Feb 12 2014 2:00pm

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

First Law trilogy Joe Abercrombie reread The Blade Itself Driving home from a conference, I was listening to the Coode Street Podcast with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe. They were discussing genre minutia, as they do, but in so doing brought up an interesting point about how genre relates to itself. Namely, they proposed the idea that a great deal of genre fiction looks inward. I took that to mean it responds to and manipulates tropes in such a way that only someone familiar with them can truly appreciate the attempt.

Often, when Joe Abercrombie is discussed in less glowing terms, it is because readers find the First Law Trilogy slow and unsatisfying. Over my many readings of the series I could never understand that reaction. I can’t claim that anymore. Reading The Blade Itself, at the depth and pace a reread requires, has allowed me to really understand the nature of the series better. And that nature is exceptionally inward looking. So much of what makes it compelling is a result of how it subverts expectations. To someone unfamiliar with the genre, The Blade Itself becomes asset deprived. Or, more clearly perhaps, it becomes somewhat exposed as a debut novel.

I would go on to argue that every novel he’s written since has become more outward looking. I could write an entire essay exploring this idea, but I thought it worth mentioning here. With that thought regurgitated for your delight, on to this week’s chapter…


“The Ideal Audience”

Regular Fantasy Summary: Glokta is interviewed by the Arch Lector as to the progress of his investigation. Despite a poor performance, Glokta reveals that only the real Bayaz could produce a key to the House of the Maker. The pair agree to pose Bayaz with the challenge at Jezal’s celebration banquet. Bayaz indicates he has a key, and declares he’ll enter the House of the Maker tomorrow.

The Way of Kings Summary (can you tell I’m rereading it this week?): Brought to Arch Lector Sults office, Glokta reveals the status of his investigation into Bayaz’s origins. Recounting the nighttime disturbance, his conversation with the man himself, the addition of a Navigator, and the corpse found outside Bayaz’s rooms, Glokta fails to impress the Arch Lector with his work. It isn’t until Glokta hands him the scroll describing Bayaz’s knowledge of the House of the Maker that Sult sees an opportunity to discredit the supposed Magus at Jezal dan Luthar’s victory banquet.

At the banquet, Logen Ninefingers struggles to fit in as he remembers mealtime in the North. Devoid of utensils or even plates, a chieftain’s table was full meat off a carcass and dogs scrambling for scraps. Warned by Major West that the flowers aren’t for eating, Logen strikes up a conversation with the former fencer. Happy to discuss anything but his own past, Logen describes Bethod’s tactics.

Meanwhile, Jezal pouts that no one seems to be nearly as impressed with him as they ought to be. Instead the table is rife with rumors of discord in the countryside. Malcontents lurk in every corner, looking to make a move while the Union projects weakness. 

Glokta observes it all, loathing Jezal for what he sees of himself in the arrogant noble. After a toast by Chamberlain Hoff to the Contest winner, a performance begins from one of Adua’s finest actors. A scene of Kanedias’ death and Bayaz’s response, Glokta sees it having the intended effect on the so-called Magus. As the play concludes, the Arch Lector challenges Bayaz directly to prove his identity by magic or with a key to the House of the Maker.

Refusing to perform magic, Bayaz removes the key from under his robe. Tomorrow he will open the ever closed House. Then, without disturbing anyone’s food, he makes Sult’s chair collapse beneath him.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: The Tanner

Quotes to Remember:

“I heard a song once, in Angland, about a nine-fingered man. What was he called now? The Bloody-Nine! That was it!” Logen felt his grin slipping. “One of those Northern songs, you know the kind, all violence. He cut off heads by the cartload, this Bloody-Nine, and burned towns, and mixed blood with his beer and what not. That wasn’t you, was it?”

Dun-Dun-DUN!!! We’ve not seen the Bloody-Nine in action yet, but damn if passages like this don’t me eager. Come on Logen, get down to business!

“Oh, but I have been. During the reign of King Morlie the Mad, and in the civil war which followed, I was tutor to a young man called Arnault. Later, when Morlie was murdered and Arnault was raised to the throne by the Open Council, I served as his Lord Chamberlain. I called myself Bialoveld in those days. I visited again in King Casamir’s reign. He called me Zoller, and I had your job, Arch Lector.”

Bayaz dropping the knowledge.

Dropping My Knowledge: So, what’s going in this chapter? Too much, probably. Once again we get a split point of view chapter. I don’t really recall that fact ever standing out before, but I very much notice now on closer reading. I find it a much more resonant technique here than in the previous chapter.

While the narrative of the chapter describes the culmination of the Inquisition’s unsuccessful attempts to discredit Bayaz, its purpose is really about increasing the tension for all the other story lines:

  • Logen describes what West will be up against in the North.
  • We get some more tidbits about Logen’s past.
  • Jezal gets what he’s always wanted, but still something is missing... Ardee?
  • Glokta finds himself very much on thin ice at the Inquisition, something that will surely only be exacerbated by his failure to indict Bayaz.
  • Bayaz demonstrates he is what he says he is and indicates a far more robust history with the Union than we ever suspected.

More accurately, chapters like “The Ideal Audience” are foundational for epic fantasies. It’s a layering of expectations and history that weaves into the actual narrative.

On the whole we’re left with little to speculate about. There were several items I found interesting, though...

  • Jezal recalls that Morlie the Mad and King Casamir had some odd personality quirks. Interestingly, both of those rulers were influenced by Bayaz’s direct involvement as he describes later in the chapter. What impact may he have had?
  • Bayaz says Kandedias never worked in gold because he did not care for beautiful things, only things that worked. This seems like foreshadowing, but it might just be color.
  • In describing the Tanner, the death of a King’s collector, and High Justice Marovia’s response to it, I can’t help but wonder if there’s some motivating force behind the unrest. Is the Empire trying to sow seeds of distrust or perhaps the weak King is about to be ousted from within? Is this a result of the Inquisition’s power grab or endemic?
  • More little intimations that some folks would be happy, and Adua might be better off, if Prince Ladisla bit the dust. Can you say... foregone conclusion?

And the tension and unanswered questions continue to grow...

Next Week: Into the House of the Maker we go. Secrets will be revealed!


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.

Master Leonard
1. Master Leonard
About genre looking into itself. And particularly books being full of things that only someone well familiar with genre could fully enjoy.
Isn't it the very foundation of many great books of past few decades? Take mysteries for example: "The Name of The Rose" by Eco, "Club Dumas" by Reverte, "The Pledge" by Durrenmatt? The last one btw was the first book that came to my mind after finishing "First law".
Justin Landon
2. jdiddyesquire
For sure. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE these books.

It's just probably why some people bounce off Abercrombie. The books aren't necessarily that accessible to first-time fantasy readers. Or at least they aren't THE MOST ensnaring.

Personally, I love 'em.
Master Leonard
3. Master Leonard
And I love those books too. But the thing I'm trying to say, without wasting too much space =) is that difficult accesibility is almost inevitable for a good book nowadays.
Books written for wide audience are mostly disposable after one read. With very few exceptions.
The case, I think is that there is too many genres with rich heritage, too many different cultural backgrounds and it's incresingly impossible to tell something new and interesting without diving deep. As well as fully appreciate this tale looking from the shore.
Master Leonard
4. Brian Malbon
That's a really good point, and without a doubt a great deal of the joy in reading the First Law is identifying the tropes and references and seeing how they're played with here. But I find the argument that because of thus the books are slow and unsatisfying baffling. Have any of these people even looked at the nearly unapproachable - to anyone without an already burning passion for fantasy - novels written in the eighties? Jesus, the first chapter of the Pern series is an impenetrable block of three-syllable names you know you'll have to rememberfor the rest of the book, so help you God. Abercrombie hits theground running and hides his worldbuilding in among scenes of tension. The first time I read it I didn't even notice it.

Anyway, this chapter starts off by getting on my nerves. Sult is really starting to annoy me. Why would you order an investigator to investigate someone and then refuse to listen to what he had to say? And if you're looking for a way to drive away Bayaz, wouldn't a brutal murder right outside his window be the perfect opportunity to take him under question? Our at least his violent-looking Northern companion. Sult's contempt is ruining him here, and maKing him look less a villain to worry about and more the petty snake he turns out to be in the end. Great for character, not so much for the dramatic stakes in this coming scene.

This little scene could in fact have been cut completely, going right to the banquet and giving the reader a little bit of tension when danger appears in the form of the arch lector's play (hello, Iosev Lestek!). Instead we get a back-and-forth that only further expounds on Sult's asshole nature and Glokta's frustration without gaining anything new.

I love the rest of this chapter though. Logen trying to eat the flower, his fat and easy friendship with West (and isn't it interesting? Logen gets along with the people we like better than anyone else, making us like all of them more), Jezal's discomfort, and of course the play. One of the few little glimpses we get into this world's art, other than the sculptures on the Kingsway, it's sort of shakespearean but very pageant-like as well.
Iain Cupples
5. NumberNone
Logen gets along with the people we like better than anyone else

I'm not sure this is a deliberate policy on Abercrombie's behalf, except inasmuch as Logen is pretty personable and gets on reasonably well with almost everyone, and that's about misleading us, more than anything else.

As for Sult: I tend to feel that his impatience and apparent short-sightedness make him more of a danger to Glokta, and so a more effective antagonist to him. Were he really the smart, savvy player, Glokta and he would be too closely aligned.
Pirmin Schanne
6. Torvald_Nom
Regarding the Tanner: We'll get to who's behind that one in time, but it's still far off.
All in all, it sounds like the general populace has some well-founded grievances against the current system, something that was already established early in the book by Sult's ranting and Hoff's behaviour.
Master Leonard
7. Brian Malbon
NumberNone - I actually think this scene marks him out as less of a danger, since he reveals himself as a jockeying idiot who would be easy to manipulate. In the meantime, he's certainly a danger to Glokta, but in this scene he plays the snarling cartoon villain to Glokta's goofy cartoon henchman. I picture Krang sittingin the Technodrome screaming "Whyyy haven't you bbrought me those turtles? And fffinish myy body!" I more our less think this scene happens because if Sult actually cooperated with Glokta in even the tiniest way they would have gotten to the bottom of the entire mysteryof the trilogy with still two books to go, and we certainly can't have that. Were only a few incidents away from Glokta deciding to hold information back from Sult while he works things out on his own, but at the moment he's in full disclosure mode and Sult's not listening - at his own expense.

As for Logen, with his violent tendencies so thoroughly stunted by the polite company he's in, he's in a perfect position to show us the good guy he's trying to be,and the reactions to his gentle savage routine from everyone he's met so far trends to both reinforce that sense of him while also informing our opinions on the people he's meeting. Just look at Jezal.
Iain Cupples
8. NumberNone
@Brian - I more our less think this scene happens because if Sult actually cooperated with Glokta in even the tiniest way they would have gotten to the bottom of the entire mysteryof the trilogy with still two books to go, and we certainly can't have that.

See, there's the problem. If Sult co-operated with Glokta, he wouldn't really be a danger to him. As I say, the only way to make Sult a danger is to do what Abercrombie does - have him demanding the impossible and threatening death if Glokta doesn't deliver. Besides (mild spoilerish sort of warning) given what we later discover about Sult, I think it's apparent he's listening to Glokta a lot more than he lets on in this conversation.
Master Leonard
9. bobthebuilder
“I heard a song once, in Angland, about a nine-fingered man. What was he called now? The Bloody-Nine! That was it!” Logen felt his grin slipping. “One of those Northern songs, you know the kind, all violence. He cut off heads by the cartload, this Bloody-Nine, and burned towns, and mixed blood with his beer and what not. That wasn’t you, was it?”

We never see West's point of view of Logen after the duel with Feared.
I wonder what West would have thought of Logen being the Bloody-Nine after all.
Master Leonard
10. Michael Winter Cho
A couple things: First, I did find The Blade Itself slow and even took a few breaks before finishing it. As an audition for the next two books, it only won me over at the end when the action escalated. I am not as conversant in the genre as present company, but I certainly have hundreds of S&S/F under my belt. That being said, I do feel that the first book was mostly interesting inasmuch as it was a subversion/reference/deconstruction. The characters were nearly unremittingly unpleasant, the palette was tints of gray, the action dull because I didn't care what happened to the actors.

My second thought is more personal. Even though there were plenty of hints about Logen's past, I never took them seriously. I _liked_ Logen. Anything he admitted to himself or that others hinted at, I gave him a pass for. I figured that since everyone in the book lived in a brutal world, they had necessarily done brutal things. But I had seen him do nothing bad in his POV chapters. Perhaps it is because I so strongly identify with POV characters. In the book _Blindsight_ by Peter Watts, it has been said that all the characters are psychopaths, and my reaction was: really? They seemed okay to me!

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