Wed
Feb 5 2014 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Never Bet Against a Magus”

First Law trilogy reread Joe Abercrombie The Blade Itself I can’t talk about Joe Abercrombie this week without mentioning that I had the distinct pleasure of reading his next novel, Half a King, over the weekend. I won’t say anything of substance about the novel at this point, except to say that it’s everything that’s made Abercrombie my favorite writer working today, while also speaking to a new kind of reader. In other words, I encourage you to be as excited as I was.

In the First Law world, where there’s more to talk about, we come to one of the pivotal chapters in the Circle of the World canon. It’s a chapter with huge implications for this novel and the ones immediately following, but also one that resonates through every novel from this point forward. You know what they say, never bet against a magus...

 

“Never Bet Against a Magus”

Wheat Thin Summary: Jezal gets his butt kicked. Glokta relishes it. Bayaz cheats. Jezal is a sore winner.

The Triscuit Summary: Logen, Bayaz, and Quai sit in the stands, waiting for Jezal and Gorst to face off in the final bout of the Contest. Quai seems diminished, pale and twitchy. Off hand, Bayaz asks whether this coming duel reminds Logen of his own experiences in one on one combat. The memories aren’t pleasant and force Logen to confront a part of himself he wishes was further behind him—the Bloody Nine.

Observing the pair of fighters, Logen declares Gorst the more dangerous. Bayaz offers a gentleman’s bet that Jezal will win. Despite Quai’s muttered warning to never bet against a Magus, Logen agrees. The crowd is on Logen and Jezal’s side, preferring the dapper nobleman to the slouching hulk and his artless style.

The fight begins and Jezal realizes he has no chance against Gorst who is, quite simply, an immovable object. Glokta watches the event with child like glee. Enjoying another’s suffering, he reflects on his own once-skill and wonders whether he would have given Gorst a better test. Down three touches to none, with only one more from Gorst to end the match, Glokta watches Jezal impossibly avoid a final strike. Jezal counters to put himself back in the match.

Bayaz, sweating profusely, admits to manipulating Jezal’s performance with the Art. Logen sneers at the foul play, and Quai continues to mutter about betting with a magus. The Art seems to drain Bayaz at a prodigious rate. With the aid of the Magus, Jezal rallies, a better fencer than he ever imaged he could be, and defeats Gorst.

Immediately congratulated and lauded by his opponent, Jezal reacts like the snide brat he has always been, seeing only his own skill and no one else’s contribution. As he’s congratulated by the King, Jezal is mistaken for Prince Reynault and the King celebrates his return to Adua. For without Reynault, surely Ladisla would be incapable of rule.

Awkward.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

Cutting, and cutting, and licking the blood from his fingers, while the Dogman stared in horror and Bethod laughed and cheered him on.

Although Logen has talked about his past deeds before, this is the first time we get some honest reflection into what Logen did as the Bloody Nine. He didn’t just kill in a professional manner. He maimed and slaughtered and bathed in blood. He relished it. It’s a much different picture than the Logen we spend time with in this first novel.

Then, when the end seemed certain, out of the corner of his eye, Logen saw the air above Bayaz’ shoulders shimmer, as it had on the road south when the trees burned, and he felt that strange tugging at his guts.

In my previous read-throughs of the series, I never paid much attention to Logen’s spiritual powers. They just didn’t seem that significant. On this more granular read-through, statements like this stand out. Is Logen the only one who can feel Bayaz’ magic being cast? Does it have something to do with attunement to the spirits? Could Logen have been a magus with training? Does Logen do magus things subconsciously? Curious!

The Cheese on the Cracker: After careful analysis, because everything I do it careful and well reasoned, I realized this is the first chapter that Abercrombie jumps heads. In “Never Bet Against a Magus” we get Jezal, Glokta, and Logen points of view, all watching the same events from a different angle and world view. Why does he do this? I have absolutely no idea, but I’m totally open to wild guesses. In fact, I’ll make some of my own!

  1. Abercrombie is a master planner and this chapter is all about setting up Gorst’s character for The Heroes. Logen and Glokta think he’s something special. Jezal hates him for what he represents. And Gorst embraces Jezal for beating him.
  2. If the story is only from Jezal’s point of view we wouldn’t know why he was capable of victory. If it was a Logen chapter, we wouldn’t get any reaction from Jezal in his moment of victory, thus robbing us of his assholeness. If it was a Glokta chapter it would just be an absurd amount of italicized internal monologue.
  3. Abercrombie needed Glokta to see Bayaz working hard at some unseen purpose. It’s evidence he’ll need to connect the dots.
  4. There were three chapters written around the Contest and his editor made him cut them because he’s a sadist.

It could be any of those reasons or none, but it is an interesting departure stylistically. Personally I found it a little jarring.

Interesting to me are Logen and Glokta function merely as observers with Bayaz as the primary actor. Although Jezal is fighting, he’s entirely passive, absorbing blow after blow from Gorst until Bayaz boosts his stamina, strength, and flagging ego. To what end is Bayaz manipulating the outcome? He’s had limited interactions with Jezal and no discussion about what his plans are beyond traveling to the Old Empire. It clearly reveals a longer game, one that requires a nobleman of some standing to execute.

I will say that his plans have an impact on the very future of the monarchy, which is foreshadowed heavily by the King’s interactions with Jezal at the chapter’s end. What seems a misunderstanding of identity, and it is, is a definite clue from Abercrombie as to what Bayaz’ plans for our fencing nobleman may be.

Equally important is Glokta’s reaction to Bayaz’ perceived effort as Jezal is winning. Is this the start of Glokta buying into Bayaz as First of the Magi returning? It would seem a leap of logic for Glokta to go from total skeptic to open-minded doubter, but clearly his knowledge of the physical world is shaken by what he witnesses. Jezal does things in the match that are simply not possible, particularly to one of Glokta’s training.

Also, I still can’t get over how much of Gorst is already on display in this first novel. For those who’ve read The Heroes, the speed with which he embraces Jezal after defeat is heartbreaking. Poor guy better get used to shit treatment from Jezal dan Luthar, right?

Quick note. For those who want to discuss Quai, I don’t feel like there’s enough evidence in this chapter to really speculate about who/what Quai is. Feel free to do so in the comments, but know I’ll be addressing in future chapters where there’s more meat to play with.

Next Week: The Arch Lector is back. Every time I write Arch Lector I want to call him Arch Hannibal. Don’t judge me.


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.

7 comments
Malbon
1. Malbon
I agree, this is a chapter that could not have been told from a single perspective without missing something important, and while Abercrombie would go on to do some very interesting things with shifting POVs in subsequent books, on this first go it feels a little awkward. I do enjoy the fact that it's the first - and one of the last - times all three main POV characters are in the same space together. I won't happen again until the madness of shifting viewpoints as things come to a head in the final book. As the 'important' moment the novel has been building to all along, the time and place for it makes sense.

I find it amusing that Glokta spends so much of this series so close to figuring out what's going on, but never quite makes it. This chapter is a perfect example. Glokta knows that something is wrong, is sure that someone is cheating, but he can never figure out how. He remains the untimate cynic, even later on, when he is faced with more powerful magic than is shown here.

This is the first time we've seen Bayaz the puppet master at work, actively changing things to suit his own ends. The long game? We are going to learn that he's been playing a game so long, most of the players weren't born when it was begun!
Malbon
2. Fester
Concerning Logen potentially being a magus, I think I recall that the third son of Euz was given the knowledge of spirits. My books are on loan right now, so I can't doublecheck, but it was mentioned when they're told the story of Glustrod in book 2.

My impression at the time was that Logen's abilities were descended from the third brother, instead of the High Art that Bayaz practices.
Malbon
3. Verdantgreen
I agree that the point-of-view jump is a little odd here. Interestingly, it comes to be a bit of a signature thing for Abercrombie. In particular, I'm thinking of the battle early on in The Heroes where the point of view jumps from one character to another as each is killed in turn. In that instance, I thought it was a wonderful way to get across the sprawling chaotic nature of the fight for the hill.
Justin Landon
4. jdiddyesquire
@Verdantgreen--Definitely! I think this is a classic case of an author trying something new with his structure and then putting it in this pocket. It's like watching an Obama speech from 2007. Trying out all the tricks he'll later use on the big stage.
Malbon
5. bobthebuilder
Just wondering , who would win in a fight between Gorst and Thunderhead ?
Malbon
6. Pouria
@Verdantgreen: That's one of my favorite chapters of The Heroes. The guy with the woden ring is still stuck in my head.

I agree the point of view jump here was felt a little weird at first, but I think it works out great anyway.
Malbon
7. Pouria
Damn, can't edit it seems, anyway:

@Bobthebuilder: Think Thunderhead would win, atleast at this point in time, Gorst fights with strength, but he doesn't fight quite as brutally as a northerner would (not yet atleast).

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