Oct 16 2013 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Flatheads” and “The Course of True Love”

First Law Trilogy The Blade Itself Joe Abercrombie Apologies for missing last week. I was moving into a new home. Did you know that when you move into a new house your stuff doesn’t magically appear in place? I was horrified to discover that my books were in boxes! And I didn’t have a desk set up! In any case, I’m reequipped with a larger office, more book shelves, and dedicated writing space. This in no way is likely to translate to better quality writing. Alas. In any case, thanks for your patience.

This week is the first introduction to Logen’s gang, the men he so swiftly left behind back in the opening bits of The Blade Itself. Told from Dogman’s point of view, so named for his keen sense of smell, Abercrombie continues with the theme of brutal men in brutal environs.

The second chapter covered is centered on Jezal. He’s confronted by Glokta, runs into a wizard, and is further ensorcelled by Ardee. For a guy with everything, he seems to be struggling to catch a break.


Catching a whiff: The Dogman contemplates life after Logen as the members of the gang reunite. Over Black Dow’s objections, Threetrees assumes leadership and the group heads south, encountering a band of Shanka along the way.

Laying down the scent: Dogman and Tul Duru Thunderhead wait in the meeting spot. While Tul paces impatiently, sure the others are dead or AWOL, Dogman keeps things calm. Before they know it Black Dow and Harding Grim appear among them, a threat implied by their stealthy entrance.

Tul and Dow get into a pissing match, nearly comparing the length of their equipment when Rudd Threetrees shows up with Forley the Weakest in tow. Dow turns his ire on Threetrees who the gang recognizes as the command presence with Logen dead.

“Ninefingers may be dead,” said Threetrees in Dow’s face, “but your debt ain’t. Why he saw fit to spare a man as worthless as you I’ll never know, but he named me as second,” and he tapped his big chest, “and that means I’m the one with the say! Me and no other!”

Once again Dogman plays peacemaker, reminding them of the Shanka all around. Things calm momentarily, manifesting as icy stares. With all of the gang, sans Forley the Weakest, unwilling to break eye contact with Dow, he relents. The wolf among them senses no weakness. Threetrees decides to head south.

Along the way they encounter a band of Shanka taking their leisure. The group plans an attack whose strategy hinges on a signal, which of course none of them bother to demonstrate ahead of time. The signal ends up being Dow running into the Shanka camp like a bat out of hell, resulting in a surprisingly successful raid. At the conclusion of combat they come to a realization that the Shanka threat is more manifest than originally imagined, and they ought to warn someone.


Important Characters Introduced: No new characters, but lots of existing ones fleshed out: Tul Duru, Dogman, Threetrees, Black Dow, Harding Grim, and Forley the Weakest.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

He watched Black Dow rubbing a rag on the head of his axe, looking at the blade with eyes soft as a lover’s.


A lot of men, most men even, wouldn’t have dared meet no look like that from Black Dow. He got the name from having the blackest reputation in the North, with coming sudden in the black of night, and leaving the villages behind him black from fire. That was the rumour. That was the fact.

Two quotes, one purpose. Black Dow is a bad man. He’s not the toughest guy on the block maybe, but it definitely seems he’s most lacking in human decency. There’s a lot of set up here for there not be something in the cards for Dow. I’m scared of him. Aren’t you?

Also, this gives you a great taste of Dogman’s voice. Abercrombie does a lot of cool stuff with the grammar here to really entrench the “in the trenches” mentality that Logen’s crew possess.

Sniffing out the truth: Abercrombie is employing very intentional tricks with his characters. I hadn’t necessarily noticed it before, but with the Dogman it’s terribly clear. Abercrombie’s point of view characters are universally despicable. We only root for them because everyone else around them is even worse. Although George R.R. Martin didn’t invent it, this technique could easily be called “pulling a Jaime Lannister.”

He also makes them underdogs by putting responsibilities on their shoulders that seem beyond their capability as human beings. In this chapter Abercrombie charges Dogman and his gang with warning others of the Shanka incursions. They take responsibility for something that seems far too large for such a rampant band of thugs. All of that goes to show that Abercrombie isn’t making us love his characters solely by making them interesting and vulnerable, but stacking the deck in their favor by twisting our perception of them.

The most significant plot point here is definitely from the Threetrees quote above. He references Black Dow’s debt to Logen. In Logen’s chapters we’ve been given hints that he fought single combat on Bethod’s behalf, but Threetrees is indicating that all the members of the gang were only allowed to live by Logen’s grace. He beat them all and they owe their lives as a result. Dogman and Threetrees most especially seem to respect that debt, while Black Dow thumbs his nose at it. The rest seem neutral at best.

My only conclusion in this chapter is Dow needs watching. Like a (Lady)hawk(e).


“The Course of True Love”

Innocent Flirt: Jezal shows up at practice to find Inquisitor Glokta waiting for him. Glokta mocks and goads Jezal. With no Marshal Varuz to train him, he wanders by Yoru Sulfur who insists Jezal cannot quit fencing. Seeking advice from Major West, he instead ends up spending more time with Ardee who convinces him to keep fencing.

Full Blown Proposition: In a rush to arrive at practice on time, Jezal dan Luthar is rather surprised to find Inquisitor Glokta waiting for him at the fencing yard. Already at the end of his rope, almost ready to quit, the fencer’s reaction to Glokta’s presence is like ice water down his back.

Glokta informs Jezal that he’s there to chat. He asks simple questions, but demands complex answers. Why does Jezal fence? The answers are many—for country, for honor, for family. Glokta sweeps them all away. Recognizing himself in Jezal, he declares,

“...Men don’t fence for their King, or for their families, or for the exercise either, before you try that one on me. They fence for the recognition, for the glory. They fence for their own advancement. They fence for themselves. I should know.”

Hitting too close to the mark, Jezal tries to go on the offensive, but Glokta maintains the upper hand, leaving him with a parting thought.

“Give it up. Lord Marshal Varuz will be disappointed, and Major West, and your father, and so on, but please believe me when I say,” and he leaned down, still smiling his horrible smile, “that I couldn’t care less.”

Annoyed, and with free time on his hands, Jezal wanders the streets surrounding the Agriont. Sitting beneath a tree, Yoru Sulfur waves Captain Luthar over. Sulfur introduces himself and makes opaque references to his relationship to Bayaz. When Jezal mentions giving up fencing Sulfur’s reaction is outsized. He demands that Jezal retract his negative aspersions.

Confused, Jezal seeks the only person he feels might be sympathetic—Major West. Instead, he gets Ardee in something less than a sober condition. After a great deal of banter he admits to her his desire to quit fencing. Her reaction is laughter, “I had a bet with Collem. He was sure you’d stick at it. And now I’m ten marks richer.”

Captain Luthar reacts with anger, then embarrassment, then renewed commitment to proving Ardee wrong.

Important Characters Introduced: None, but I really want to see more of Sulfur.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

And from a woman too! A woman! And a bloody commoner! How dare she? He had wasted time on her, and laughed at her jokes, and found her attractive! She should have been honored to be noticed!

Abercrombie has taken some criticism at times for being so male heavy with his characters, but this passage makes me realize that the author is quite aware of fantasy’s historical failings. He’s actively pointing his finger at wrongheaded notions here, I think, even if he isn’t entirely practicing what he might be preaching by actually depicting women in a more equitable light.

Reading between the lines: A lot of Jezal’s chapters are going in this same kind of three scene pattern. Fencing, random encounter, major plot mover. I have no idea what that means and it’s probably coincidence, but I’ve noticed it. In this chapter each of those scenes has the same point, a ratcheting pressure for Captain Luthar to follow through on his commitment to winning the Contest. There’s a complete character arc in many ways within the chapter itself. Jezal begins in denial and ends up accepting the fact that the only reason he’ll fence is to prove someone wrong. It’s about pride and self-image.

There’s an honesty to it though. How many heroes in fantasy assumed that role for glory hidden behind genuine sacrifice? I find it a much more realistic motivator, even moreso than to meet a father’s expectations or to impress a love interest. It’s a motivation that resonates for real people in a much more meaningful, if uncomfortable, way.

An interesting line amid all of Jezal’s petulance, Ardee mentions she’s reading The Fall of the Master Maker. We recently learned that the Maker murdered Juvens. What brought about the Maker’s fall? She calls it “Full of wise Magi, stern knights with mighty swords and ladies with mightier bosoms. Magic, violence and romance, in equal measure.” Many of the kinds of things said about fantasy fiction. Interestingly, like fantasy fiction I suspect the simplicity and fanciful nature of the narrative may bely some deeper truths. Are you as excited as I am to start drawing conclusions about Kanedias, Juvens, and Bayaz?


Next Week: We finish PART I of The Blade Itself with “How Dogs are Trained” (Glokta) and “Tea and Vengeance” (Logen). More importantly, we’re two weeks away from Ferro Maljinn’s debut performance! Things are about to get a lot more dynamic.

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. JReynolds
Abercrombie’s point of view characters are universally despicable.
I have to disagree on this one. The Dogman is actually a reasonable guy-- keeps his word, doesn't enjoy killing people (though he's willing to do so if necessary), and is a fair leader. He seems to be the only PoV guy who isn't a total putz.

Am I missing something about him?
Justin Landon
2. jdiddyesquire
@JReynolds--I'm jumping ahead for sure. We don't know everything about Dogman. And if I recall correctly some of it isn't good. AND I would argue Dogman is only considered "good" because everyone else around him is so bad. He still CHOOSES to be around awful people, which implies something about his own moral compass.
3. Juanito
Is this a RE-read or just a read? Because it SAYS "reread" at the top, but most of the commentary seems to be taking things in as they come as if seeing it for the first time. I'm not trying to criticize, but I was wondering because I'm about to delve into some minor spoilers.

I remember the introduction scene to the Backstreet Boys having this KJ Parker-esque veil thrown about it. We have this Warrior's Code, from which is derived this debt, that's the backbone of the Northmen's society, and not much else. None of the Funky Bunch have much idea of what's happening in their own land, let alone what's going on in Midderland. In fact, none of them talk about anything other than fighting and, well, their fruits. They only find out about Bethod's alliance with the Shanka and Calder and Scale's enlarged role in governance until way down the road when they meet up with Shivers, and he tells them that, yeah, he's no longer a "loyal" Named Man because the Code just doesn't hack it when you're serving a Man Who Would Be King.

But Black Dow's an interesting addition to the X-Men, as he's the only one who questions this slavish adherence to The Code that his companions live by. And at the end of the trilogy Black Dow throws the Code out, saying that the Old Times have been killed by Men Who Would Be King (Logen and Bethod in this case). By the time "The Heroes" concludes, The Code has been subsumed by greed for power. It's been perverted by those more manipulative (Bayaz), more ambitious (Calder), and more resourceful (Bayaz again).

So, in conclusion, it's refreshing to go back to this. I wonder how much of this society had been planned out or was just allowed to grow (architecture vs gardening, as Martin would have it). As it stands, I'm not sure if we see many people simply living in the Northland outside of battle scenes. At least never in this trilogy. Maybe I'll be proved wrong as the re-read continues.

Really enjoy reading your thoughts!
Justin Landon
4. jdiddyesquire
@Juanito-- It's definitely a reread, but I wanted to allow first time readers to read along if they wanted. I strongly encourage spoilers in the comments though. I suspect the main reread will get more spoilery the deeper I get into it. For now Abercrombie is really just giving us LOTS of character. The world building and plot are really just tidbits.

I think the only time we really get NORTHLAND living is in THE HEROES through Beck's point of view. Otherwise you're totally right, it's RAWR FIGHTING. Black Dow's role later in the series is really huge given how minimal his early involvement is... my goal in this post was to FLAG that for observation without outright saying it.
5. Malbon
With Ardee's little aside about the Fall of the Master Maker here, I feel finally ready to throw my personal theory on this trilogy out to you, and spoilers be damned.

The Fall of the Master Maker (a single book in three volumes if I recall) is a tiny jibe at the Lord of the Rings, the book that started the fantasy genre in the first place.
You don't have to read more than a few examples or watch more than one sword-and-sorcery movie to realize that most fantasy novels are nearly outright copies of that storyline: a wizard, a hidden heir to a beleaguered throne, and some stock characters go on a quest to find/save a magic MacGuffin that has the power to defeat a nation of Evil. There's more to it, usually, but that's the skeleton of the idea, and three more details get added the more the ripoff stories cometo resemble the original, instead of drift away from it.

The First Law is Abercrombie's anti-LOTR. He begins by introducing us to the fantasy tropes we're already well-prepared for - in beautifully detailed fashion and at great length, which is unusual, but by the end of the first book we have no doubt we are looking at an exquisitely well-written Tolkien ripoff. it helps to note that in novels where the authors choose to do away with elves and dwarves, a barbarian often stands in place of the dwarf, while the Guide or Thief covers the job of the elf. Ferro is hardly a Hobbit, but she still serves that purpose add the only person who can safely touch the MacGuffin. Then we get more little touches like the Old Empire, which is a reasonable stand-in for Numenor and a tale of the fall of the ancients.

He sets up these conventions carefully, even lovingly, and with obvious respect for their history, and then just as we start to settle in to comfortably watch the last pieces fall exactly where they should, he begins to rip them to sheds, knocking down the columns of conventions that we've become so comfortable with while we stare in shock, confusion and growing horror. Completely unbalanced, we stagger through the chaos of Last Argument of Kings With a single clinging hope that everything will right itself and go back to normal, until in the final pages when we get the sort-of unhappy ending (wherein nearly everyone still alive gets exactly what they wanted at the start but discover they don't want it anymore), we have to finally realize that we duped ourselves right from the start. It's not just an epic trilogy, it's also a mission statement - in an Abercrombie novel you will never get what you expect, and the proper way to read one is in a state of complete uneasiness. It's utterly brilliant.
Bruce Wilson
6. Aesculapius
@5: I'd absolutely agree with all that you say. That's a great summary of the broad arc of the trilogy and it's exactly how I felt.

I remember reading both Scott Lynch's Locke Lamora and Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself more or less one after the other when they were first published. I genuinely loved Lynch's book as almost a caper novel in a fantasy setting but, despite the apparently familiar tropes used by Abercrombie, particularly early on, there was always something that made me slighly uneasy too. A sense of impending doom that only deepened as The First Law trilogy went on!

I've no doubt it's not to everyone's liking but I thought it was genius!
Matthew Brown
7. morven
I tend to be of the belief that it's also the series' biggest flaw. Abercrombie sometimes cares more about driving the point home than writing a good story, and it shows.

Not enough to ruin it.
8. Malbon
I thought the series' biggest flaw was Brother Longfoot. God damn, I hate that guy.
Dustin Freshly
9. Fresh0130
Some great discussion already going on, I'll add some after a few comments on the chapters.

"Flatheads": And so we meet up with Dogman and company as the reader is again flung into the North and alongside a not so great group of guys.

I loved the whole ambush scene, everyone's very businesslike and professional as they get ready and then in true Abercrombie fashion everything quickly falls into chaos shortly thereafter.

Brutal action mixed right in there with Abercrombie's humor, I know for a fact I laughed out loud the first time I read Dogman's panic about the signal as Dow charges in headlong.

I'm always struck by the back and forth between Rudd Threetrees and Black Dow in these books. Rudd's kind of the ideal leader of a Northern crew, we see that more later on not only in the Trilogy but in the Heroes in talk from other Northmen we meet and Dow's pretty much the reality of the North, he's a brutal killer with little to no scruples about anything, although even he's got a few surprisingly human scenes. Dow's got a much bigger part to play but we're not really talking about that yet.

The contrast between the two is almost symbolic of Logen, even in his absence from the crew/North. Rudd’s the guy he wants to be/believes he is now, Dow’s more the reality of what he is/was, although you even hear from Dow that Logen’s bad news and Dow’s about as brutal and evil a character as we’re going to meet in the First Law, again, how bad is “The Hero” of our story?

I know I’m not the only one, but does anyone else here picture Ian McShane from Deadwood every time Black Dow comes roaring onto a page?

More on Dogman below...

"The Course of True Love": aka. The chapter Jezeal finds out he isn’t the Center of the Universe.

We’ve been seeing a slow evolution from Jezeal as the book has gone on, he’s still a very self centered Nobleman, but between Ardee West and the “hardships” he’s enduring for the sake of the tournament he’s started to become a more humble human being, which of course doesn’t sit well with him at all.

Jezeal gets not one but two reality checks this chapter, Glokta informs him that he doesn’t care what he does and Ardee laughs in his face and berates him for his “hardships”.

The question of which motivated him more by the end of the chapter is kind of moot, pretty obviously Ardee’s insults affect him more, but the results are the same, Jezeal off running and telling himself “I’ll show you! I’ll show all of you!” to the insulters. Nothing like insults and humiliation to get a fire burning under Jezeal’s pants.

@JR: Dogman’s kind of like Logen-lite, all of the practicality without all of that fattening berserker rage.
I’m not sure I’d call him good or bad, he’s certainly one of the “better” characters we meet in the trilogy and he has allot of admirable qualities, but he’s right there cutting throats and ambushing along with the rest of his crew.

@Malbon: You pretty much nailed what Abercrombie was going for, or what I thought he was going for any way.

The whole of the First Law Trilogy is one big set up, Abercrombie gives you what you expect, characters you know, a couple of storylines you understand, and then he slowly but surely starts dissecting those tropes in front of you, and then he’s on your front lawn strangling those tropes with barbed wire while you call the cops about the lunatic out front, and just when you think it’s over here comes this awful Frankenstein’s Monster version of those same tropes wandering around the story/your home breaking everything else that was still intact.

When I finished the First Law for the first time I half expected Joe Abercrombie to come running into my living room dressed as Maximus from Gladiator, throw a sword at me, and start screaming “Are you not entertained?”

@morven: One of the big questions I tend to ask a person when they finish the First Law trilogy and they say that the trope slaughter was over done is “What did you expect?” True Abercrombie does drive his point home with a sledgehammer, especially in Last Argument of Kings, but with everything else that happened in the books and where the story went, could it have ended any differently and made the same impact? I’m certain there’s a gentler easier path that the story could have taken but I doubt the impression the books leave would have left near the mark that it has on fantasy if it were any less harsh than it is.

Well, so much for me trying to keep things short this week, lol, I blame the discussion taking off for this week's wall of text.

As Justin said, we're closing in on Ferro, one of my favorite characters, can't wait for the discussion to start up on her.
10. Malbon
@fresh0130- wow, I never really thought of that, that Dow and Threetrees are basically the two warring sides of Logen. It kind of puts a lot of what happens in the North in a while new light. I see Dogman as kind of a Northern version of West in a way - he doesn't necessarily like anything that's happening but does what is necessary with the options available.

And no, there's absolutely no way the First Law Wolff have had the impact it had if it hadn't gone so maniacally over the top. It's exactly as it should have, needed to be.

@jdiddysquire, though, Dogman is the only one of the group Logen didn't best in combat. In Logen's reminiscences he mentions that Dogman was with him when he left the ruin of his village and came south to convince Bethod to help him fight the Shanka. He's been a party of Logen's crew since the very beginning, which makes him either the most to blame or the only innocent one of the group, dragged around by circumstances into the worst places in the North. It explains his philosophical perspective, how the others go into a fight because it's what they do best, while Dogman is always thinking it through.

I'd love to read a prequel novel that described the adventures of the Bloody-Nine's crew of defeated warriors as Bethod tightens his grip.
Dustin Freshly
11. Fresh0130
Having read Logen's transition from Before they are Hanged to his story in Last Argument of Kings fairly recently the whole Threetrees vs. Black Dow comparison for Logen gets even more apt given the events that take place.

You can tell from Logen's comments and conversations which way he's headed while the story in the North is unfolding simultaneously that ideals are all fine and dandy, but you have to be realistic. The events at the end of Before They are Hanged in both storylines set that ominous tone and feeling about what's going to happen, and the opening of Last Argument of Kings only makes you realize it's probably going to be worse than you thought.

Like I said, it's one of those things about this series that really struck me when I read it again, it's kind of sneaked in there, but if you look for it it'll poke you right in the eye.

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