Mar 26 2014 1:00pm

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

Today’s a big day. Rocket Talk, the podcast, launched this morning, and I’m hosting it! For you Joe Abercrombie lovers this means there’s going to be a really long and awkward conversation with the man himself at some point in the near future. I’m going to ask him questions about all kinds of arcanum. Do you have questions you’d like me to ask? Put ’em in the comments and I’ll ask it, no matter how weird it is. (Please be weird.)

Despite the additional workload placed on me by the taskmasters, I’m here for this week’s reread, bedraggled but unbroken! We’re three chapters from the end of The Blade Itself and I’m trying to figure out the narrative arc of the novel. Is there one? Are there any plot lines that are internal to the novel? I’m thinking not, except, perhaps, Jezal’s relationship to Ardee, which (completely coincidentally, I swear) is the subject of this week’s chapter.


What happened: Jezal waits for Ardee at the foot of the Agriont. He is, of course, put out by her tardiness, because what kind of woman would keep a man like Jezal dan Luthar waiting? But, he cannot imagine wanting to wait for someone more.

Ardee arrives, bruised and bloodied from her brother’s attentions, on her guard, attempting to distance herself from Jezal who is about to leave for Angland and war. He denies her efforts and asks her to wait for him because he... loves... her. Ardee agrees to wait.

In the harbor, Jezal waits on a ship to depart for war. Where others seem focused on what’s to come, Jezal has thoughts for no one but Ardee, hearing here name on everyone’s lips. Before the ship sets sail a messenger arrives on High Justice Marovia’s orders and sends Jezal to the Agriont.

In the High Justice’s office Jezal is greeted by Marovia, Varuz, and the one man he never wants to see again—Bayaz. The First of the Magi invites Jezal, a world class swordsman, to join his “adventure” to the Edge of the World. Although not one for duty and responsibility, Jezal is miserable that he can’t go North with his and men. He agrees to join Bayaz, as if he had a choice.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

It was ridiculous the power she had over him. The difference between misery and happiness was the right word from her.


‘I and a few brave companions—chosen people, you understand, people of quality—are engaging on a great journey! An epic voyage! A grand adventure! I have little doubt that, should we be successful, there will be stories told of this for years to come. Very many years.’


Why it happened: By far the two most interesting things happening in “Misery” are encapsulated by the quotes above. Hence, why I didn’t write much about them, preferring instead to save them for this space.

The chapter opens with Jezal and Ardee, kind of resolving the narrative arc of their relationship, around which a lot of The Blade Itself is based. Remember, Ardee is the primary motivating force for Jezal throughout the novel, and the central figure in Major West’s ongoing battle with... erm... himself. Even Glokta’s willingness to take her under his wing a few chapters ago is his denouement for the novel, an emotional reconnection for a character whose been exclusively inward focused for a decade.

And how do Ardee and Jezal ‘resolve’ things? Like everything in an Abercrombie novel, it’s complicated. The fact this final chapter is told from Jezal’s point of view and not Ardee’s is fascinating, because we’re left with an extremely inexact view of the nature of the pair’s relationship. Jezal desperately wants her to wait for him, but wait for what? He recognizes that marriage with her impossible and surely she knows the same. Is she in denial? Or is she merely toying with him as I surmised in previous discussions? Her reactions, interpreted through Jezal’s biased point of view, seem to indicate a level of bittersweet affection. She’s resigned to things ending badly, as they always do in her cursed existence, but seems to take a live and let live philosophy of enjoying what little happiness she can carve out.

Also, make note of the chapter title—Misery. Abercrombie seems to be equating love, or at least the version of love Ardee and Jezal are resigned to, not to traditional adjectives, but to one with a negative connotation. It’s reinforced by the quote above. Jezal is defining love by his “lover’s” capacity to inflict pain on him. Abercrombie has taken the worst parts of a thing and made it the predominant facet. Kind of depressing, isn’t it?

The other quote doesn’t require as much discussion, but I really wanted to highlight it. This is the Fellowship of the Ring moment. Or, in terms of the Hero’s Journey as defined by Joseph Campbell, the ‘Call to Adventure’. It’s a trope that’s built into epic fantasy, but often occurs in the first act. Abercrombie saves it ’til the waning moments of the first novel, preparing for it with thousands of words of character development. The reader knows how ill-suited the group is for the role Bayaz places them in, how unheroic they all are. We also know that the things Bayaz promises, “a great journey! An epic voyage! A grand adventure. . .” are probably crap.

More reminders that, while Abercrombie spins a fascinating character driven narrative, The Blade Itself is a brilliant slap in the face cum wake up call to epic fantasy. Some call to adventure indeed.

Next Week: THE BLOODY-NINE!!!!

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. Kirshy
Love this series and am really enjoying your re-read. I don't have the time to read along with you so this has been nice. Keep it up.
2. Brian Malbon
I was going to save this for the final chapter, but here it is instead: the titanic balls this guy has! To write an entire novel that isn't actually a complete story in itself - in fact it's not much more than the first half of a first act: introducing the characters and the world and then ending before they actually do anything of note - and then have the supreme confidence to say yeah, so what, you're gonna read the next one, aren't you? and know that, yes, we are. Because it's that good, and we really want to know what's next.

It's even more impressive when you realize that this was the man's first novel.Most of the time in a first novel you can see the potential but it isn't... quite there yet. Abercrombie nailed it right off the bat and only got better. That's not to say that the Blade Itself is perfect - Jezal and Ardee's relationship remains problematic throughout, and of there's Brother Longfoot - but the skill on display, just in terms of the language used and the deft manipulation of our expectations... fantastic.

That said, I can still remember the palpable disappointment I felt in the first read when it became apparent that nothing really much was going to happen at the end if this book. I can't call it a flaw per se, because a) enormous balls, and b) where else would he end it? earlier? Midway through the next book? Still, I remember being rankled by it, just a bit.
3. Johnnyboy

I prefer Abercrombie's stand- alone novels for this very reason. They seem tighter, more structured. The First Law trilogy is 'smart' if you can appreciate the manipulation of genre staples but it has little of what I would consider interesting plot. The whole quest phase of the trilogy just stops it dead in its tracks.
4. Brian Malbon
@johnnyboy - the standalones have their structural problems: Best Served Cold is very episodic, the Heroes has to work too hard to shoehorn all off the character's arcs into the self-imposed three day timeframe, and Red Country spends a large part of the middle forgetting what the plot was supposed to be about. I love them all, and I can't think of any other way they could have been told better, but the problems are almost hardwired into their plotlines - much the same as the First Law.

I'm surprised that you find the quest stops the sorry flat, though. For me, it's the best part of the series up until the giant mindfuck climax. It has all the most important character moments in the series, and nearly everything that we learn in the end of Last Argument of Kings is filtered through what we've seen of these characters during their time on the road in Before they Are Hanged.
5. Johnnyboy

I suppose you could call Best Served Cold episodic - a section in each of the Styrian cities - but I think the interplay between the characters makes every segment important. Not just important to the characterisation but actually influential on the larger plot. My main gripe with the quest phase in the First Law- and most fantasy novels - is that it is essentially a journey from A to B with no significant developments to the story. The way characters relate to each other and themselves is not really pertinent to the plot if they are not going to act on these feelings in a meaningful way. There are no revelations that effect the larger story (until that moment you mentioned above which I admit is interesting but occurs after the journey). I think it loses all momentum and intrigue.
Justin Landon
6. jdiddyesquire
This Abercrombie bloke is pretty confident generally.
7. imbubbasmom
Yes, the Abercrombie bloke is pretty confident, but what is his stance on unicorns?
8. Brian Malbon
Unicorns I'm the Circle of the World are probably hideous horse/lizard abominations built by Kanedias to drive all happiness from the world, heh heh.
9. Pouria
so... it's been more than a week, what happened to the bloody-nine?
Justin Landon
10. jdiddyesquire
It went up today!

Apologize for the delay. Getting the podcast out the door got me all distracted the first week.

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