Sep 11 2013 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “First of the Magi” and “The Good Man”

The First Law Blade Itself Joe Abercrombie Reread We’re twenty percent through The Blade Itself and I don’t feel like we’ve really gotten anywhere with regards to the plot. Abercrombie has spent most of his time building Logen, Glokta, and Jezal in the readers mind, with a dash of Ardee and Major West for good measure. He’s been very successful in that endeavor, but I’m starting to hanker for some more meat.

This week’s chapters seem like a perfect kick-off to that request. We meet Bayaz, make contact with the King of the North, and get a parade of petitioners in Adua’s court. The result is indications of a brewing conflict between the North and the Union, as well as internal conflict between the nobility and the middle-class. Add to all of that the most powerful wizard in the world whose loyalties remain cloudy…

“First of the Magi”

Oddjob: Logen Ninefingers drags the very ill Malacus Quai to the Great Library where they meet Bayaz. As Logen and Bayaz get to know one another, Bayaz is paid a visit by Bethod’s youngest son, Calder, who is scared off when Bayaz flexes his magical might.

Jaws: Malacus Quai, apprentice to the mysterious Bayaz, is dying. Faced with the choice of leaving Quai to die or carrying him on his back for forty milers, Logen leaves behind his pack—cookpot included—and sets out for the Great Library, Quai in tow.

As the pair nears the trail markings that will lead them to the Library, Quai becomes lucid for a moment. He admonishes the northman, claiming that to speak with spirits is forbidden, and that Logen must not do it. Shortly there after they arrive, but not before Logen questions the direction of his life, “I can’t walk for ever, Malacus, I can’t fight for ever. How much of this horrible shit should a man have to take? I need to sit down a minute. In a proper fucking chair! Is that too much to ask? Is it?”

Once inside the library, Logen approaches a man dressed all in white, with a long beard, a hook nose, and white hair spilling from under a white skull-cap. Wells, the head servant of the Library, corrects Logen’s assumption that he is First of the Magi, at which point the butcher steps forward.

Bayaz is outwardly unconcerned for Quai’s health and seems intensely focused on Logen. Their discussions are short lived, however, when a messenger from the gate arrives to announce the arrival of Calder, youngest son to the Bethold, King of the North.

Logen and Calder seem to know each other well, with Calder being the more shocked by the other’s presence. Calder demands that Bayaz attend his father and recognize his dominion over the North. Bayaz laughs at the petty kingling and with a wave of his hand chokes off his air. Releasing him before he expires, Bayaz propels Calder out of the castle, humbled but no less angry.

With assurances that business can wait, Bayaz invites Logen to take his leisure within the Library.

Important Characters Introduced: Calder, Scale

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

At least it had stopped raining. You have to learn to love the small things in life, like dry boots. You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.

Remember last week when I talked about how Jezal was the man Glokta used to be? I wonder if this quote is a hint that Logen is the man Glokta is becoming—one with nothing to lose and a crushingly practical sensibility. Abercrombie uses the same line in both their points of view, “You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.” Interesting.

Hard words are for fools and cowards. Calder might have been both, but Logen was neither. If you mean to kill, you’re better getting right to it than talking about it. Talk only makes the other man ready, and that’s the last thing you want.

Included for being an awesome quote. IN YOUR FACE CALDER.

‘The magic leaks out of the world. That is the set order of things. Over the years my knowledge has grown, and yet my power has diminished.’

Earlier in the chapter, Malacus Quai hints at a “First Law” and then warns Logen to not do forbidden things, like communing with spirits. Now Bayaz indicates that magic is leaking out of the world, which would support Logen’s deduction during his spirit encounter that this would be the last time the spirits would appear. What does it mean? We’re not sure… yet.

Goldfinger’s Villainous Plot Analysis: More and more I’m starting to recognize the rythmic nature of Abercrombie’s writing. He focuses on certain turns of phrases or items and uses them throughout a chapter. In “First of the Magi” it’s Logen’s pot. First we see him leave it, “They’d been together a long time, but there was nothing left to cook.”

Then, we see him emote at its loss, “The pot was sitting forlorn by the lake, already filling up with rainwater. They’d been through a lot together, him and that pot. ‘Fare you well, old friend.’ The pot did not reply.”

Finally, we see him remember the pot, “Quai had been in an unpleasant place between sleep and waking since they left the pot behind two days before. The pot could have made more meaningful sounds in that time.”

These kind of beats within the chapter lend a great deal of connectivity to the prose. Then, when he uses lines like the “small things” line above in two character’s chapters it creates a dynamic symmetry for the reader to connect the dots. But, enough about that…

We finally hear from Bayaz! He’s been mentioned a dozen times by different characters throughout the book thus far, but he’s been something of a blank slate. No one really knows anything about him and many consider him a relic of the past.

What we know of Bayaz and the Magi:

  • Bayaz isn’t some wizened old man.
  • He does have magic, which he uses to choke Calder.
  • He’s got something of a bad attitude.
  • There was once a man named Bayaz who advised the first king of the Union.
  • His magic is weaker now than it once was.
  • He was apprenticed to Juvens, who once had twelve apprentices. Bayaz considered himself beholden to Juvens, but no longer with Juvens dead.
  • Zacharus, Quai’s former Master, is one of the twelve in addition to Bayaz.

Also of note in this chapter, we continue to see references to the Master Maker. In “First of the Magi” Bayaz calls a chain of flowers made by a young girl work that “The Master Maker himself could not have done better.” In Jezal and Glokta’s chapters we’ve seen reference to the House of the Maker, which no one has entered since being sealed long ago.

Color me intrigued.


“The Good Man”

Not Stairway to Heaven: Major West stands guard over the Lord Chamberlain Hoff’s audience. Hoff makes an ass of himself in front of the Mercers, a delegation from the North, a peasant, and, finally, Yoru Sulfur, a Magi sent to herald the return of Bayaz to the Closed Council.

Stairway to Heaven: Sweating in the Adua heat, Major Collem West stands guard during a public audience. Overseen by the Lord Chamberlain, Fortis dan Hoff, West struggles to maintain his rigor.

The first penitent is a farmer named Goodman Heath who seeks redress from the crown. His family has been put off their land by their landlord who claims they’ve not paid rent. Hoff treats him with disdain and shuffles him off to a lesser bureaucrat. The Chamberlain is offended by the peasant’s willingness to talk back.

Next in line is Coster dan Kault, Magister of the Guild of Mercers, who dresses “so ostentatious that the Emperor of Gurkhul himself might have been embarrassed.” Kault accuses his Majesty’s Inquisition of executing a plot to undermine the Guild and their business interests in the Free Cities of Styria. Hoff doesn’t show him any more respect than he does the farmer. Vault leaves sputtering words that sound much like threats.

A delegation from the King of the Northmen, Bethod, is ushered in. Four make up the delegation: two dangerous looking men, an older man with a great white beard, and a massive giant of a man swathed in a rough brown cloak. Hoff mistakes the bearded man, White-Eye Hansul, as Bethod’s emissary, but White-Eye corrects him and introduces Fenris the Feared, a more massive man Major West has never seen. Hoff treats them with a modicum of respect and offers them an audience with the King in Open Council.

The last man to come before the Chamberlain is Yoru Sulfur, from the Great Order of the Magi. Hoff is excited to see him, expecting to be entertained. Sulfur is something a disappointment to Hoff, but admits to having studied under the great Bayaz himself. He then states his purpose, “On the death of King Harod the Great, Bayaz, the First of the Magi, left the Union. But he swore an oath to return.” Hoff, clearly shaken by Sulfur’s announcement decides to grant the Magus an audience with the Closed Council.

Ordered by Hoff to keep the Magus’ appearance quiet, West trudges out, more concerned by fears about war in the North and his troublesome sister who he was fool enough to leave alone with Jezal dan Luthar. Before leaving the Agriont, West offers financial aid to Goodman Heath.

Important Characters Introduced: Fenris

Minor Characters Introduced: Yoru Sulfur, Lord Chamberlain Hoff, White-Eye Hansul, Magister Kault

Quotes to Remember:

If you could have stabbed someone in the face with the phrase ‘good day’, the head of the Guild of Mercers would have lain dead on the floor.

Snap. Just a great visual, isn’t it? A lot of authors rely on more florid prose to communicate lush imagery. Abercrombie finds a way to do it colloquially.

His staff was not shod with gold, had no lump of shining crystal on the end. His eye did not flare with a mysterious fire.

Ok, I think we get it. Magi aren’t really that cool looking in the Circle of the World. This is one of those times where Abercrombie is probably being a little too overt in his commentary.

Musical Theory of Stairway to Heaven: Well, in a chapter titled “The Good Man,” Abercrombie gives us a rather lengthy view of quite the opposite in Lord Chamberlain Hoff. He shows blatant disregard for anyone who doesn’t threaten his position, and then bends for a delegation from the North that he sees as a reasonable bunch of savages. He mocks the Magus until given the kind of proof that brooks no argument, and then treats the soldiers around him like servants.

Juxtaposed is Major West, who witnesses all of this with a sense of unease and gifts the most aggrieved petitioner with money, a limited resource for the common soldier. This is the first point of view chapter for West and it shows him to be much closer to the ideal fantasy hero readers have come to expect. He empathizes with the common man and seems genuinely concerned about the well being of the Union despite clear evidence that the government is failing its people.

More than any chapter to date, “The Good Man” begins to initiate several plot points. The Mercers have reacted to Arch Lector Sult and Inquisitor Glokta’s assaults. The Northmen are about to make their intentions known. Meanwhile, we learn that the government is completely dysfunctional and could become moreso if some Magus decides to reclaim his former place in the Union.

The use of the “audience with the crown” is something that’s been around a long time in fantasy, but I find it’s usually used in one of two ways. Either the King is hearing from a significant petitioner that furthers the plot (see Pippin and Denethor) or the King is shown a bunch of petitioners to demonstrate what a terrible King he is (see Baratheon, Joffrey). Abercrombie does something a little more clever in that he does it all simultaneously without being too transparent. He gives us the peasant to show the government is broken, the Mercers to show the conflict between the nobles and the merchant class, the Northmen to show future conflict central to the plot, and Yoru Sulfur to continue fleshing out the world’s back story and setting Bayaz up as a walking, talking plot MacGuffin.

Who knew the minutia of ruling could be so interesting?

As for that backstory, it seems to be increasingly likely that the Bayaz in the Great Library is the same man with a statue in Adua. We now know two students who claim to have studied under him, Yoru and Quai, and in “The Good Man” Yoru clearly draws a parrallel between the statue and the man who taught him.

There’s also a bit of an Arthurian prophecy here, insofar as Bayaz said he would return and one would herald him. Abercrombie cuts to the quick though when Yoru announces with a smile, “Well, here I am.” I suspect that when the Closed Council meets more will become clear. I can’t wait.


Next Week: Glokta keeps scheming with Sult, Jezal finds himself more interested in Ardee than a rich courtier, and the Open Council of the Union hears from its subjects! There will be minutia!

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. Kirshy
Really enjoying this re-read. I haven't read the first book in years but remember really enjoying it.
These are great. Keep them coming!
2. drc413
@1 - Agreed. I tend not to analyze much as I read, and I'm getting a lot of new insight from the reread, such as where each plot line really fires up its motor. Good stuff.
Kim Papke
3. imbubbasmom
I am so enjoying this reread! I tend not to analyze much, either, and well said @2.

"His staff was not shod with gold, had no lump of shining crystal on the end. His eye did not flare with a mysterious fire."

However, I took this remark as pure sarcasm. Don't we all have preconceived notions of how wizards are supposed to look?
Ross Smith
4. CaptainCrowbar
If anyone ever films Abercrombie's books, Bayaz absolutely has to be played by Bryan Cranston.
Justin Landon
5. jdiddyesquire
@imbubbasmom -- For sure it's sarcasm. My point was that it's at least the fourth time Abercrombie has made a similar remark about wizards. At some point I'm like, yeah, I get it, your wizards aren't Gandalf.
Dustin Freshly
6. Fresh0130
Calder and Scale, bwhahahah! Sorry, just had a Red Country moment all over again.

Whew, done laughing.

I've gotten behind on commenting on these, shame on me!

"The pot did not reply." For some reason that quote always stuck with me. We saw in 'No choice At All' that despite all of his hardness Logen's regrets have a tendency to sneak up on him and weigh him down, he in fact has a bit of pity party for himself at that point. But even then he's quickly past it, "The choice between living and dying, that's no choice at all." But here we see him take a moment to say good bye to his pot and it struck me as being almost in proxy of his family and friends he's lost to the North. Depsite the scene being between Logen and an inantimate object it's probably one of the more touching scenes in the book and nearly in the Trilogy. Personally I think that the scene being so early in the book and yet somehow being able to touch emotions as it does, especially on a reread as I don't think the scene will hit a first time reader as hard as it will us Abercrombie veterans, was incredibly well done. Who knew you could ever have a poignent moment with a cookpot, right?

I tend to agree that Abercrobie does overdo the fact that his wizards don't look the part, although that particular idea does play into this book a little later. It's fairly chuckle worthy that the only person we've met up until this point that looks the part is nothing but a librarian.

Huh, I had nearly forgotten that Bayaz was busy being a butcher when we first meet him at the first library. He's definitely not what you expect on first impression. He does display some magic, but even he's pretty blunt about the lack of magic left in the world and his vastly decreased powers. It's always worth mentioning the lack of magic in Abercrombie's world and the generally high costs of using it.

Ahhh, Collem West, still is and likely will always be one of my favorite characters in the First Law world. I personally don't see him as a hero, he does heroic things but rarely has a choice in the matter and even then his heroics have a tendency to kick him in the teeth at the end of the day. I see him more as the every man thrust into Abercrombie's story who then gets twisted and contorted as he tries to make it through a series of death matches alive.

I've always loved the duality of West and Jezeal's chapters. Jezeal dreams of glory in battle and we see the truth of matters through West's eyes.

West's chapter is equal parts set up for what we see shortly from other the other POV characters and seeing the consequences of their actions what they've already done, i.e. the Mercers reacting to Glokta and Sult's machinations against their guild. What we the reader know or feel is a huge deal because we know what's been done by Glokta at Sult's request and the political ramifications and yet we see how very little it matters to West.

Obviously we'll be seeing allot more from West's POV later on, but I've always liked his introduction as the "Good Man" stuck in Abercrombie's typhoon of unpleasantness.
7. Malbon
I'm surprised you didn't mention what I saw as the most poignant scene thus far - Logen on the shore of the lake, telling Quai he won't be able to leave him any food. Quai is dying, and Logen has been shown already to be a hard man, a killer and a "realistic" person. The conversation between Quai and Logen as Logen prepares to make the last leg of the journey is expertly set up to take advantage of our knowledge of Logen to assume he's leaving the young man to die. Not sparring him any food out water seems a little overly cruel. But that's when Logen picks him up and slings him over his back. "I'll need all the food if I'm going to carry you the rest of the way" he says, or something close to that.

It's little scenes like this, where Logen continually subverts our expectations to do something surprising, that make me unable to read into your somewhat one-dimensional view of him. He's a brutal man, but from his point of view most of his brutality has been forced on him. It's the unreliable narrator trick of choose, but between Logen's surprising moments of wisdom and kindness, and his own skewed view of the events in his own life, that make me constantly shifting my opinion on him from hero to villain and back again.
Justin Landon
8. jdiddyesquire
@malbon -- Yeah, these plot summaries get pretty unwieldly if I get too far into 'moments' when they don't really tie directly into the plot, particularly that chapter where there was a LOT that happened once he got Bayaz.

But, I agree with you. That's a great moment for Logen and a real turning point in our analysis of him. Like Glokta, we're always forced to reconsider whether we like or even want to like Logen.
Dustin Freshly
9. Fresh0130
@7 malbon

I've been holding off on going into what an unreliable narrator Logen is as a character until after the reread gets past King of the Northmen. There are a couple of quotes and scenes in that chapter that we as readers finally get a glimpse into just how dark Logen's past really is.

At this point we've only seen things from his own limited and throughly skewed view point. He admits he's done horrible things but mostly blames them on either being young or circumstances beyond his control. Even his run in with Calder doesn't produce much for the reader to go on beyond the fact that Calder is surprised to see him and at least a little afraid of him although even he doesn't seem overly concerned to see Logen palling around with Bayaz at this point of the story.

Eventually we get a much bigger/darker picture of Logen, mostly through other POV's where they discuss his past or brief flashes of the Bloody Nine prior to Last Argument of Kings, but right now all the reader gets to see is "Nice Guy" Logen as Abercrombie wants us to see, especially compared to some of the characters we're about to meet from his past in a few chapters. The hints about Logen are there, even this early in the books, but it's all cleverly hidden and easily looked past by the readers.

I'm actually rubbing my hands together in anticipation of what's coming up here shortly as the bigger picture starts to take shape and we meet some more of the POV characters and they begin to move around the game board so to speak.

To Abercrombie's credit though, I don't think I ever really stopped liking Logen and that was all based on this initial portrayal, I was very much disturbed by him to say the least, but I never went as far as to see him as a villain even if I should have.
K Parsons
10. Avlonnic
@7 Malbon Thank you for calling out that scene. The set up was perfect. My gut was sinking when Logen said he would leave no food for poor Quai. And then - Bam! Complete change of circumstances and emotions. (I didn't actually fist pump when Logen said he would be carrying Quai 40 miles on his back...well, not where anyone could see.) But this was a memorable scene and a testament to fine writing.
11. Michael Winter Cho
I love the scene where Logen carries Quai! It's when he became a "good guy", making the second half of the series so awkward and painful when he starting doing awful things.

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