Apr 16 2014 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “The Bloody-Nine” and “The Tools We Have”

Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy reread The Blade Itself And so we conclude Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. When I began this project in August, I had no idea it would take this long to get through the first book. Nor did I have any concept of how much I would enjoy the journey.

I wrote a review of Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance that described how impressed I was at his ability to maintain the reader’s interest in four people over such a massive span of words and scenes. The same is true here, but with a different twist. Sanderson has lots of events, constant action. Every chapter has some kind of reveal or nugget that urges the reader forward. He’s a master at it. Abercrombie, in The Blade Itself, is something of the opposite.

It stuns me how little happens. Instead, the narrative subsists on the back of meta commentary and not so much character development as character establishment. The first installment of The First Law is an unadulterated prologue to the trilogy, in no way attempting to be a complete novel that stands on its own. It’s a huge achievement.


“The Bloody-Nine”

Summary: Logen tries to make friends with Jezal and finds it impossible. He makes a go at it with Quai and finds the apprentice intractable in his gloom. Bayaz storms in and demands to know where Ferro has run off to. Logen is tasked with tracking her down.

He finds her, surrounded by three men threatening her to come with them. Evaluating the situation, Logen can tell it will come to blows and leaps to his new “teammate’s” defense. Once the three are subdued Logen asks what Ferro has done, but she has no explanation. Before they can catch their breath more men appear, lead by a woman with short red hair. The pair of bedraggled warriors flees across the Agriont’s rooftops.

Eventually, they find themselves trapped and surrounded. Logen takes a beating and finds himself on the verge of death when something comes over him and the Bloody-Nine takes hold. The change turns the tide of the battle and Logen lays waste to the attackers, including another Northman who mocks him for taking the Bloody-Nine’s name in vain.

When the fury leaves him Logen is left shattered, bleeding and weak. Ferro helps him back to Bayaz. The Practicals track them there and insist on arresting Ferro before Bayaz turns one of them into pink mist. The Magi commands the group to help Logen to his feet. They’re leaving. Now.

Important Characters Introduced: None. It’s the second to last chapter!

Minor Characters Introduced: Dead practicals.

Quotes to Remember:

Killing weapons, meant to kill. Well, so much the better, Logen told himself. If you say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, and one thing only, say he’s a killer.

I’m going to have some thoughts about this below.

Logen might have pitied him, but Logen was far away and the Bloody-Nine had no more pity in him than the winter. Less even.

Love how this is described. Logen and the Bloody-Nine are two separate and distinct entities. Sort of. More below.

Analysis: Ok. So, obviously, this chapter cannot be discussed, and frankly there isn’t much else in it to discuss, without addressing the question of is he or isn’t he. In other words, are Logen and the Bloody-Nine the same person, two distinct people in one body, a split personality, or something else all together? We can speculate, but at this point in the trilogy the evidence to support any of those theories just isn’t there. But, in the interests of preparing for future speculation, what does “The Bloody-Nine” show us?

First, it shows that Logen is aware that another presence lives inside him, regardless of how or why it manifests. Furthermore, we know that Logen sees himself as a weapon, a means of destruction, well before he is overtaken by the berserking alter ego (per quote above). We also know that Logen, as himself, feels pain and weakness. He is strong, but not inhumanly. Even the more minor wounds he takes defending Ferro have real consequences on his capacity to fight.

The kicker though is that once Logen becomes the Bloody-Nine all that becomes irrelevant. He is fierce, displaying super human strength and pain tolerance. His voice even seems to change as he becomes some force of nature imbued with supernatural capabilities. Or, he’s just really pissed off and has an adrenaline valve busted. Which is it?

Oddly Logen does retain some measure of self-awareness. He can communicate, and express himself. When Stone-Splitter challenges the Bloody-Nine’s claim to the name, Logen responds with laughter and not rage... well... not at first! When the Bloody-Nine leaves Logen it’s like all the bones have been taken from his body and he melts into bruised and battered exhaustion. Is this merely the result of the cumulative damage Logen’s body has taken or is it similar to the exhaustion that Bayaz experiences after his magical activities?



“The Tools We Have”

Summary: Glokta approaches the West home, calling on Collem West’s sister at the Major’s request. He recognizes quickly her acerbic personality and finds himself drawn to it. In Ardee, Glokta sees something of himself and the two come to a mutual understanding of sorts regarding his concern for her welfare.

His next stop is the Arch Lector’s office where he awaits his commander’s attention with Vitari, the practical most recently trounced by Logen Ninefingers. Ushered in by Sult’s secretary, Glokta finds the Arch Lector chewing Superior Goyle out for botching the arrest of Ferro. Dismissed with prejuduice, Goyle glares as Glokta with unabashed hatred.

With Goyle gone, Sult reveals that Superior Davoust in Dagoska has disappeared. In Dagoska, the situation is deteriorating. The Gurkish are flocking to the peninsula and already outnumber the Union garrison ten to one. With the army committed in the North only three regiments remain in Adua, and they are needed to contain the peasant uprising throughout the kingdom. Sult charges Glokta, the new Superior of Dagoska, with discovering what’s wrong in the South and defending Union soil against possible Gurkish incursion.

Despite his reticence, Glokta accepts. To protect him, Sult attaches six more practicals to his staff, including Vitari, the beaten practical currently lurking outside the doors. As the pair leave, Glokta relishes walking with someone in as much pain as he is, wondering all the while, “Why do I do this? Why?”

Important Characters Introduced: C’mon, really?

Minor Characters Introduced: Superior Davoust.

Quotes to Remember:

“I know how you feel. I’m such a fool I knocked half my teeth out and hacked my leg to useless pulp. Look at me now, a cripple. It’s amazing where a little foolishness can take you, if it goes unchecked. We clumsy types should stick together, don’t you think?”

Right off the bat Ardee and Glokta seem to find common ground. She is completely unbowed by his deformities and he’s completely at ease with her crudeness. Not to mention both have spent a lifetime trying to live in agony, either physical or emotional. Where is this relationship going?

Has one man ever had such a range of deaths to choose from? The corner of his mouth twitched up. I can hardly wait to get started.

The chapter ends when Glokta asks, why do I do this? It’s clear why though, isn’t it? He is extremely driven by challenges, by proving himself. Whether it’s the Contest in his youth, or against the Gurkish on that bridge, or by taking on an entire nation as a politician, Glokta wants to win.

Analysis: So ends the first book of the First Law Trilogy. And it ends with the beginning of the journey, Glokta on his way to Dagoska to relieve a missing Superior and Bayaz’s Team of Misfits® heading to the Old Empire for the Seed. The inverse nature of that from a narrative perspective is absolutely inline with what we’ve experienced so far throughout this read of The Blade Itself.

Abercrombie seals it with the final line, “Why do I do this? Why?” It’s a question not often asked in fantasy. Or rather, it’s a question often with an easy answer. I do this to save the world! I do this because I must! I do this because mine lady love doth perish if I shan’t! But, here Glokta has really none of that. He seems to bear no loyalty to the crown beyond the fact that it provides him interesting challenges. His pain is such that death or inactivity, at least, would be a relief. His why is far more challenging a question.

I would posit Glokta’s why is because saving the world, or in this case the very petty and corrupt Union, is something to keep his mind off how awful his future looks. There is no goodness in that decision. It’s merely a human decision. A very authentic human decision I would argue. The same is true of Logen throughout the book, and Ferro too. They agree to Bayaz’s plan not out of a sense of duty, but because they’re making the best decisions for themselves that are left to make. In that, despite all the evidence of darkness and grimness and grit and grime, The Blade Itself is a novel of humanity. It’s a novel of people dragging themselves the last inch when it would be so much easier to roll over and give up.

There’s something powerful in that, don’t you think?


Next Week: Er… that’s it! Do you think will let me do this for Before They Are Hanged? Find out next week!

[Ed note: Friday morning, April 25th to be exact!]

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.

Ralph Feldhake
1. feldhake
I remember "The Bloody-Nine" really shedding a lot of light on the mystery of why Logen has such a dark reputation--"Oooooh, he's a berserker!" The precise explanation (a split personality? demonic possession?) is in this case less important than the basic fact that he's probably indiscriminately butchered friends and allies while in a rage.

I have enjoyed this series. Hope you continue with the other books.
John Lobello
2. johntocaelpiano
I remember thinking about Logen and the Bloody Nine in the same way as Lews Therin Telamon and Rand al'Thor. Is there actually some ghost that exists and takes command of the corporeal form or is the body in possession of a fractured mind? Would either option relieve Logen of his guilt and shame? At the end of Red Country, Logen warns Shy to not get in his way, and knows what would have happened if other hadn't intervened. So he seems to take it in stride that the Bloody Nine is just a part of him. Ultimately, it might not make a difference, and giving an answer - unless it becomes integral to the plot of later books - would border on pandering. Shadows in Flight and Ender in Exile come to mind when talking about parsing out mysteries that didn't need to be explained away...

Interesting that the Bloody Nine gives grudging respect towards the others in his crew. "Black Dow was uglier, Rudd Threetrees was tougher" that kind of thing...
Chris Long
3. radynski
I was always of the opinion that Logen and the Bloody-Nine are the same person. I viewed it like Logen trying to separate that part of himself off as a distinct personality to remove himself from the guilt of his actions, even if he doesn't completely succeed at that goal.

As for the "superhuman" abilities, I don't really think there are any. More likely he's just using adrenaline and determination to ignore the wounds, etc. and his lack of conscience giving him greater combat skill because he's not holding back.
Brian Malbon
4. Brian Malbon
Wonderful ending. What took you so long?
Seriously, I love that final paragraph or two of wrap up you just did. You've explained why I love this series just as much after multiple readings as I did when I first stumbled on it by accident.

Not much to say on these chapters except to agree with what you said: for a such a big, exciting book, really nothing much happens. I don't mind at all the slow build of seeing and character we getinstead, but the spawned of the action really shows itself in the final fight chapter. Despite it's awesomeness - Ferro saves Logen! Vitari's badass yo-yo knife! The Bloody-Niiiiiiiine! - this chapter always felt to me like the end of a superhero movie where they concentrated on the origin story so much that they forgot to put in a fight scene and had to trot one out for form's sake. it feels... hasty.

Two more things and then I'll stop, waiting with bated breath to see if you'll continue with the next book. For the purposes of our fantasy casting game, I can see nobody but Milla.Jovovich for Vitari - all red hair, leather and spiderlike nimbleness.
As to the nature of the Bloody-Nine, I think he serves a different purpose in this series than in his later (spoiler but not really because others have mentioned it already) appearance in Red Country, and he follows different rules there. In this respect, especially this scene, he is definitely a second complete persona, as evidenced by Logen's horror at his imminent arrival ("no. No! I'm free of you!") and the fact that the Bloody-Nine has no apparant awareness of Logen except as a small voice in the back of his head. Whether he's supernatural in nature or not (and I always saw him in my head with glowing red eyes, but that is me and never mentioned on the book), it's clear that he's more than just Logen on an adrenaline rush.
Pyrrhus Aeacides
5. Pyrrhus
We hear that the Bloody Nine is made of death. Perhaps, like the Seed, he too is the other side made flesh. Or rather, like the Divider, half of his soul is on the other side? We understand very little about the power to talk to spirits, but I've always thought that it seemed quite a bit like breaking the First Law. Perhaps Logen has a demon inside of him, or maybe his talents give him some ability to channel the other side.
Brian Malbon
6. Crowjack
The first time I read TBI, I assumed that Logen's ability to commune with the spirits was closely connected to his 'berserker' side.
Logen is definitely conflicted...he regrets his bloody past. One can only speculate whether his greatest regrets revolve around the actions of 'the bloody nine'.
One of the most telling moments in the series comes in the last book when Logen asks Jezal:
"Do you think I'm a bad man" (paraphrasing a bit ...dont remembe whether he said evil or bad."
Jezal responds with either delsionally or with great insight. "You're the best man I know".
Logen is truly one of the most fascinating characters in fantasy fiction. He is beyond the simple concepts of 'hero', 'villain'; 'tragic hero', 'anti-hero'. His soul may be as scarred as his body, but even through it all, he has a certain underlying decency...I think this is what the Dogman sees and why he remains somewhat loyal to Logen, even after almost getting spitted by the "Bloody Nine".
Another thing here...did Logen's ultra violent second self manifest itself before he lost the finger? Named men get their bones early. I can't imagine Logen managing to have a crew without being a named man.
Brian Malbon
7. JReynolds
I've been re-reading as we go, and at the end of "The Bloody Nine" chapter (p. 504 in my edition) there's a good quote:
A third Practical crept through the door, around the red-haired woman, a heavy mace in his gloved fist. An unpleasant-looking weapon. Jezal could not help picturing the effect it might have on his skull, if swung in anger.
I read that and said: "Foreshadowing! DUN-DUN-DUN!" Abercrombie does do that-- that is one of many.
Brian Malbon
8. Brian Malbon
@ 7: such an awesome line! I noticed in Best Served Cold they do the same thing with Shivers' eye.

@6: in Before They Are Hanged Logen reveals that his other self first appeared when he was a young man in the High places, before the wars. It wasn't Named then, but it was still powerful and murderous.

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