Feb 26 2014 2:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Nobody’s Dog”

The Blade Itself First Law trilogy reread Joe Abercrombie Next week’s chapter is too crucial to shoehorn into a two chapter post, so despite the best laid plans of mice and me (sic), this week I am forced to satisfy your desire for Joe Abercrombie with a single one.

In recent chapters The Blade Itself has relied on shifting points of view. It’s a pattern that ends this week by telling an entire chapter from Collem West’s point of view. By staying in West’s head and not switching to Ferro or Ardee, Abercrombie is forcing us to rely on West’s bias. The events of the chapter demand that, but it makes his choice of narrator-hopping in previous chapters worth deeper examination for anyone interested in the impact points of view have on the narrative.

On to one of the most horrifying moments in the First Law Trilogy and fantasy at large. Just look at the title...

“Nobody’s Dog”

Two sentences: Major West lets Ferro and Yulwei enter the Agriont. He mopes about how rough his job is, then goes home where he flies into a range and abuses his sister.

Eleven Sentences: Collem West is the lone voice of sanity in the Union military complex—just ask him. Running around solving problems for Marshall Burr, West is tasked with settling a dispute at the Agriont’s gate. Despite proper paperwork, a savage looking woman and old man are denied access by the guards unless they disarm. The pair, which turn out to be Ferro Maljinn and Yulwei, are less than thrilled with the idea. With a cool head and a some credibility earned in the Gurkhish campaign, West mollifies the situation and gain the travelers entry.

Continuing to wallow in his sacrifice for the good of the Union army, West goes home. Before he opens the front door he hears Ardee, who has let herself in. Fearful of walking in on her with Jezal dan Luthar, he knocks before entering. She greets him with a glass of wine in hand a decanter in the other. West finds a letter on the desk discussing a future rendezvous with who he assumes is Jezal.

Unable to suppress his rage at the thought of Jezal and Ardee in a relationship, seeing only how it will impact his standing in society, West beats her. Unbowed by his aggression, it reminds them both of a childhood spent beneath the thumb of a violent father, West’s escape, and the guilt he feels that he left Ardee behind. West’s apologies fall on deaf ears and she leaves.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

There was nothing to be gained by losing his temper. There was never anything to be gained by that.

This is like a big flashing proceed with caution sign on a highway. Where once we a had a pillar of heroism, we will soon have someone decidedly less. Abercrombie seems to be saying we all have our flaws and the ones who would try to appear most righteous are the least of us in truth.

This was always the way of it. Back and forth: from Burr’s offices to the various commissary departments, to the commanders of companies, of battalions, of regiments, to the stores scattered around the Agriont and the city, to the armouries, the barracks, the stables, to the docks where the soldiers and their equipment would begin to embark in just a few short days, to other departments and back to where he began, with miles walked and nothing done. Each he night he would drop into bed like a stone, only to start up a few hours later with all to do again.

The sexy nature of the military! Stunningly accurate based on my experiences, though, and altogether uninspiring from the perspective of storytelling. A bold choice! Few authors are willing to discuss the nature of bureaucracy. Although Abercrombie only touches on it briefly—he is after all trying to entertain us—the fact he’s willing to mention it at all is nearly as revolutionary as his more obvious efforts at fantasy coup d’état.

Diagraming the sentences: Up until “Nobody’s Dog” we see Ardee only as a someone trying to exercise her limited amount of power over the men in her life. While the nature of those relationships is troublesome, it does not make her a victim of anything other than a crapsack world (credit Liz Bourke). All that changes in an instant when West turns into the hulk of domestic violence. Let’s backtrack for a moment though.

The chapter opens with West bemoaning his lot in life. We learn several important things about the state of the war effort, namely that there are not nearly enough weapons for the troops (a result of the nobles failing to provide for their levies) and no one cares except West and Marshall Burr—and only the former is going to do anything about it. There’s also a fascinating back and forth between West and the commanding officer of the armory. West orders the man to make more weapons and he refuses, not only on the grounds that its not within his responsibility, but because he refuses to takes any kind of order from an upjumped commoner.

This is a crucial scene to set up the second half of the chapter where the relationship between West and Ardee comes to a head. Abercrombie shows us the pressure West is under and the impotence he feels trying to alleviate it. Finding a note from Ardee to Jezal is the catalyst, but it’s this that provides the fuel to West’s anger.

Of all the violence in The Blade Itself thus far (and really there hasn’t been that much given Abercrombie’s reputation), West’s abuse of his sister is the most gruesome in my opinion. He hits her, bounces her head off a wall several times, shakes her, and chokes her. The nature of the violence isn’t as significant as the cavalier ease with which he carries it out; there is no fear of retribution.

Ardee breaks him out of his mania not by reacting in kind, but instead taking it with a dead behind the eyes calm. It jolts him because it reminds West of the abuse he suffered at the hands of their father. More startling though is that it reminds him of his guilt for leaving his sister alone in that house when he left for war. He did not rescue her from an abusive father, lying to himself that it stopped when he left.

It’s a deftly nuanced portrayal of an abuser, one that probably works so well it will scare off some readers. Abercrombie has taken the character we most wanted to love, the first through the breach and the commoner rising through the ranks on merit, and makes him quite possibly the most loathsome individual of the bunch—someone who beats on those incapable of fighting back.

Gut turning and triggery, “Nobody’s Dog” turns out to be a deeply disturbing title to a deeply disturbing chapter.

Next Week: Abercrombie finally let’s us see what Bayaz is planning and the role everyone will play.

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.

1. Skyweir
One of my favorite chapters, and perhaps Abercrombie's most successful subversion yet. I agree that West is, in many ways, the most loathsome of Abercrombie's characters, and yet I find myself rooting for him time and time again. And each time, I remember this chapter and kind of shudder.

West is designed to be the classical rising "noble" commoner, the only sane man in the incompenent aristocratic army. And in some ways he is, though of course he has his own biases and we clearly see them with careful reading. Still, we are conditioned to love him (and despise Jezal, his opposite in many ways). Yet, here we see his true core of selfishess shining through. Indeed, his oft repeated mantra is "Why me?", because the true injustice is that West is facing hardships, am I right...?

Ardee grew highly in my esteem in this chapter, and her response to West here is both heartbreaking and in some ways triumphant. After this, I am solidly in her camp. And of course, she is right that Jezal might be a an ass, but he would never beat her.
Matthew Brown
2. morven
It makes you realize what kind of man can take the crap that West really does get; despite West's feeling sorry for himself all the time, he really does get loaded with a lot of responsibility and works for a system that will always reward an noble idiot over a hard-working commoner.

And the answer is: someone who bottles up his anger and transfers it onto people who don't deserve it but are safe to take his anger out on.

If West took out his anger on those that deserve it, he wouldn't have a career. If he kept it bottled up inside, he would break. West shows himself here to also lack a moral sense, just as those who give him orders do. We shouldn't be surprised, but we are, because he's a reasonable man and thus we're predisposed to like him.

The reasonable man who works for an unreasonable regime WILL have flaws, and nasty ones.
Iain Cupples
3. NumberNone
No doubt, this is a really difficult chapter to talk about, and it probably does deserve a post all to itself, not least because for me it gets right to the heart of what the trilogy is about, right there in the first book.

Now, hopefully with some respect, I'm going to agree strongly and disagree slightly with the first and last sentences here:

It’s a deftly nuanced portrayal of an abuser, one that probably works so well it will scare off some readers. Abercrombie has taken the character we most wanted to love, the first through the breach and the commoner rising through the ranks on merit, and makes him quite possibly the most loathsome individual of the bunch—someone who beats on those incapable of fighting back.

The nuance is essential, but the bit I disagree slightly with is the bolded part. There's no question that West is guilty of vicious, unforgivable abuse here, and no doubt that what he does is one of the most abhorrent moments in the series, but I think it's perhaps inaccurate to say he is 'someone who beats on those incapable of fighting back'. Undoubtedly he does it here, but as a rule, West isn't a bully. He doesn't pick on the weak to make himself feel big: almost the reverse, in fact. He does have a moral sense, and that's why it's so shocking and unforgivable when he suddenly throws it aside. He has no excuse. And we can offer none for him.

That's the thing about domestic abuse: while it would be comfortable to believe that it's a crime only committed by nasty, brutish types who have no moral sense and who habitually pick on those weaker than themselves, that isn't always true, and Abercrombie doesn't let us have that (perhaps more comfortable) perception of West. Instead, he makes it clear that given the right set of circumstances, West is capable of such abhorrent behaviour. And he follows it up with scenes where West does the right thing, or struggles valiantly to do the right thing, or otherwise engages our sympathy (though we are never allowed to forget this incident, or the potential that something like it could happen again). West is never allowed to become a caricature or cartoon of an abuser. In that way, it's all the more shocking and even unflinching a portrayal of the reality of domestic abuse. It isn't a crime restricted to drunken, uneducated bullies with stubbly jowls and a tendency to solve every problem with their fists: it's worse than that.

Not only that, but the treatment of the issue gets to the heart of what I think the series is about: are we defined by our worst actions, or our best? By our guilty secrets, or by our public reputation? By our flaws or our achievements? The best summation is in LOAK, when (minor spoiler) Logen asks Jezal if he's a good man, and Jezal replies 'you're the best man I know'. But here, too, we have the rug pulled out from under us, making us see a character we'd wanted to sympathise with in a whole new light - though if that's all that had happened, it wouldn't show us much. It's because West goes on to do good things that this stands out, that the incident doesn't feel like exploiting a sensitive topic for the shock value. There's more to the story than what we thought was a good guy turning out to be a bad guy underneath. IMHO, anyway.
4. Brian Malbon
NumberNone, I'm disappointed. I've been enjoying politely disagreeing with you over the last few chapters, but here you've hit the nail on the head. West is that most frightening of people - the decent guy always trying to do the right thing who suddenly and unpredictably snaps and lashes out with violence. And here is the problem with the abuser: he doesn't pick on just the weak, out the helpless, but specifically on the person he loves the most and is closest to. That's what's most terrifying.

And that exchange between Logen and Jezal in LAOK is hands down my favorite moment in the series.

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