: Nothing significant. Seriously, what are the odds of this? I bet this is the first and only chapter where there’s not some awesome turns of phrase that deserves praise.

Not-a-lot-to-analyze-here Analysis: The only significant happening in this chapter is that Abercrombie gives us a peak at the power structure of the Union. Although we’re aware that the nation is ruled by a King, Teufel doesn’t threaten to go to the King, but to High Justice Marovia. What are the political structures here?

I suppose we also learn that Glokta is really good at his job, but I feel like this was pretty well established in his previous two appearances. In the words of the WuTang Clan, Glokta “ain’t nothing to *bleep* with.”

All in all this is a strange chapter. It could be cut from the novel and explained away in a single sentence later. That said it’s a pretty great demonstration of how screwed up Glokta is as a result of the Gurkish ministrations.

Ministrations. Such a pleasant choice of words for body mangling.


“The Wide and Barren North”

Rapid Recap of Languishing Logen: Logen Ninefingers waits in a dreary part of the world for the purported Magus to find him. Instead, he gets Malacus Quai, an altogether unimpressive Magi-apprentice who offers to deliver him to Bayaz, First of the Magi.

Roundabout Recap of Malacus’ Malady: Our rather bummed out Northman sits in the mud bemoaning his choices. Having left the forested areas where food is to be found, Logen has marched into the moors to find the Magus recommended to him by the spirits. Instead, he’s found by Malacus Quai, an awkward, gaunt, and sickly-looking young man whom Logen notices lacks a staff.

Malacus is apprenticed to Bayaz, First of the Magi. He’s been sent to find Logen and bring him to the Great Northern Library to meet Bayaz. Agreeing to accompany Malacus, Logen sucks up his campfire’s spirit, holding it under his tongue to light another fire later.

As the pair journey toward the Great Northern Library, Malacus begins to exhibit illness brought on by his difficult journey. While Malacus relates his personal and professional history, three bandits accost them. Logen springs in to reluctant action and kills the trio, using the fire spirit under his tongue to light one on fire. Surprised to have survived, Logen’s only concern after the battle is the quality of footwear he can poach from his antagonists.

Important Characters Introduced: Bayaz

Minor Characters Introduced: Malacus Quai, Master Zacharus, Juvens

Quotes to remember:

“I am from the Old Empire”
Logan had never heard of any such place. “An empire, eh?”
“Well, it was, once. The mightiest nation in the Circle of the World.”

Not a terribly riveting piece of dialogue, but it’s the first time we learn the name of the world we’re inhabiting. “Circle of the World” it is. There’s also an Old Empire, which isn’t so Empire-y anymore. We’ll pay a visit there much later. Trust me on this.

“…so I spent seven years studying with Master Zacharus. He is great among the Magi, the fifth of Juvens’ twelve apprentices, a great man.” Everything connected with Magi seemed to be great in Quai’s eyes. “He felt I was ready to come to the Great Northern Library and study with Master Bayaz, to earn my staff. But things have not been easy for me here. Master Bayaz is most demanding and…”

Juvens seems like he might be BMOC (Big Man on Campus) in the Circle of the World. This is the first mention of him, and to new readers of the series, you might want to pay attention to all three of the names mentioned in this passage. Although Bayaz is the only one with major screen time, how the Magi interact with one another off the page is one of the most intriguing subplots of the entire trilogy.

There’s some stuff going on here: While this is a fairly lengthy chapter, the first several pages and the last several pages are mostly texture. Bookended by Logen ‘surviving,’ once from nature and once from thugs, the middle section unveils some serious world building. We’re given a peek into how the characters conceptualize the world around them. There’s an Old Empire (same as the Gurkish Empire? Different?), a Great Northern Library, twelve apprentice Magi to Juvens (Bayaz, Zacharus) who now have apprentices of their own (Malacus).

Also, Logen can store fire spirits under his tongue. Pretty awesome, right? And he can summon spirits who give him life advice. He sounds pretty shaman-like. He also enjoys head-butting (but who doesn’t?). It’s a weird combination. As someone who’s read the series a few times I find these early “magickings” by Logen a bit odd. I won’t say anything more than that, but let’s see how often he does these sort of things from this point forward.

There’s a fun moment when Malacus Quai shows up. Logen asks him, “Shouldn’t you have a staff?” It’s a typical jab at the wizard-in-a-tower trope that’s pervasive in the epic fantasy genre (Gandalf, Allanon, Elminster, Belgarath, etc.). Hilariously, as the chapter goes on, Malacus admits that he gets a staff once he becomes a full Magi. Classic example of Abercrombie upsetting tropes, and then reconfirming them. It’s great fun to watch him continually jerk around his readers’ expectations.

In the end “The Wide and Barren North” present a lot more questions about the world. There still remains no major plot to speak of, but it’s pretty clear that Bayaz has some intentions for Logen.


Next Week: We finally take a break from Logen. Jezal meets Ardee! Justin will make another arcane pop culture reference that half his readers won’t get! Glokta plots! Stay tuned.

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. jerec84
I always felt, especially in the first book, that Glokta was one of those typical inquistor type characters who forces confessions out of people, guilty or not. You know when the hero gets captured and falsely accused and the authorities don't believe them. I figured that most of Glokta's prisoners were probably innocent and he was just torturing them until they confessed to whatever the justice wanted confessed.
2. graftonio
@1 Yeah that's pretty much the job description of most Inquisitor type people in fantasy worlds, or in the real world for that matter.

Glokta is definately in a profession where results are what matter and his job was to get someone to cofesss to a crime not investigate the crime and find out who really did it.
3. Dzieslaw
A weak comparison (particularly given most people "bounce off Gardens of the Moon" for its style, not its lack of a typical hero). Logen was never a 'farm boy' trope turned upside down. He is Conan the Barbarian - from the beginning, and only rarely "turned upside down". He is a bona fide fantasy stereotype. Check the following:

1. Warrior fighting for personal gain but retains a sense of honor.
2. Lives in a world reverting to barbarianism and where even friends cannot be trusted.
3. Meets and has adventures with wizards, warriors, women warriors, and fantastical beasts in a land at turns decadent with luxury and crumbling into ruin.
4. Retains virtually the same character throughout, never evolving from boy to man.

I dislike Conan stories, but there is more than enough evidence to prove the character type Abercrombie was borrowing.
Justin Landon
4. jdiddyesquire
@Dzieslaw--I'm not talking about character type at all. I'm talking about structure. Abercrombie uses the FARM BOY STRUCTURE. Logen as a character has nothing to do with the farm boy trope.

@graftonio and Jerec--I dunno about that. I think it's pretty clear Salem Rews was stealing from the crown, and it's not clear with Sepp dan Teufel, but I'm at least open to the idea that he's equally complicit. The Inquisition was just willing to look the other way because they were politically insulated. Glokta is used by the Inquisition to circumvent that political insulation and call them out for their crimes because Glokta does give a . Possible?
5. drc413
I'm pretty sure in Abercrombie's world, everyone is guilty of something, even if not of what Glokta manicures out of them. Especially if they are rich/powerful. How hard would it be to justify forcing a confession out of people you know to be dirtbags, regardless of whether they're guilty of the particular sin they are accused of?

It would have been interesting to put Glokta's admittedly shriveled sense of honor to the test by having him torture a confession from a poor person/child/complete innocent.

And some tropes are tropes because they work well and readers are comfortable with them (dragon-slaying hero and damsel in distress), and some tropes are tropes because it's too confusing otherwise to be entertaining (throw the reader in the deep end of the pool with no backstory or reference points or explanations).


"And then Jarlis twarged the verblinkum right in the spelzotz. 'Whew, lucky it didn't think to plingergatz my flowngyl!'"

"Chapter 1"

"Fred picked up his coffee and drank it."


"As he left the seumsit, Jarl fyndwinked over the hytgar. 'Coulda gone better'".

Um. No.
Marina Mar
6. ereini0n
I didn't remember Quai admitting to aquiring a staff later... That's awesome!
Glokta and his henchmen are great to read about.

I've just joined the discussions but have been enjoying this project from the beginning.
Great job!
Philipp Frank
7. KillTheMule
@6 I don't think he does. He only says he'd get one once he becomes a wizard, but I don't think it happens during this trilogy.
8. Dzieslaw
Regardless of whether you are discussing character or structure, it's a desperate comparison to state Abercrombie is subversive for choosing to forego the "farm boy" trope. I dare say the list of fantasies which also drop readers into the book's world without easing them in via an innocent character is longer than those which do. In other words, Abercrombie has used a common literary technique, which makes him a writer, not a deviant.

Forgive the acid in my tone, I just have a real issue with the idea Abercrombie's series is as subversive as many are saying. In the narrow world of epic fantasy and sword and sorcery a million tiny nuances can be discovered in a close, close investigation (Bulga shot blue sparks from his fingers while Langra shot gold...). But upon comparison to fantasy and literature at large, Abercrombie is not really digging at what makes the tropes, tropes. Instead, he is playing games within that narrow genre niche. A wizard who is not white-bearded and pointy-hatted, a completed quest that ends without a numinous object, a hero killing a friend in a bezerker moment, this is all superficial. It's playing with reader expectation, rather than going one step further to present something truly fresh and new. A multitude of wizards have graced the pages of fantasy, and some have been bald and selfish. Many writers, going back decades even, have subverted the quest motif (see the Chronicles of Prydain for an early example). And killing fan favorite characters, well, go ask George R.R. Martin. The First Law is standard sword and sorcery with a few of the wires switched from + to -, not to mention a few scenes thrown in for shock value. And that's it.

Again, sorry for the downer. I see I got on a rant. I like the idea I might be wrong and that one of your posts may open up something about the series I never realized before, I just think you've got a tough task ahead of you if proving the series is subversive is the goal given the overwhelming number of standard fantasy tropes and meta-tropes Abercrombie embraces, not to mention standard literary techniques he employs.

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