Feb 19 2014 2:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “The House of the Maker”

The Blade Itself Joe Abercrombie This week’s chapter features one of the absolute silliest moments in the series. Abercrombie, in the middle of what should be one of the tensest scenes in The Blade Itself, makes an absolutely obvious Lord of the Rings joke. And yet, it works in large part because of the audience and the scene.

‘...none…shall…pass.’ Bayaz reads from the entrance to the House of the Maker, sitting atop a bridge with Logen, Jezal, and Glokta behind him. Where the same phrase uttered by Gandalf is followed by the moment where the Gray Wizard becomes fallible, in Abercrombie’s version it is followed by a confirmation of Bayaz’s infallibility. Hardly the cleverest trick employed in The Blade Itself, but one that’s perfectly timed…

Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself…

“The House of the Maker”

Tagline: Bayaz takes the three stooges into the House of the Maker. It’s pretty creepy. Bayaz regales them with tales of the past. They come out with a really heavy black box.

Blurb: Glokta, skeptical that Bayaz is anyone important, prepares to arrest the imposter as soon as he fails to open the Maker’s House. His plans begin to unravel as they arrive at the University and Bayaz demonstrates intimate knowledge of the layout. Near the Maker’s door an old man sits, waiting for his wife to finish breakfast. As Chief Warden, the man is tasked to guard the door, a somewhat downsized force from Bayaz’s past lives where the duty was considered a high honor.

Disappointed that no one wants to join him for breakfast, the Chief Warden sends them out onto a fly bridge that connects the University to the House of the Maker. As the four men step onto the bridge all but Bayaz are crippled by an overwhelming nausea and sense of dread. The Chief Warden calls it the Maker’s Breath and apparently it’s stanky.

Struggling through the emotion, Glokta watches Bayaz insert the key and release the mechanism that unlocks the House like so much clockwork. A perfect piece of machinery the door opens to little fanfare, but reveals a massive space that dwarfs anything they’ve before encountered. On the ground is a map of the Circle of the World and above a series of rings that move in some coordinated motion.

Bayaz recounts the history of the Kanedias’ death. First the assault of the eleven Magi, sans Khalul, Zacharus, and Cawneil. Two died, but Bayaz made him pay. In the process, Kanedias throws his own daughter from the tower, before Bayaz does the same to Kanedias.

Before they leave, Bayaz’s job of convincing Glokta of his identity complete, Logen is tasked with carrying out a disconcertingly heavy black box. The contents of which remain a mystery.

Important Characters Introduced: Tolomei (by name)

Minor Characters Introduced: Jaremias (Kanedias’ assistant), Cawneil (one of the Magi), Anselmi (Magus, confirmed dead), Brokentooth (Magus, confirmed dead)

Quotes to Remember:

The only thing he could imagine worse than his present company was no company at all.

This quote is in parallel with one of the techniques Abercrombie uses to make all these dudes likeable. He makes something (or someone) feel good because the alternative feels so bad. In other words, the only people worse than Glokta, Logen, and Jezal is each other, making them endearing in comparison to the other.

‘I like you, Inquisitor, I really do. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were the only honest man left in this whole damn country. We should have a talk at some point, you and I. A talk about what I want, and about what you want.’

Well, when Bayaz thinks you’re a good dude that’s a real referendum, am I right?

Subtext: Whoa Nellie! There’s enough Circle of the World history in this chapter to shake a stick at. Not the least of which is the actual concept of the Circle of the World as posited by Kanedias himself and recreated on the floor of his House (and what appears to be some kind of solar system above it?).

Before we get into the history Bayaz reveals, I find the reactions to the magic of the House of the Maker intriguing. Glokta, Jezal, and Logen all have a strong reaction to entering the House, but Logen seems to bear it the best. Does that imply some resistance/sensitivity to it as I posited in previous chapters? Or does the fact that all three react to it to some measure impeach that theory? I don’t know.

We also see here that the Maker’s ’magic’ has the ability to warp time and space. Is the Maker a glorified Magi? A god? Was there a difference before magic bled out of the world? All good questions.

On to history:

  • Kanedias killed Juvens with a weapon called ‘the Divider’ which looks something like a twisted axe.
  • Seeking vengeance for Juvens’ death, eleven magi assaulted the House of the Maker. Two died. Three did not fight. My math says that means there fourteen Magi and twelve of them could be alive.
  • Bayaz and his allies fought Kanedias’ servants in the University.
  • Those servants might have been Shanka, who the Maker created from clay, metal, and left-over flesh.
  • The House was home to three people—Kanedias (dead), Tolomei (implied dead), and Jaremias (no idea).
  • It is implied that Bayaz himself lived in the House at some point.
  • Bayaz killed Kanedias by throwing him from the parapet of the House.
  • Kanedias did the same to his daughter, Tolomei, whom Bayaz seems to have some measure of affection for.

What does it all mean? Well, there’s a few things we can definitely extrapolate. The relationship between Tolomei and Bayaz is undoubtedly a sore spot with Kanedias. Was Tolomei a traitor to Kanedias? Was throwing her from the platform an accident or murder or is Bayaz manipulating the truth as we’ve seen him do already (and will see him do many times in the future)?

There are far more Magi alive than I thought. Khalul did not fight and we know he’s running the Eaters in the Empire to the south. Zacharus helped trained Quai, which implies his relationship with Bayaz remains strong despite his absence at the House of the Maker. Cawneil is a mystery. Why were these three missing? If only two Magi died in the assault, where are the rest? (Yulwei is one of course.)

Lastly, the Magi are often referred to as ELEVEN, but in this chapter that number seems off. Here’s the passage in question.

‘Eleven of us. All the Magi, together for the last time. All but Khalul, Zacharus, and Cawneil, they fought with the Maker here, and each was bested.’

I read that as implying eleven attacked and three refused to come. What do you think?

Next Week: A couple of tempers collide—West and Ferro!

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.

Chris Long
1. radynski
I always read that passage as suggesting there were only 11 magi, and that 8 of them fought against Kanedias
2. Leothric
Actually, it reminds me more of the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
John Lobello
3. johntocaelpiano
I totally missed the mention of the Divider in this. Perhaps Logen could stomach the Maker's Breath because he's so used to feeling dread and fear throughout his life? Though by that logic Glokta would be nearly immune... I got nothin'...

Also I kept giggling whenever I read "the Circle of the World." It made me think there was a circle upon the backs of four elephants, which were in turn riding the star-scarred back of a giant Space Turtle.
4. Apep
@ 2 Leothric:

Here's the actual text from Fellowship:

'You cannot pass,' he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. 'I am servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.'

So if anything, it's a Monty Python reference, not a LotR reference.
Pyrrhus Aeacides
5. Pyrrhus
You've misread the passage. 12 magi. 11 without Kahlul. Zacharus and Cawneil fought with the Maker.
6. Brian Malbon
This is the only chapter in which we see Glokta genuinely afraid - first by the Maker's Breath and then by the impossible geography of the house. I think this shows us that the only thing Glokta fears is that which he can't explain. Good reason for him to be almost immobilized on the bridge.

The shifting viewpoints have been getting better and better, but it's Glokta I'm most interested in here. By inviting him through the Maker's house, Bayaz has marked him out as special, as "one of us", do to speak. But Glokta isn't one of us. Throughout the novel so far (and the entire series as well), Glokta's been more our less the outsider of the POV characters. He isn't part of Bayaz' plot, and he isn't involved in any way with the war in the North. In fact, he always seems to be moving just outside of the plot, interacting with it briefly and then moving away again, like the protagonist of a Robertson Davies novel.
Unlike the other main characters, he has no precedent in fantasy fiction - he doesn't fit into a Tolkien archetype. If the First Law is meant as an anti-LOTR, where does Glokta belong?
7. bobthebuilder
Unlike the other main characters, he has no precedent in fantasy fiction - he doesn't fit into a Tolkien archetype. If the First Law is meant as an anti-LOTR, where does Glokta belong?
Maybe , he is the "hero before the real hero", who gets corrupted by Evil, but is ultimately shown the error of his ways by the "real hero" , fights with the "real hero" against Evil, and finall dies in the battle saving teh real hero. (because in the LOTR-esques, there can only be one Hero)
Iain Cupples
8. NumberNone
The First Law wiki is pretty clear that there were eleven Magi total, which makes the above statement by Bayaz somewhat confusing (it appears to be him saying 'we were all there, except for three of us', which is an odd way of putting it). Still, IIRC this number fits with the mural we saw earlier, so it must be right.
Justin Landon
9. jdiddyesquire
I asked Abercrombie about it. 12 Magi. Khalul left, leaving 11. Pyrrhus' reading is correct, APPARANETLY. haha
10. Brian Malbon
Bobthebuilder, but he doesn't! he gets his own moments of heroism, to be sure, but other than trying to catch Bayaz in a lie atthis stage of the game, he and Bayaz remain little more than annoyances to one another until well after the series'actual climax. and rather than go from evil to good, his while arc seems to be about learning how to be evil for his own purposes instead of someone else's.
But you bring up a really good point - there can only be one hero in a story. So who is it? Logen? It seems that way now, but appearances are deceiving, especially in the First Law. Jezal? His only challenge is becoming less of a shithead, and his success is varying. Ferro? Not in this series, but I hold out hope that she'll reappear in a future novel. Bayaz certainly isn't.
Pirmin Schanne
11. Torvald_Nom
@Justin Landon: I'm sorry to tell you, but you misquoted Abercrombie there - it's a full stop after Khalul, not just a comma. Pyrrhus has the right of it.

@7: You probably don't want to use "LOTR-esque" while referring to stories about singular heroes - Tolkien's work doesn't fit that bill (with the possible exception of the Hobbit) very well.

@10: So what's The Heroes, then? A collection of short stories? :)
Justin Landon
12. jdiddyesquire
@Torvald -- Crap. Is it a period after Khalul? I'm stupid then. My eyes must have gone blurry. OOPS.
13. Brian Malbon
Torvald - no, but in a LOTR-Esque, as in any of the multitudes of Tolkien retreads that have made up most of epic fantasy and which Abercrombie is so gently but thoroughly deconstructing, there is generally only one main hero who combines Frodo and Aragorn's traits. He has companions to help him, but when the day needs saving, it's all him.
Also, the Heroes isn't exactly fantasy anymore. Abercrombie plays with genres like a fiddle, and the First Law is the only "strict" fantasy he wrote. The Heroes is more off a Hamburger Hill/Thin Red Line war movie set in a medieval environ that sees little to no magic at all.
Pirmin Schanne
14. Torvald_Nom
@11: Quite so. Can happen to anyone, though, so you're forgiven. ;)

@13: I'm begging you to stop calling them LOTR-esque if they don't actually share central features with that work - that's like calling something kafkaesque that bears no resemblence to Kafka's work.
If you have concrete works or authors in mind, just name them, please.
15. Brian Malbon
The Belgariad, the Riftwar, the Sword of Truth, every sword and sorcery movie produced in the 80s or 90s that opted to borrow the elements of the Lord of the Rings before Peter Jackson's trilogy came out, confident that most of their audience won't have read the books.

My point always was that fantasy has always cribbed from Tolkien, the way sci-fi cribs from Star Wars, and that one of Abercrombie's goals with this series was to set up a series just like that in order to knock it ask down and produce something original.

You don't have to get mad about it.
Pyrrhus Aeacides
16. Pyrrhus
Some very interesting stuff in this chapter. First note this:
"And so the last of the sons of Euz passed from the world, so many of their secrets lost forever. They destroyed each other, all four of them. What a waste."
Hold on to that - all four gone, because of quarrels with each other. Strangely enough, we never hear what happened to Bedesh, but this quote seems to strongly imply that he was killed during a conflict with his siblings - Kanedias or Juvens, since Glustrod was destroyed first.

Second, some more stuff about Logen's father, since I am obsessed with the topic:
'Huh, said Logen, 'My father used to say the seeds of the past bear fruit in the present.'

'So they do.' Bayaz reached out slowly, and his fingers brushed against the cold, dark metal of the box in Logen's hands. 'So they do. Your father was a wise man'
Here of course, Bayaz is clearly winking at the use of the word "seed," but this isn't the first time that he has reacted strangely to advice from Logen's father. When Logen tells Bayaz he doesn't want to know what his plan is:
'Ignorance is the sweetest medicine, my father used to say. I don't want to know.'

Bayaz stared at him. It was the first time Logen had seen the First of the Magi look at all surprised.
I don't know if there is a deeper significance to these quotes (the obvious theory would be wisdom passed down from Bedesh), but whatever the case, this reread needs a "Things Logen's Father Says" feature.

One other thing - I meant to point out that Logen says in the last chapter that he is a 'Brynn, from way up north of the High Places.' I think that this suggests that he is a bit of an outsider, even among the northmen. There's more support for this from the fact that "Brynn" appears only one other place in Abercrombie's work - earlier in this book Blacktoe calls Logen "The Brynn."

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