Dec 18 2013 2:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Questions”

The Blade Itself Joe Abercrombie First Law Pardon last week’s interruption. While I was busy giving random gifts to Joe Abercrombie’s characters, I was also having a conversation on Reddit at /r/fantasy. Someone asked, “Why do people like Joe Abercrombie’s books? During a game of cards, Jezal can look at the way people smile and deduce their entire personalities. It is ridiculous.” I responded. You know I did.

My response was thus: “The scene where Jezal is “deducing” people is a total farce. Jezal is a screw-up, a completely worthless human being. He’s deluded and self centered and all that. The point of view is his. He thinks he’s an amazing card player fully aware of the nature of all the people around him, when really he’s completely devoid of awareness as to how pathetically shallow and vapid he is.” In short, Abercrombie writes points of view with commitment. Nothing in a Jezal chapters reveals anything that isn’t warped by his nobleman’s bias. It’s true of everyone in the book. They’re all so caught up in their own heads that they can’t empathize, even for the reader’s benefit.

Everyone except Glokta…


The Skinny: Severard informs Glokta that there’s been a disturbance with Bayaz and his companions. Glokta investigates, but disbelieves Logen’s account and Bayaz’s power. They part ways with the Inquisitor even more convinced that Bayaz is a fraud.

The Chubby: Practical Severard interrupts Glokta’s breakfast, which he enjoys to the degree that every moment is a struggle to keep his gorge down. Annoyed at the interruption, Glokta forgives Severard when he’s informed that the First of the Magi (Bayaz) and his companions were victims of a break-in. Naturally, because the world conspires to make Glokta’s life difficult, their chambers are in the Tower of Chains.

Severard also updates Glokta on Logen’s wanderings, including his chat with one, Ardee West, who Glokta identifies easily from the Practical’s description. Glokta seems oddly protective of the girl, interested to a degree that’s contradictory to his usual ask-questions-later approach. As the discussion continues Severard mentions his disappointment that they’ve been told to drop the Mercer case. It’s a sentiment Glokta shares. In fact, Glokta doesn’t think they should drop it all. He orders Severard to put his ear to the ground about Valint and Balk, discretely. Very discretely.

On his trek to Bayaz’s room, Glokta pauses on the stairs to ponder his situation. Once a physically superior fencer, he’s now reduced to huddling in an embrasure with only his pride to keep him from shivering on the floor and screaming in pain. Putting on his best I’m-going-to-torture-you face, Glokta makes it the Magi’s rooms.

Greeted by Malacus Quai, Glokta dismisses him as a pretend-magus and restrains himself from further anger at Quai’s Gurkhish lineage. The apprentice directs him to Logen. As the Northman approaches Glokta notices “A thoughtful kind of slowness. As if [Logen] could move quickly but doesn’t see the point.” Logen recounts the night’s events, emphasizing the terrible cold the intruder brought with her. He indicates she did not do the damage to the room. It was Bayaz and his Art. Glokta inquires further into Logen, learning he speaks to spirits (laughable, of course) and was once Bethod’s champion.

The conversation is interrupted by Bayaz’s arrival who barely resembles the statue on the Kingsway. Glokta mocks his legend and requests a demonstration of magic, which Bayaz denies. Glokta accuses Bayaz of falsifying his claim as First of the Magi. Anger then, and a pressing down on Glokta’s emotions “like a great weight, driving the breath from his body, threatening to crush him to his knees, cutting into his skull, and leaving behind a creeping shred of doubt.” The pressure eases a moment later, the old Magi smiling. He shines Glokta on, daring him to prove his theory.

Committed to doing just that, Glokta leaves.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

Only one chair, half a table, and a tall ornamental jar, strangely pristine in the middle of the rubble-strewn floor, had escaped destruction.

Another great example of the trick Abercrombie uses to give his reader a sense of connectivity. Logen saved the vase in the previous chapters during his nocturnal encounter to great comedic effect. Now, the vase is still there, serving a purpose. It makes the canvas Abercrombie paints on feel alive. It’s a great and simple technique.

‘I do.’ Ninefingers sighed. ‘I should have killed that bastard long ago, but I was young then, and stupid. Now I doubt I’ll get another chance, but that’s the way of things. You have be…what’s the word for it?’

‘Realistic,’ Quai said.

How cute. They’re finishing each other’s sentences!

The Recipe: As I mention in the opening, many of Abercrombie’s characters possess blinders, both to themselves and the people around them. They are, like most of us, incapable of seeing outside of their own experiences. Glokta is the opposite. Painfully aware of his own shortcomings, he’s incredibly savvy about the people around him. Where Jezal assumes he knows about the men he’s plays cards with, Glokta makes few assumptions until given evidence to work with. He is, in many ways, Abercrombie’s truth teller, the character closest to the author’s own voice that he can use to illuminate what’s really going on without impeaching his tight points of view.

Glokta demonstrates this well in “Questions” when chatting with Logen. Not a brute, Glokta recognizes him for a thoughtful man who is deliberate in his speech and dangerous for it. Where others have been taken in by the garish garb of the trio of visitors, purchased at the costumers shop, Glokta sees pretenders and actors trying to be something they’re not. Put aside for a moment that they actually are what they’re pretending to be, Glokta is quick to recognize they’re playacting something. This is directly juxtaposed by Jezal who is taken aback by Bayaz’s fine wizarding garb some chapters back.

It’s not like Glokta doesn’t have his own foibles. In “Questions” he’s too cynical, ignoring the signs that Bayaz might be who he claims, insisting on his own interpretation of the events. He also willfully ignores Arch Lector Sult’s rather clear order to stay away from Valint and Balk. But, he does these things with a rationale behind them, not tainted by bias. He’s also by far the character with the most empathy, able to put himself into another’s shoes and understand where they’re coming from. It’s an odd descriptor to put on a torturer, but it fits rather nicely into the paradigm of shifting expectations that Abercrombie creates.

Overall, “Questions” kicks off a few new angles and dribbles out some information.

  1. Glokta isn’t satisfied with Arch Lector Sult’s decision about the Mercers. I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to end well for anyone.
  2. Logen speaks to spirits, which we knew, but the spirits in Adua are gone, sleeping. Interesting. Why? I want to explore this later.
  3. Bayaz uses his power to try to overcome Glokta’s skepticism, but the Inquisitor resists. Does he really resist or is Bayaz toying with him? Or did Bayaz really use power at all?

Next Time: The Contest begins!!

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.

Nathan (@reviewbarn)
1. Nathan (@reviewbarn)
'Abercrombie writes points of view with commitment.'

I have tried say this a hundred times without this much clarity. Usually in arguements on various forums when some one decides "oh, Ardee is a 'such and such.'" And I want to point out repeatedly, who's viewpoint are we getting as make that decision?

Well said. Thanks for clarifying my thoughts.
Dustin Freshly
2. Fresh0130
I mentioned last week that there was something I wanted to bring up about the conversation between Logen and Ardee, but on rereading both chapters and the reread post I find that it fits here better any way.

Ardee takes one look at Logen and pretty much comes to the same conclusion that Glokta does.

Readers may say allot of things about Ardee, but she's generally one of the most observant and honest characters in the trilogy. Now, I'm not saying she's entirely honest with or about herself, but when it comes to seeing things as they really are she's one of the more reliable voices you're going to encounter.

@1 Nathan brings up a good point, "Ardee is a such and such" is a pretty succinct description of allot of the reactions to her, which I find a bit unfair. Yes, she’s one of the central characters if not the outright instigator in several of the more emotionally difficult or awkward scenes in the trilogy, she’s more than a little bit of a drunk, she’s got some pretty big time issues that are going to get compounded upon fairly exponentially in the very near future, and as a result of all of that she’s pretty bound and determined to self-destruct through most of the trilogy, all of which can make her a difficult character to read.

I’m going to stop myself there. I could probably write pages upon pages of character study on most of the cast of the First Law and still have plenty to say, but I will say this: I enjoy Ardee West because of her flaws, most of the time she couldn’t give two sugar plumbs and a flying reindeer about what comes out of her mouth, but she acknowledges her flaws, which is more than most of the characters we’re reading.

Back on topic…

And so Glokta meets most of the rest of the cast and he’s pretty spot on in his assessment of them, which we have come to expect out of him as our voice of reason POV. Logen is a very dangerous individual, even more so than his hideous appearance belies, Bayaz and Quai are pretending to be something, although as Justin mentions, he misses that they’re just pretending to be what everyone expects the Magi to look like rather than being the actual legendary figures out of history, which in turn leads him down some very unpleasant paths later.

Although in retrospect, what exactly would you expect out of our resident cynic? He starts asking questions before he gets out of bed, lol.

I got a pretty good chuckle out of this as well:

“That’s quite a climb to make, especially in a dress. An impossible one, wouldn’t you say? How do you think this woman made it?”

The old man snorted. “Do you want me to do your job for you? Perhaps she clambered up the latrine chute!” The Northman looked deeply troubled by that suggestion.

Poor Logen, he’ll never be able to use the bathroom in peace again.

And here’s the quote of the chapter:

What if they are simply telling the truth? What if…
Glokta forced the idea from his mind.

How much easier would Glokta’s part in the trilogy have turned out had he just accepted Bayaz at his word? Very much so. Although he probably wouldn’t have attracted Bayaz’s attention either, which I believe is what we see at the end of the chapter. Bayaz decides to give Glokta a little test, which I also believe Glokta passes, which explains Bayaz’s relative civility towards him, he kind of likes our crippled cynic, although as we also know, even at this point, just because Bayaz likes someone doesn’t mean that their life is going to get any easier in the near future, in fact it usually means the opposite, your life is probably about to get a whole lot more difficult and complicated.

That’s enough from me for now, I’d love to see some folks chime in, I love Sore Thumb and Question, they’re two of my favorite chapters in the whole trilogy.

If you get nothing else from me this week, have a Merry Christmas ya godless stinkin' pinks!

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