Jan 15 2014 2:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Dark Work” and “Words and Dust”

Joe Abercrombie The Blade Itself First Law Trilogy There was some big Joe Abercrombie news this week. In case you missed it, the cover and first chapter from his forthcoming young adult novel, Half a King, were revealed. I haven’t read the chapter yet because I am currently otherwise engaged with Abercrombie fiction. I don’t think Glokta would take kindly to me fooling around behind his back. I am nothing if not a gentleman.

However, the blurb has me scoffing. “A classic coming-of-age tale…” Really? If ol’ turn-an-entire-genre-on-its-head-Abercrombie is writing classic anything I’ll eat my hat. Because this is the early 20th century and people still wear hats. I’m currently in negotiations with Abercrombie’s children for a copy of the book. My current offer involves several pints of Red Bull and enough hard rock candy to bankrupt the family. I’ve got a good feeling that dad will prevent this deal from occurring by preempting the process. Just a hunch.

This week’s chapters were a little challenging. The first, “Dark Work,” is barely worth talking about. Logen’s old crew does some stuff and then it ends. Thankfully, things are rescued by an absurdly rich Glokta chapter right after. Bear with me while I rapidly move through the first to take on the second.

“Dark Work”

Summary: Dogman finds a burning house where an old man, his daughter, and her two children have been hanged. The entire group, Black Dow included, finds this pretty reprehensible, relatively speaking. They pursue the murderers and “take care” of them. They learn that Bethod is taxing the country side and razing those who can’t pay. It also comes to light that Bethod is warring with the Union. The North is undefended should the shanka come south. Forley the Weakest proposes a plan to warn Bethod of the shanka threat. Although everyone agrees it’s a bad idea, it’s the best they have.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced (and then summarily killed by an axe in the face): Groa the Mire

Quotes to Remember:

‘It’s for work like this that you bring along a man like me.’

Black Dow has a black reputation. It appears to be well deserved.

Commentary: This whole chapter is pretty much one long character study of the various members of Logen’s crew. They don’t have much of a story to tell for themselves…yet. They feel kind of like a big awkward band of fanfic lurkers. They’re checking things out, not really sure if it’s for them, but don’t mind spending some time to find out.


“Words and Dust”

Back cover copy: Glokta watches Bremer dan Gorst annihilate the crowd favorite, Kurster, in the Contest. Then he goes to the University, located in a neglected corner of the Agriont, to dig up dirt on Bayaz. He discovers ancient histories that indicates the true Bayaz would have a key to the House of the Maker.

Manuscript: Kuster, the crowd favorite in the Contest, performs for the crowd while Bremer dan Gorst watches. Glokta observes the pair and alights on the fact that Gorst, despite his dockside appearance, is the superior fighter. He bets long odds on the ham-handed swordsman and watches with glee as Gorst demolishes the more traditional Kurster. Glokta pockets the profits and exits stage left. The man knows how to back a winner.

At the University, in the shadow of the House of the Maker, Glokta meets the Adepti. Five aged men greet him, each with an esoteric specialty that hardly bears repeating. They inquire as to the availability of funds now that the Mercers are no more and their assets seized by the Inquisition.

One of them, a master of chemicals, is Glokta’s desired liaison as he tries to ferret out a mundane explanation for the nighttime explosion in Logen’s room. Disappointed in the man’s ability to produce meaningful chemical reactions, Glokta seeks out the Adepti of history, a man so archaic he’s sidelined by his peers.

The Adeptus Historical knows quite a bit about Bayaz and gives Glokta an earful. After examining an ancient document, one of three describing the fall of Kanedias, Glokta learns that Bayaz, First of the Magi, has the only key to the House of the Maker. If the man claiming to be Bayaz cannot produce such a key, then he is clearly a fraud. Glokta is satisfied and leaves the University in a smug mood.

Important Characters Introduced: Kanedias’ daughter. (Yeah, that’s it so far, sorry.)

Minor Characters Introduced: Bunch of old dudes at the University.

Quotes to Remember:

Glokta grabbed the handle of an ancient-looking door, studded with black rivets, began to turn it. He felt Silber seize his arm.

‘No!’ he snapped, guiding Glokta away down a corridor beside. ‘The stacks are down here.’

This is just a hunch people, but this door might play a role later.

‘Who’s going to look after the past, when I’m gone?’

‘Who cares?’ ask Glokta as he stalked toward the steps, ‘as long as it isn’t me.’

This quote is so good. Such a wonderful finish to this chapter. The loss of history, of context, is at the root of the Union’s rotten core. It plays a little on the tired axiom, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but does so without being trite. Glokta recognizes history is important. It’s just not important enough for anyone like him to pay attention to. The words really resonate for me.

Art by Alexander Preuss (from Subterranean Press edition of The Blade Itself)

Blow by blow: Ok, everything that happens in “Words and Dust” before Glokta talks to the Adeptus Historical is like a Channing Tatum movie before he takes his shirt off. If anyone has something else they want to discuss in this chapter BESIDES that, I’ll be happy to play footsie in the comments. Otherwise, on to the historical accounting of Bayaz and the other ancients…

Here’s what we learned:

  1. Bayaz is actually the first letter in the alphabet of the old tongue.
  2. Juvens gave Bayaz his name. One letter, one name, first apprentice, first letter of the alphabet, etc.
  3. Before the Union there was a dude named Harod, who became Harod the Great, that got picked up by Bayaz. Bayaz promised to make him King if he did as he was told. Harod was skeptical. Bayaz broke his table with the Art. Harod came around.
  4. Bayaz made Harod establish the capital in Adua, make peace with certain neighbors, war with some others, as one does.
  5. Eventually the Union was formed and Bayaz became the chief counsellor and all the structures of the Union that survive sprung from the Magus.
  6. When Harod died, Bayaz left too with an Arthurian like promise to come back.
  7. Before Harod things are wicked murky, because chaos ensued after Juvens and his brother Kanedias (the Master Maker) went to war.
  8. It seems Kanedias killed Juvens and his apprentices sought vengeance.
  9. Kanedias took refuge in the House of the Maker, which the Magi threw their power against for twelve days and nights.
  10. Then Bayaz found a way inside… [some stuff about Kanedias’ daughter]
  11. Bayaz kills Kanedias, but they cannot find something called the Seed.
  12. The Magi sealed up the House of the Maker, buried the dead, along with Kanedias and his daughter, and Bayaz took the key.

Pant. Pant. Pant. Now that’s an info dump!

I don’t have much analysis here yet except to say that this is primer on which a great deal of conjecture and supposition will be based as we move through the series. Bookmark this summary because I’m probably going to be referencing it as often as Eminem raps about feeling guilty.

Next week: We’re back to Logen and Ferro doing Logen and Ferro things. Amen.

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. TangoDancer
I like the Arthurian comparison at point 6, but the unanswered question is why Bayaz went away in the first place? To continue the Arthurian comparison theme is Bayaz more of a corrupt Merlin (acting as guide and mentor to the future "King") than a shady Gandalf?
Justin Landon
2. jdiddyesquire

Good question. I think there are layers to it. Abercrombie, for the first book or two, wants us to believe it's more the former I think. But, as time goes on it's revealed that there's not much difference between him and the Eaters. He's as power hungry as anyone. It's a cool spin even when you consider Arthur with the assumption that no one does anything for purely selfless reasons. Arthur's promise to return in Britain's greatest need is really just another feather in his cap of egoism perhaps? Dunno.
3. Shane S
Really enjoying this re-read. Keep it up!
Dustin Freshly
4. Fresh0130
Jumping in with a couple of things here on these two chapters.

As much as I enjoy the Contest chapters there really isn't much I can add that hasn't already been said.

Well, maybe something quickly here.

As far as West and his place in the pecking order, I'd rate him as a pretty exceptional swordsman by Union standards. He keeps pace with Jezeal for the most part until Jezeal, who everyone notes is one of the most naturally gifted fencers they've seen, actually gets serious. Gorst is Gorst, we see more of him in the Heroes and get an idea of what he really is, i.e. a monster unto himself. You figure West is years out of winning the contest and his days of constant practice are well behind him and yet he still stands up pretty well. Just my two cents on the matter.

An interesting note from "Dark Work" is that Dogman sees Forley as the lone figure stopping the whole of the crew from slaughtering each other at this point and then two seconds later he's the putting the kibosh on the the in-fighting. Self perception again rears its head.

I'll again point out the Reality vs. Ideals in the confrontation with the Mire's crew. Threetrees is the embodiment of ideals while Black Dow is the reality of the North. Here we see them intersect violently, even Rudd is loathe to admit that they can't let the boy go and so Dow puts an end to any speculation rather abruptly about what could be if the situation were any different.

And so Forley's off to see Bethod, I think we'll all have something to say when we get to that, but the forebodings are all pretty dark.

Not the most hopeful chapter in the Trilogy, but as in war and the First Law, things rarely are.

Gorst whallops some poor sap and Glokta couldn't be happier, that's my commentary on the Contest here.

The dinner with the Adepti, there's only so much foreshadowing you can cover before we're talking all the way through Red Country, lol. Suffice it to say, there's allot said in a few paragraphs that will have some pretty big ramifications in later books, not just the trilogy.

Adeptus Silber, ye protest too loudly methinks...

And so we come to the meat of "Words and Dust," which consists of Glokta's observations as he wanders the University and then his conversation with the Adeptus Historical, the only one of the Adepti never given a proper name by the way...

Justin nailed the problem on the head, the Union doesn't give a fig about history. The Adeptus Historical, or the old man as he's referred to during his appearance, recounts just how little things have changed since the very founding of the Union. His retelling of the Fall of the Master Maker is about as accurate of a portrayal, i.e. no embellishments by Bayaz, as a reader is going to get. He also portrays Bayaz as a bit of a trickster, which even at this point is a fair assessment of the First of the Magi, if only people listened...

Is this the first specific mention of the Seed? I don't recall that off the top of my head.

Anywhoo, Glokta gets what he needs, discards the rest, and then is off again.

Being a big fan of history myself, I do feel for the Adeptus Historical, he's a square peg in a round world as it were. You do learn from the past or it will come back to haunt you, well there are quite a few ghosts's floating around the First Law world.

That's enough out of me for this week I suppose. Obviously we'll get more into the Fall later when we get more of the story from those directly involved.

Tomorrow though, some fun and a whole slew of remarkable talents.
5. eddyozman
My dissolute past (present/future?) forces me to tell you that 5 to 4 are short odds, even for a two horse race. Not a long shot at all.

Which makes me think about the economic system of Adua... Those odds implies that the book being run is 'over-round' to a high degree (for a two horse race where one guy is heavily backed, but the other is still offered only at 5/4...) meaning either that this bookie is going to be coining money as a genius money-maker or that the people in the city are not very sophisticated financially? I suppose if the rise of the Mercers is still recent history, the latter is probably understandably the case. Still a young civilisation there.

Anyway, I just picked up this series and am enjoying this re-read as I head through the books for the first time. Glokta ftw.

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