Wed
Dec 4 2013 2:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Better than Death” and “Sore Thumb”

The Blade Itself First Law trilogy Joe Abercrombie Being the sucker that I am for all things Joe Abercrombie, I get quite a kick out of seeing how he structures his foreshadowing and layering of information to create a sense of reality to his imaginings. It’s something a lot of authors aren’t good at, resulting in things being dropped into the story that seem to come from nowhere or never spending the time to invest in a character and their situation. Not so with this book, series, or anything with Abercrombie’s name on the cover. He really understands storytelling and it’s no more evident than it is in this week’s chapters….

“Better than Death”

To the point: Yulwei reveals to Ferro that he’s taking her to Adua. She rejects the notion, but follows him anyway. They come across a band of slavers that offers to sell a young girl to Ferro. She gets mad.

Beating Around the Bush: A Gurkhish officer questions Yulwei and Ferro regarding an escaped slave armed with a bow. Hidden behind the Magi’s power, Ferro appears to be a simple boy, not even worth conscription into the army—an army which the Emperor, Uthman-ul-Dosht, has sworn will sweep away the pinks in Dogoska.

The soldier waves them along.

On the road Ferro wonders at their destination. Despite her willingness to follow Yulwei out of the desert, she’s reticent about his intentions. Their destination is across the Circle Sea to Adua, by way of Dogoska. Ferro could not be more surprised, believing as she does that the Union is full of godless pinks. She describes them as nearly subhuman compared to the Gurkhish, who as Yulwei points out, she doesn’t hold in the highest esteem.

Ferro switches tactics and argues she has unfinished business in Guskhul, killing the Emperor. Yulwei chuckles at the notion. The Emperor will have to wait. Ferro owes him.

En route to Dagoska, Yulwei stops to observe a fortress where many Gurkhish ships are docked. At least twenty, many large enough and in large enough numbers to take Dagoska from the bay. It suggests an alliance with someone from the north, Styria perhaps. Regardless it makes their mission even more urgent and Yulwei redoubles their pace. Ferro couldn’t care less. The pinks aren’t even people after all.

As they move through Gurkhal lands they came across another group of soldiers, slavers this time with people from the recently rebellious Kadir in their train. Evidence of a failed rebellion, and the Emperor’s despotic attitudes, Ferro watches as the Emperor’s men do to others as they once did to her.

Important Characters Introduced: Uthman-ul-Dosht the Emperor of Gurkhul (he’s been mentioned before, but I forgot to mention him here).

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

“These pinks, they don’t think like us, like real people! We’ve no business with their kind! I’d rather stay among the Gurkhish! Besides, I’ve scores to settle here.”

Interesting to see the stereotypical barbarian style character refer to the pale-skinned-people as less than human. Isn’t that something normally reserved for the dusky skinned folks in fantasy novels? It’s a small thing, but not an insignificant one in a series challenging some of the expectations we have about what epic fantasy is supposed to look like.

Killing him could have filled that empty space, if only for a while. That was how it worked.

Just another horrifying look into what makes Ferro tick. It’s a line that sounds sociopathic, but actually humanizes her for me. She feels a need to fill up a void inside her. Isn’t that a hint that there’s something in there that can be put back together?

Sending the Message: A chapter mostly continuing to emphasize the hollowed out nature of Ferro’s emotional state, “Better than Death” is also chock full of plot nuggets and world building hints. As I hinted at in the beginning of this post, Abercrombie uses small almost throw away scenes or, in some cases, small paragraphs, to give us a hint at the things to come or flesh out his world in a way that makes sense within the narrative. Here we have two of those moments.

One, Dagoska is going to be ground zero for the conflict between the Gurkhish and the Union. The ships are being built for a purpose and this little scene, which Yulwei lends import, gets us thinking about what’s to come. You may recall in “An Offer and a Gift” the Dagoska representatives lobby the Crown for more resources to shore up the walls. Abercrombie is layering us with tidbits about the situation south of Adua so that when the powder keg explodes it’s really something we’re not only expecting, but believe in wholeheartedly.

Second, we learn more about the Gurkhish Emperor, Uthman. We know that he condones slavery, as indicated by Ferro’s troubles, but it’s confirmed in “Better than Death” that he’s also hell bent on scouring the Union from Dagoska. War is inevitable. We’re also shown what that slavery really means here. With Ferro’s impressions it’s been somewhat abstract. In this chapter, Ferro is offered a girl from the slave train for coin. The woman is debased and shamed and Ferro can do nothing to stop it. Even killing the tormenter lacks purpose because the kind of behavior on display is so pervasive throughout the Empire. It’s frightening and designed to make us like the Union despite the fact that their society is nearly as unequal and problematic. Oops, did I just stumble into some more controversial political topics?

 

“Sore Thumb”

A Little Ditty: Logen leaves the silk cell the Closed Council has put them in to walk through Adua. He’s awed by its size and foreign nature. He returns to his room to sleep, but wakes when a ghostly apparition of his long dead wife appears. Reality is warped and the room explodes, leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling. Bayaz believes it is an Eater’s work.

Stairway to Heaven: Logen looks out over Adua from his luxurious rooms. He’s frightened by it. “Never properly dark or quiet. Too hot, too close, and too stinking,” he sees Adua as terrifying because he can’t fight it. He avows to go into the city to face it, because there’s nothing else to do but face a fear.

Bayaz joins him at his perch, reminiscing over the way Adua used to be when it was “barely more than a huddle of shacks, squeezed in round the House of the Maker likes flies round a fresh turd. Before there was an Agriont. Before there was a Union, even.” He’s bitter at the way he’s been received after all he’s done to make the Union what it is today. Logen takes his cue and leaves.

Wandering through the city Logen sees many things—the construction of the pavilions for the Contest, a running Jezal dan Luthar, a statue of Bayaz, and a drilling band of professional soldiers. The latter offer a more accurate portrayal of the Union soldier than Logen has seen. The most impressive, and perplexing, sight is the House of the Maker, a “man made mountain of dry, stark, dead stones.” Sitting on a bench at its base Logen encounters a woman, heartier than the pale creatures he’s seen in the streets. She treats him not as a monstrosity, but like someone equally as out of place as she is.

Later in the night, Logen wakes with an urgent need to relieve himself. Stumbling around in the dark, uncomfortable with southern plumbing, he encounters an apparition in the shape of his long dead wife, Thelfi. Suddenly the room explodes in searing light, followed by a crash, and a sound like a splintering tree. Opening his eyes, Logen finds the chamber changed, a gaping hole in the ceiling and the woman gone.

Bayaz enters, unsteady, but unperturbed. He declares it safe, blaming “An Eater, perhaps. Sent by Khalul.” Logen asks what an Eater is. The question goes unanswered as Bayaz falls into an exhausted sleep until Malacus enters. “It’s forbidden,” he whispers, “to eat the flesh of men…”

Important Characters Introduced: Khalul.

Minor Characters Introduced: Thelfi.

Quotes to Remember:

‘I gave them this,’ hissed Bayaz. Logen felt the unpleasant creeping sensation that always seemed to accompany the old wizard’s displeasure. ‘I gave them freedom, and this is the thanks I get? The scorn of clerks? Of swollen-headed old errand-boys?’

Temper. Temper. Bayaz gives us something of a Major West moment here. He’s seemed always in control thus far. He’s slipping. Merely a moment of frustration or something of his true nature shining through a false veneer of cordiality?

No plants clung to that looming mass, not even a clump of moss in the cracks between the great blocks. The House of the Maker, Bayaz had called it. It looked like no house that Logen had ever seen. There were no roofs above, no doors or windows in those naked walls. A cluster of mighty, sharp-edged tiers of rock. What need could there ever be to build a thing so big? Who this Maker anyway? Was this all he made? A great big, useless house?

Not the most stunning quote. Really just workman like description, but important. Logen is asking the same questions we’re asking. What the hell is all this mythology than Abercrombie is hinting at? We need more information! WE DEMAND IT. Thankfully we’ve got a crooked-nose-scarred-spirit-seeing-whacko on our side.

Compositional Analysis: Following the model from the previous chapter, there’s a similar kind of delicious setup going on in “Sore Thumb.”

We’re starting to get very real confirmation that Bayaz isn’t just an insane person who thinks he’s the original Bayaz, but the genuine article. This makes him quite ancient and perhaps infinitely more powerful than he’s appeared to this point. Although he has flexed his magical muscle, he hasn’t done anything that’s on par with the wizards of epic fantasy (see the Grey, Gandalf). As the chapter concludes we get some hint that perhaps he drove off the attack. Physical exhaustion was a problem after his fire summoning on the road to Adua and here he just passes out.

Before doing so he mentions someone named Khalul and Eaters. We’ve heard the term Eater before and a savvy reader probably connected the dots a while ago, but Malacus does so explicitly in the last line of the chapter. It is forbidden to eat the flesh of men is one of Juvens’ laws of magic and it seems the Eaters break it. Creepy. And thoroughly intriguing. Who is Khalul though? And who does he work for? We know Eaters are after Ferro. Logic would dictate Khalul is in cahoots with Uthman.

We’ve also got the Contest being setup and Jezal hustling through the square. I feel like it might have been easier to just put up a neon sign for the reader that read, “Contest! Coming soon!” I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m totally ready for some fencing. I’ve been reading The Princess Bride to my daughter recently and the Inigo/Man-in-Black scene was like an appetizer. Bring on the Gorst!

Two other quick notes. Ok, not so quick. First, the girl Logen meets on the bench is quite clearly Ardee and it’s fascinating how she interacts with Logen. She’s depressed and self destructive. Yet, it’s easy to empathize with her. In fact, she’s by far the most empathetic (only?) character in the book. She seems a victim of a system that beats down the lower classes, but does the same to women, giving Ardee West a bad case of double jeopardy. Somehow I’m thinking her relationships with the men in her life are going to get messy. And there’s no women in the book for her to talk to... so... yeah.

Second, Logen’s observations of the unit of Union soldiers is a fun bit of foreshadowing. It’s a little too overt in the grand scheme of things, but Abercrombie is laying the ground work for how the Union will continue to screw things up. Even a well trained unit designed for battle on Union terms is going to fail in the North, where nothing goes as planned as the land is as much your enemy as the men trying to kill you.

The more I think about it the more I wonder if this whole series shouldn’t be retitled, “The West Family: Drawing the Short Straw”.

 

Next Week: Glokta puts Bayaz, Quai, and Logen to the question... without his tools.


Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him onTwitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

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6 comments
Pirmin Schanne
1. Torvald Nom
I'm curious: can we discuss the ghost woman's potential identity here, or should we hold that off until more hints are given?
Justin Landon
2. jdiddyesquire
Let's do it.

I really don't think there's been any evidence yet, but feel free to bring in spoilers.
Dustin Freshly
3. Fresh0130
Ahh, the first time we hear Ferro referring to the Union being filled with "Godless Pinks."

You're exactly right though Justin, the practice of slavery by the Gurkish is supposed to, and Abercrombie does it quite well, drive the reader straight into the loving arms of the Union as being the "right" side of the major conflict in the First Law world. Having read all of Abercrombie's books many times at this point I can say that not all of the Gurkish are bad folks, heck, not all of the Eaters are bad despite their suspect dining habits.

But how much better is the Union? The absolutely crushing poverty and unescapable class system class system aren't a whole lot better than the Gurkish's slavery in allot of ways.

Putting a different coat of paint on the same broken house doesn't necessarily make it a better place to live.

I'll have to wait to chime in on Logen and Ardee's run in, I know there was something that I wanted to either quote or go into in a little more depth than just going off the top of my head lets me do. I do recall that Ardee's reaction to Logen after seeing pretty much the rest of the population of Adua being horrifically repulsed by Logen stood out and made me like her quite a bit more than I was inclined to just based off of Jezeal and West's chapters.

The whole scene with the Eater in the Apartment is exactly what you called it as well, set up for later.

Sore Thumb is a hard chapter for me to not just tell people to go and read for themselves, it's chocked full of great little insightful moments and glimpses into what's to come right next to some of incredibly hilarious scenes, it's Joe Abercrombie's writing style in one neat little nutshell.

The whole scene with Logen creeping around the apartment looking for a place to go number one is so funny, then just incredibly creepy, and then the whole scene just decends into chaos as Bayaz blows the place to smithereens.

There are so many little throw away details that could just be lost with the average writer, like Logen rescuing the vase or his distrust of the plumbing, which pay off here pretty quickly in the futue, but really make the reader see just how vastly different the characters are and how easily they look right past each other and only see what's on the outside, ahh, there's that recurring theme again!

@Torvald Nom: I'll speculate, is the Eater we see Tolomei? I'm not certain she's on the loose prior to Bayaz opening the House of the Maker in a little bit. Her calling card is invading people's dreams, as we see with her eventual use of Glokta, she's a little more covert than just sneaking into his rooms and trying to replace Logen, which fits with my quess as to who makes an appearance in this chapter.

I'm also not sure that Bayaz would have been able to drive her off as easily as we see him drive this one off, Eaters are powerful, but Tolomei is an entirely different beast based on what we see in Last Argument of Kings and I don't think she'd let him traipse around the House of the Maker like he does unmolested no matter who he's got with him when he goes in, which we again see in LAoK when she finally gets to confront him.

My personal guess as to identity of the Eater in this chapter is this was our first encounter with the Eater that eventually gets the best of Malacus Quai and spends the next two books as a traveling companion, I don't recall if we ever got a real name for that particular Eater off the top of my head though.
worse
4. worse
This might be full of spoilers now but I love to speculate from time to time!

I do think, in some ways, similar to Fresh, that the Eater would hardly have been driven off by Bayaz attack, had it been Tolomei, however, she is not exactly an Eater and we don't know very well what feeds her powers. (At least I don't maybe you've been better at reading than me)

I don't really know if she was ever inside the House (after the tragic "accident" with her ,Kanedias & Bayaz), and thus am not really sure if Bayaz opening the House really changed something (at that point).
My assumption was that she had always been somewhere around Adua without a real shape, waiting for her chance to get back on Bayaz...

My assumption is that she does not have any real power herself, but gets stronger if she is with "magical" beeings, had she been inside the house of her father, I am fairly sure that she could have found the "item" she was searching for fairly easily... at least given all the time she would have had to spend there.

All in all I do think that the ghost facing Logen is Tolomei, but not exactly the way she will become later on... You could even say she's just a shadow of what she could really be... like... a ghost :)
worse
5. Ignes
I must say that I really enjoy this chapter by chapter commentary on The Blade Itself. It offers new angles on some things and makes me relive enjoyable passages in a less lonely 'me and my book' way.
As indicated a few posts (weeks?) ago, the comments of you people add to this a great deal.

However, for me this is a reread of the first book, which I read years ago, and will now follow up with reading the rest of the trilogy (which weren't available to me at that time). Unfortunately, I probably shouldn't have joined in here before finishing the whole trilogy. Even though the author of the column minimizes any spoilery info beyond the chapters discussed, and only points out foreshadowing that more often than not is quite apparent, the comments go way deeper. Despite enjoying that, I can no longer go into my first read of book 2 and 3 as unbiased as I otherwise would've been. Especially the comments on this post I've been forced to gloss over and already I know more than I'd wanted.
I went back to the first post to see if there were any warnings about this there, but none such. This is the first time I've been reading a reread on this site so I'm not familiar with the modus operandi, so to say. Even so, shouldn't there be a warning there that it's unwise to read these posts before finishing the whole trilogy?
I'll be off to read the next two books right now, and then I'll be back to enjoy this reread as it progresses. Can't wait!
Pyrrhus Aeacides
6. Pyrrhus
From The Last Argument of Kings:
“Months ago.” Quai was still chuckling as he pushed himself slowly up from the polished floor. “Before you left on your fool’s errand to the Old Empire.” There was no blood on his smiling face. Not so much as a graze. “I sat beside you, at the fire. I watched you while you lay helpless in that cart. I was with you all the way, to the edge of the World and back. Your apprentice stayed here. I left his half-eaten corpse in the bushes for the flies, not twenty strides from where you and the Northman soundly slept.”

...

“I saw you in your grave!” whispered Bayaz. “I piled the earth over you myself.”
If Bayaz buried Tolomei in a grave, then she was probably not buried in the House of the Maker. Also, she says she replaced Quai while Bayaz and Logen slept, so, this would seem to be the moment when she replaced Quai. Malacus Quai does get rather, er, whispery after this. He does retain some memories of the Old Empire later in the story, but recounts the memories in a rather not-Quai-like dour fashion.

Also, this chapter is the only time we ever, in all of Abercrombie, hear the name of Logen's wife: Thelfi. That's... strange, isn't it? Let's pay attention to these details about Logen's destroyed village - it builds up to something.

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