Wed
Sep 4 2013 1:00pm
Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Fencing Practice” and “The Morning Ritual”

The Blade Itself First Law Joe Abercrombie Reread

If there is a reread medal for achievement in the face of impossible odds, the completion of this week’s post deserves it. After beginning my Worldcon over a week ago, I have barely recovered enough to string together coherent sentences.

However, I am emboldened by one gentleman who approached me after the Drinks with Authors event and said he was participating in the reread and enjoying it! So, to you sir, I offer this week’s chapters. For without your encouragement, I might still be doing an impression of Clint Eastwood in an empty hotel bar with only my barstool for company.

Fair warning, these are ‘worldbuildery’ chapters with more than a little telling as opposed to showing. They’re a bit awkward at times in how Abercrombie machinates the opportunities to build out the structures he needs to tell the story. But, he always seems to provide some character development concurrently, making them much less “Well, as you know Bob” in their application.

Enjoy.

“Fencing Practice”

Texas Two Step: Jezal struggles in a sparring session with Major West. The pair take a walk after practice, discussing the likelihood of war. They end up back at West’s home so Jezal can distract West’s sister, Ardee, while he gets some work done at the Agriont.

The Electric Slide: A sparring session is underway between Major Collem West and Captain Jezal dan Luthar. Feigning insufficient skill, West baits the younger and quicker Jezal into overcommitting his attack. Before he knows it Jezal is on his back and Lord Marshal Varuz is haranguing his lack of focus. Varuz settles on comparing the young fencer to a fainting schoolgirl and Bremer dan Gorst to a pillar of steel. With instructions for more leg strengthening, Varuz sends Jezal on his way.

West and Jezal take their leave and wander away from the training grounds. West relates the fact that without fencing he would never have made it into the King’s Own. Commoners just aren’t given commissions. Given West’s rise, he believes if Jezal can win the Contest, he can rise as high as the Lord Chamberlain Hoff, High Justice Marovia, or Marshal Varuz. Champions with the right blood always go on to great things, with the exception of Sand dan Glokta.

Before the conversation can continue a messenger arrives demanding West’s attendance at an urgent briefing with Marshal Burr to discuss Angland and the new King of the Northmen, Bethod. Jezal pines for war and a chance for advancement, while West scoffs at it. His sister is in town. War pales in comparison. With duty calling, West enlists Jezal’s help in entertaining his sister who turns out to be far more than the Captain bargained.

Ardee immediately puts Jezal on his heels. She is the aggressor and he the victim as she twists him around her finger with clever comments and light touches. By the end of their walk she has completely disarmed him, devolving his mental capability to the regurgitation of well known historical facts.

And then, Glokta limps down the road. Ardee seems to know him well, and Glokta seems genuinely touched by her interest in his health. They part ways, but it’s clear that Glokta’s old friendship with her brother left an indelible mark on both parties.

Quotes to Remember:

It was a flurry of conversational blows and, as Marshal Varuz had pointed out earlier, his defense was weak.

And:

The artless ways of a country girl… but then she was very close. If only she were a little less attractive or a little less confident. If only she were a little less… West’s sister.

Two very interesting quotes so far as Jezal’s interactions with Ardee go. He’s confused by her in every way, but finds himself inexorably attracted to her. Their interactions are one of the more difficult parts of the novel to deal with as things progress.

“Er, yes. In the dark ages, before there was a Union, [Harod] fought to bring the Three Kingdoms together. He was the first High King.”

Not particularly memorable, but very important to note two chapters from now.

Major Character’s Introduced: Ardee

Minor Character’s Introduced: Marshal Burr, High King Harod

Connecting the dots: Several important things are hinted at in this chapter. Most of which are presented to Ardee by Jezal during their walk. It’s a classic ploy by Abercrombie to give us some world building under the auspices of character development. Ardee is toying with Jezal. Through that interplay of dialogue she makes him feel interesting and smart and Jezal tells the reader about High King Harod and his most trusted adviser, Bayaz.

“And this is Bayaz, the First of the Magi?”
“Yes, he was Harod”s most trusted adviser. Ardee—”
“Is it true they still keep a vacant seat for him in the Closed Council?”
Jezal was taken aback. “I’d heard that there”s an empty chair there, but I didn’t know that—”
“They all look so serious, don’t they?”
“Er… I suppose those were serious times,” he said, grinning lamely.

Later, a similar exchange takes place as it relates to the House of the Maker:

Does no one go inside?”
“No one. Not in my lifetime anyway. The bridge is kept behind lock and key.” He frowned up at the tower. Seemed strange now, that he never thought about it. Living in the Agriont, it was always there. You just got used to it somehow. “The place is sealed, I believe.”

In both of these cases Abercrombie is giving his reader something like Chekov’s Gun. These passages seem like flora, but are in fact early hints that both Bayaz and the House of the Maker will bear some relevance in the chapters to come. As the most earnest of rereaders, let me assure you, they will!

Glokta’s appearance in the chapter continues to further the comparison between the man he is today, and the man he will become. Jezal clearly represents who Glokta once was, a brash fencer of great skill from a noble family. Confidence and eagerness for the fight are both hallmarks of Jezal’s character. Ardee’s remarks the end of the chapter would lead me to believe Glokta was once much the same.

“He used to fence with my brother every day, and he always won. The way he moved, it was something to see. Sand dan Glokta. He was the brightest star in the sky.” She flashed her knowing half-smile again. “And now I hear you are.”

 

“The Morning Ritual”

Let’s get this over with: Glokta’s life really sucks. After getting out of bed, he’s called before the Arch Lector to be appointed as Inquisitor Exempt and assigned the task of destroying the Guild of Mercers.

More Complexicated: Amid a wishful fantasy where Glokta slays Jezal in front of Ardee, the inquisitor awakes in great pain. His crippled body twisted on itself over the night, Glokta is covered in his own excrement. The Gurkish stole more than his strength with their torture, they stole his dignity. Helped to the bath by his manservant, Glokta girds himself to go before the Arch Lector.

At the Arch Lector’s office Glokta unleashes some vitriol on the Arch Lector’s assistant. He makes it clear that Sand dan Glokta won’t tolerate the petty games played by political bureaucrats. Quickly ushered into the Lector’s presence, Glokta finds another present—Surveyor General Halleck. If the Arch Lector has anything to do with it, soon to be Lord Chancellor Halleck now that Sepp dan Teufel is no longer being considered.

Halleck leaves and Sult discusses the state of the Union with Glokta. War in brewing in the north as Bethod flexes his might. In the south, Gurkhul has a new and vigorous Emperor. At home, the Open Council fights itself. All the while the merchants scamper for profits. Sult believes that salvation lies in a consolidation of power in the Closed Council, a ruling elite led by him. He wants Glokta to aid him as Inquisitor Exempt. Glokta will be beyond the purview of anyone in the Inquisition but Sult himself.

All power comes from money, and Sult would have the Mercers resources as his own. Glokta will give it to him.

Quotes to remember:

You have to learn to love the small things in life, like a hot bath. You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.

I mentioned in the discussion of “Fencing Practice” (above) that Jezal is as Glokta once was. This quote will give us some hints as to who Glokta might become. Check back with me next week for more information on this.

“In the Open Council the noblemen clamour for ancient rights, while in the villages the peasants clamour for new ones.” He gave a deep sigh. “Yes, the old order crumbles, and no one has the heart or the stomach to support.”

We are in a time of change in Adua. The Arch Lector wants to be the impetus behind that change, to preserve as much of the old order as he can. This is significant.

Major Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Prince Raynault, Barnam

It’s getting hot in here: Ah ha! The reasons behind Sepp dan Teufel’s forced confession become quite clear, do they not? Arch Lector Sult is playing the long game and Glokta is right in the middle of it. With Teufel disgraced, and possibly shipped off to Angland, the way is clear for Sult to put someone on the Closed Council that suits his needs.

But, the plot doesn’t end there. He also has an agenda, one that perpetrates the nobility as the sole arbiter. He needs Glokta to put things in order. He needs “someone who does not fear the Superiors, or the merchants, or even the Closed Council.” Glokta can be “relied upon to act with subtlety, and discretion, and ruthlessness.” His loyalty to the Union cannot be questioned, and he’ll be answerable only to Sult himself.

Sult’s insecurity stems from the war with Gurkhish, the same war that left Glokta crippled. Westport, a recently joined member of the Union swung the war in their favor, was brought in by the Mercers. They were rewarded with trading rights, which allowed them to jump the system, to be on par with the nobility in all but name. Sult wishes to use that to cement his own power, to use Glokta to leverage the Mercers and the ruling class.

It all sounds a bit mundane doesn’t it? Simple politics of the dirtiest sort by the Arch Lector. Are we seeing the whole picture, or is Sult still playing Glokta? It’s murky.

“Morning Ritual” begins as a further character study of Glokta and turns into something of an infodump about the political conditions of Adua and the Union. Where it leads remains unclear.

 

Next Week: I promise to be fully recovered from Worldcon. We finally meet Bayaz himself from Logen’s point of view and, for the first time, get a point of view from Collem West. It’ll be majorly awesome. Get it? Cause he’s a major.


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.

6 comments
Peter (Odd Engine)
1. Peter (Odd Engine)
Joining the party fashionably late. I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read anything by Abercrombie, although he's been on my must-read pile for awhile. I will catch up by this weekend to post something more intelligent.
Peter (Odd Engine)
2. Malbon
Contrast this type of world-building to what you'd find in an average fantasy novel, where the first chapter/prologue is just an impenetrable wall of incomprehensible names. "in the Firth of Avalors, after the fall of Glastonmeyer the Quillicker but before the Ascension of Breckinmeyer the Intransigent, Heller Baldborn, high Quidlong of the Fluveralls led his people down from the mountains of Yarn...." and you're expected to remember and refer back to all these names over and over throughout the series.
It just goes to show how important diegetic exposition really is, and kudos to Abercrombie for doing it in such a way that it seems invisible and oh so easy.
Stacey Buckby
3. StaySeeBookBee
Further to your comment about the steps (last week?) we see how limited Glokta is by his disabilities here. He does incredibly well with all the steps, doesn't he?!
Peter (Odd Engine)
4. drc413
Regarding Glokta's state upon waking - this would be an appropriate place to ask "Is that necessary?" with the proper amount of distaste and revulsion and lip-curl.

To which Abercrombie replies, "YES! ABSOLUTELY! SUCK IT UP WIMP, I CAN DO THIS ALL DAY! BWAHAHAHA!".

And he promptly does. Is this grimdark, or grim-outhouse? I forget...
Justin Landon
5. jdiddyesquire
@drc413 -- Yeah, I kind of feel like Abercrombie lays it on pretty thick with how crappy Glokta's life is, but he's really just layering on layers of character in these early chapters. Glokta most of all.
Peter (Odd Engine)
6. Peter (Odd Engine)
Good Post. I appreciate getting the executive summary of the world-building info-dumps. There's probably not much of a better way to share the necessary background other than a contrived conversation.

I like how "The Morning Ritual" begins with Glokta's bloodlusty wet dream. Despite his injuries, he reveals that his cocky (pun intended) nature is left intact.

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