Wed
Mar 19 2014 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Old Friends” and “Back to the Mud”

Joe Abercrombie reread First Law Trilogy The Blade Itself Last week’s casting call personal journey of introspection and delight was but a brief aside in this rollicking journey we call the First Law Trilogy reread. We’re back on schedule now, rejoining our friendly neighborhood torturer and marauding band of cutthroats as they try to find some direction.

Will Glokta and Major West make nice? Will Forley the Weakest convince Bethod of the Shanka threat? Do I even need to ask?

“Old Friends”

Summary: Glokta is interrupted late at night by his old friend Major Collem West. The pair reminisce about the old days, acknowledging they haven’t spoken for nine years, not since the day West left Glokta behind on the bridge. With the campaign to Angland in the offing, West has come to Glokta with a request—watch over Ardee.

Fury rises in Glokta and he throws his pain in West’s face, demanding to know where he was when Glokta needed him, broken and alone after the war. West wonders at Glokta’s reaction. He visited, but was turned away by the Inquisitor’s mother, who always resented her son’s relationship with the common born soldier. Rocked by the news, Glokta reevaluates his relationship with West and agrees to look in on Ardee.

The pair bond over what appears to be shared self-loathing. They separate on good terms, Glokta’s faith in humanity restored, but barely.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters (re)Introduced: Salem Rews.

Quotes to Remember:

Sometimes, when old friends meet, things are instantly as they were all those years before. The friendship resumes, untouched, as though there had been no interruption. Sometimes, but not now.

This is such a great line. We all have friendships like that, incapable of withering from time and distance. They are usually our earliest bonds. Glokta’s reaction here says a lot about how much he was hurt by West’s absence.

‘Rews, that’s the one! I’d forgotten all about him. Rews! He could tell a story like no one else, that man. We’d sit up all night listening to him, all of us rolling with laughters! Whatever became of him?’

Cricket. Cricket. I mean, honestly, right when we start to think Glokta might not be a cold hearted bastard we get this little nugget. The man tortured and framed and extorted one of his friends and never batted an eyelash.

Discussion: Wow, so Glokta wasn’t just a hero, he was a savior. West left him behind to the face the Gurkish alone, seemingly to hold a bridge while the Union Army retreated. He expected to die, except he didn’t and he resents not dying almost as much as he resents the people who let him stay behind in the first place. ARGH! I want to read a short story of what went down all those years ago!

Of course, what Glokta resents even more is all his hangers on from when he was a great hero and ladies man and fencer. They dropped him like a bad habit. Well, except Major West, whose, if you remember, first point of view chapter was titled “The Good Man.” Except, he beats up his sister when she makes him feel guilty. Layers dude. Layers.

There’s a fantastic juxtaposition in this chapter between the two men when Glokta realizes West suffers from the same malady he does—self loathing. Where a moment ago it was West mollifying Glokta, the scrip flips and Glokta is soothing West, and making a good effort at it. Who knew?

 

“Back to the Mud”

Summary: Dogman and the crew wait outside Carleon. It’s a changed city, full of new construction and people. More importantly, Carleon is surrounded by walls. If Forley goes in and Bethod keeps him, they’ll never get him back. Even still, Forley has to go, to not warn of the Shanka threat is anathema to the personal honor of Logen’s former squad.

The crew lies in wait for Bethod’s answer. It comes in the form of one of the King’s Carls, Bad-Enough, and his entourage. They come with a cart in toe and Forley’s head in a sack. At the site of their dead mate’s head the crew attacks, butchering the King’s men to the man without care for any intelligence a live one might grant them. With the fight over Threetrees makes an announcement. He’ll have Bethod’s blood and he’ll join the Union to get it. Who’s coming with him?

What self respecting marauder could say no to an offer like that?

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

Sometimes weakness is a better shield than strength, the Dogman reckoned.

And sometimes it pays to have an army at your back. Poor Forley.

‘It takes some bones to meet your death as well as he did. To walk to it, with no complaint. To ask for it. And not for his own sake, but for others, that he didn’t even know.’

We often see an honoring of self sacrificey in fantasy. There’s definitely some of that here with Abercrombie and it comes off a little sappy relative to the tone of the characters in most every other situation. It comes off doubly odd because it follows a chapter where Glokta rejects his self sacrifice as some empty headed mistake of hubris. Which is it? Is self-sacrifice laudable or pointless?

Despite Forley’s failed efforts, it’s clear he was the crew’s puppy. Without him they are somewhat less as human beings. Dogman sees a tear roll down Black Dow’s cheek over the grave. This is worth remembering as by series end Dow becomes much blacker than he is here. Is Forley’s death the straw that broke the camel’s psychopathy?

Discussion: I think I just bogarted some of my discussion with that quote breakdown. So, read that. There’s also something interesting in the opening bit where Dogman is observing ‘progress’ in the Northern capital. It’s larger, with walls and buildings and order. It’s all the things that Carleon never was before Bethod. Does tyranny bring order? Is it desirable? Should progress trump morality? It’s subtle, but I absolutely think Abercrombie is inviting the reader to engage in this conversation, particularly given the corrupt nature of the political scene in Adua.

In other news, I’ve gotten so used to chapters that are all about developing character and plot that actual combat is unexpected. In fact, almost all of the ‘combat’ chapters have been Dogman points of view as opposed to Logen or Jezal. And certainly extended fight scenes are almost exclusively Dogman’s domain. Odd right? Because we’re totally reading the most grimdarky violent series of all time! Sorry. Sarcasm ran away from me.

But, seriously.

Sure, “Back to the Mud” is pretty gruesome. Forley’s head is in a bag. Threetrees and the rest get a little pissed off about it. Dogman cuts the throat of a defenseless dude. Is it gratuitous? I don’t find it so. It seems, ugh, realistic. The term realistic is loaded. Largely because it’s often use inappropriately to justify sexual violence and patriarchy as the way it was in medieval times. I use it here in a different context. Abercrombie writes with a sense of brutality.

It was Russell Crowe as Maximus in The Gladiator who said, “I’ve seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark, Rome is the light.” And he’s right. Things happen in the blink of an eye and murder is quick, sloppy, and thoughtless.

I finished Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance a few weeks ago, while simultaneously reading for this reread. I was struck by how much violence it contained, but also how idealized it was. Fights are protracted. His combatants survive devastating wounds and recover. Some die, but then don’t. It is the opposite of how Abercrombie structures his scenes. In a world harder and harder to impress, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and The A-Team, Abercrombie is the literary equivalent of the hipster movement. He’s not shocked by originality, but by truth as he sees it.

After writing that last sentence I should probably just move to Brooklyn. Let me put a stop to this before I go too far...

Next Week: We’re down to three chapters left! And the Bloody-Nine is coming to party.


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.

3 comments
Brian Malbon
1. Brian Malbon
Two excellent chapters. And you're quite right: for all that this is supposed to be a series famous for brutal violence, we actually see very little of it. I that aside from the overused word "realistic", the violence is more visceral than in other fantasy novels. It's definitely painted with loving brush strokes, but feels right in the moment, and never send to come off as too much. Then again, after seeing pieces of Sepp dan Teufel's fingers roll off Glokta's table, maybe I'm just desensitized.

"Back to the Mud" is, if I'm not mistaken, the title of every chapter in the series to contain a funeral scene - and there's one in each novel. Each time, I'm always impressed by how much we learn about the inner workings of these characters. Logen's crew is made up of hard men, legendary fighters who never show what there feeling inside or even seen to have feelings at all - until one of their own is killed. Then, for just a second, we see inside the shells. It 's surprising to learn that Dow has a real softy hiding way, way, waaaay down in there.

I have one quibble: I've always interpreted Glokta's charge down to the bridge as being a terrible mistake, something that he brought on himself with his own hubris, believing that he was good enough to take on even ridiculous odds. I'm pretty sure at some point Glokta admits West tried to warn him off but without success. In his case it wasn't noble self-sacrifice but towering, Jezal-like arrogance that led to his downfall.
Brian Malbon
2. Mayan
Sometimes, when old friends meet, things are instantly as they were all those years before. The friendship resumes, untouched, as though there had been no interruption. Sometimes, but not now.
Typical Abercrombie sentence. The beginning is the ideal beginning of a traditional fantasy line. The ending, not so much.
Justin Landon
3. jdiddyesquire
See this week's chapters for a boat load of that, Mayan. I love it. He does the meta thing better than anyone else. It's so obvious and so subtle at the same time.

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