Wed
Jan 8 2014 2:00pm

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

The Blade Itself Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Welcome back to the First Law Trilogy reread! I hope you had a happy holidays. I certainly did. Sadly, the most genre thing that happened over my holiday season was constructing Barbie’s Dream House. Now, you might be thinking, what does this have to do with Joe Abercrombie and the First Law Trilogy? Well, nothing, except I think it’s a really good analogy for how hard it is to build something that will last.

Barbie’s Dream House? Probably not going to stand the test of time. It’s got some flimsy bits and the primary user is a four year old who thinks the occupant of the dream house is our puggle (that’s a dog, in case you’re not up to speed on your trendy breeds). However, it’s sturdiness has nothing to do with my lack of effort in its construction. With the help of a lovely couple on YouTube, who have seemingly dedicated their lives to ensuring appropriately assembled children’s toys, I put all 75 pieces where they belonged. And I did it with love.

Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy? I think it’s got a chance folks. And this week’s chapter, “Nobility,” helped convince me. See, this is the first time we really get a look at Bremer dan Gorst. He’s really a bit of a one-off character in the trilogy, but that’s not the case later with The Heroes, in which he is the primary protagonist (one of). Here’s the crazy part: Abercrombie doesn’t treat him that way, even here. Gorst has a personality. He feels like someone that we could invest in if he had a light shined on him.

And it isn’t just true of Gorst either, although he’s the only one who goes on lead his own book. Characters like Prince Ladisla and Lieutenant Kaspa are unique and memorable even if their lines are few. The investment from the author is plain as day in every piece moved onto his stage.

The Barbie Dream House is quite the opposite. It has many parts, some of which just aren’t needed. There are decals in odd places. It has two elevators with their own pulley systems where one would suffice. The floorboards flex too much and don’t even get me started on the sliding panels that simulate changing the television channel. In other words, Mattel has invested only deep enough to get you reading. After that? Well, there’s always Barbie’s Townhouse.

“Nobility”

Headline: Jezal fights his opening duel in the Contest, which he wins in spite of his nerves. Afterward he has a rendezvous with Ardee West knowing full well it’s a terrible idea. They neck a little.

Body: Jezal examines his jaw for a terribly long time. He comments on how beautiful it is without being too beautiful. It is, in fact, just the right amount of beautiful without detracting from its rugged toughness. Or something.

After giving up ogling himself, Jezal acknowledges his nerves at today’s event. A note on his breakfast tray tells him to meet Ardee at midnight near Harod’s statue. This does nothing to calm his nerves as the Contest nears.

Walking down the tunnel to the Contest waiting area, Major West meets up with him. West offers the fencer his empathy, assuming Jezal’s anxiety is over the coming fight, when it’s really West’s presence that’s the problem. Jezal is scared to think what West will do if was aware of his feelings for Ardee.

Jezal notices Bremer dan Gorst, whom he compares to a farmhand rather than a fencer. The fighters line up to be introduced and Gorst stands beside him. Where Jezal is nearly shaking in fear, Gorst has the audacity to wink. Jezal is matched against a man named Broya whom he defeats with casual arrogance, his nerves disappearing once the steels strike. 

With only a single match for Jezal on the schedule, it’s time to celebrate. Lieutenants Kaspa and Janelthorm drink to Jezal’s victory, quickly leaving the Captain and Major West as sober as the pair of junior officers are foxed. The group discusses the coming war with the North. Only West seems to take a cautious approach, arguing that the Union has little idea of what they’ll face. After rampant speculation, West pulls Jezal side to tell him that in four weeks the war will begin.

Unable to focus on anything, concerned as he is about Ardee, Jezal leaves. Despite knowing that engaging in a relationship with Ardee West is a recipe for disaster, he heads to the statue. Although he arrives late, Ardee is waiting. She flirts with him, before offering a passionate kiss, then leaves, seeming to manipulate Jezal’s reactions as though she’s playing a game.

Important Characters Introduced: Bremer dan Gorst (long term)

Minor Characters Introduced: Broya, Jezal’s Jaw

Quotes to Remember:

It must have come from his mother’s side of the family. Jezal supposed. His father had rather a weak chin. His brothers too, come to think of it. You had to feel a little sorry for them, he had got all the looks in his family.

Uh huh. Unreliable narrator, mayhaps? Also, the opening to this chapter goes on for like 400 words about Jezal’s jawline. So, if you dug my random and personal story about Barbie’s Dream House, you’ll love this chapter.

A few glasses of wine can be the difference between finding a man a hilarious companion or an insufferable moron.

Story of my life. You cut life a knife, Abercrombie. 

Op-Ed: So the Contest. We finally get to see what it’s all about. Four rounds, single elimination, with Jezal noting he has to defeat four men to win, means there are sixteen fighters in total. On the first day there are only two matches, Jezal’s and another. The contest then is spread out over some days. I find it a bit odd logistically to hold a tournament that has such short matches over such a large time frame. How do they get the crowds to show up for such a quick show? I’m pretty sure if the World Cup matches only lasted minutes you’d need more than one to get a consistent turn out. Maybe they have some animals fighting beforehand. Or clowns. It’s probably clowns.

As a side note, Jezal defeats his first opponent, Broya, so casually as to make me wonder whether the Contest is full of terrible nobles with overly high opinions of their skills or if Jezal is really this great. Knowing what I know about the subsequent books, I think Jezal is legitimately very good. But, there’s at least a chance that most of the Contest is populated by rubbish fencers. This would, perhaps, explain why Major West was able to win. He’s a fine swordsman by all accounts, but definitely described as more workmanlike than a dazzling champion.

Beyond the Contest the only other interesting tidbits are West’s musings about what the war in Angland might look like and putting a deadline now when it will happen. Although the Union as a whole feels overwhelming confidence, I’m taking West and Logen at their word that a fight between the Union and the North will be trouble.

In terms of Ardee, I think “Nobility” pretty well seals the fact that she has an agenda. She’s trying to manipulate Jezal intentionally, not as merely a distraction for her boredom. Is it to make her brother angry? To improve her station? Or is she merely toying with a noble because she can? I’m not a huge fan of the man-eater trope, but Abercrombie executes it pretty well with Ardee West.

Next Week: We get to see Logen’s old crew in action. And I promise there will be no Barbie Dream House talk. Black Dow wouldn’t like it.


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.

3 comments
worse
1. worse
Well, as I mostly found it fitting what you said about this chapter (leaving your lovely house-building efforts aside) all I want to comment on is the tournament itself.

I think the reason it can entertain the crowds with such little action is because it has been the winners that took important positions afterwards so it could be fairly legitimate to say that the people are interrested in their future leaders (Leaving one crippled man aside there). And, well, for those living in the Agriont it might be the only time of the year where they get to see at least a little bloodshed which might be something for all those poor and bored souls.

Ah, about Jezals easy first win: I think it is a mix of what you said and the fact that most nobles (if Jezal is the prototype of Abercrombies noble) don't take this tournament seriously enough, Jezal didn't do it at first for sure. They know all the contestants fairly well enough and, well, some might just not have wanted to face off against Gorst... or Jezal seeing that they are both being treated like the most likely winners of the tournament anyway.

Lastly about Wests blazing victory at the tournament:
I am fairly sure he was a really good contestant at that time, he talks to Jezal about his hellish training, however, as Glokta puts it later the style and technique of fencing have changed since his victory (so most likely they also changed since West's) so I'd say his fencing against Jezal earlier don't really show us how well he did at his time.
Long story short, I like West as a character so I am too biased to believe that he just won because of all of his opponents. (Though the ranging man might not be any good in a tournament like system anyway...)
Iain Cupples
2. NumberNone
It seems as if you can only compete in the Contest once, so I imagine that the quality of the field varies quite a bit from year to year. Still, winning is in social terms a Big Deal, so I think we have to accept that all those who do win are, or were, pretty damn good fencers, West included. But he's had a few years since then for his skills to decline.

I agree that it makes no sense to have the Contest so spread out, though.

There really are so many little things that Joe throws out seemingly casually only to pick up later, aren't there? And this chapter has more than a few. ;) Makes you wonder how much is really planned and how much is developed later, by looking back and thinking 'hey, I could do something with that'.
Justin Landon
3. jdiddyesquire
@NumberNone

Totally. I think Gorst is a great example. I've never asked Abercrombie, but I would be surprised if had any intention of making Gorst a lead character someday. But, because he never gives any character the pure NPC treatment, he actually gave himself a really cool base for Gorst in the First Law text. Pretty awesome.

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