The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “The Survivors” and “Questions”

Some of last week’s commenters pointed out flaws in my argument about Joe Abercrombie’s status as the Earl of Grimdarkitude. They made some good points. The beauty of this relationship though is I get to say they’re wrong. Isn’t that tremendous?

Ok, they’re not wrong, but they misunderstood me.

I don’t really like the term grimdark. It’s awfully misleading by intimating that grimdark is the point of the story. If done right, grimdark is never the point. Joe Abercrombie writes it, but the themes he manipulates have nothing to do with the grit he embeds in the narrative. In the case of the First Law Trilogy, he is challenging the very underpinning of the epic high second-world fantasy (epic high, did I just write that?).

I hope that clarifies my use of grimdark. The word is an adjective, not a monolithic classification. Cool?

On to this week’s chapters…

The Survivors”

Blissfully brief: Logen wakes up, surprised to be alive, and heads back to his camp to get two very important items: his boots and an old cook pot.

Dramatic Reenactment Du Jour: Our intrepid hero (or is he?) Logen Ninefingers awakes on the river bank, coughing heartily to divest himself of the fluid in his lungs. Quickly realizing that without shoes, a coat, or any other sundry items, he will not last long in the harsh northern hinterlands. Despite his fear that the Shanka may be lying in wait for him at his camp he has little choice but to return to it.

Logen arrives at the camp and finds it empty. He laments the loss of his friends—Threetrees, Dow, Dogman, Forley, and Grim—who now must surely be dead. Although he sees no sign of their corpses he decides to strike out alone. Just him and his pot.

Important Characters Introduced: Threetrees, Dow, Dogman, Forley, and Grim

Quotes to remember:

It hurt bad, but his foot still moved well enough, and that was the main thing. He’d need his foot, if we was going to get out of this.


No coat either—he’d been sitting near the fire. Like this, he wouldn’t last a day in the mountains. His hands and feet would turn black in the night, and he’d die bit by bit before he even reached the passes.

It’s not often in fantasy that an author treats his reader to such interesting passages at these. Only Joe Abercrombie would point out that an unhealthy foot is harder to deal with that a gash in the side. And I don’t know about you, but I find frostbite RIVETING. Not really. Somehow Abercrombie makes it work, what do you know?

You have to be realistic.

YES!!!!! You do, don’t you?!?!

New readers are probably confused why I’m a little excited. To be blunt, this is probably the most iconic quote in the entire series. It echoes through every bit of Logen’s character and, to some degree, the First Law Trilogy in its entire.

Incoherent rambling masquerading as analysis: I guess it wasn’t THE END despite the prologue’s title. If Abercrombie could be sued for false advertising his readers would own him heart and soul. In Survivors we get a glimpse of who Logen really is when he isn’t running for his life or falling off cliffs. It’s not a terribly interesting picture at first blush.

Practical, isn’t he? So very practical.

Where most fantasy characters would be searching for a weapon, Logen is more concerned with girding his feet and warming his torso. He’s less mournful for the loss of his crew (what cool names they have!) than the condition of his old coat. In fact, his greatest expression of pleasure is at the discovery of an old pot, not that none of his mates are obviously laying dead on the cold ground. You do have to be realistic, after all.

There isn’t much else lurking in-between the lines here. The opening chapter of The Blade Itself is almost simple in its dedication to building the image of Logen in our minds. Abercrombie makes us think of Logen as simple, or barbaric, or both. Will that hold true? Abercrombie has been so honest with us so far, how could it not?



Readers Digest: Inquisitor Glotka, a man crippled beyond belief, begins torturing a confession out of a representative of the Guild of Mercers. He’s interrupted by his boss and scolded for being overzealous in his pursuit of the merchant class. He escapes with a warning before his super big boss shows up and demands he make the Mercer implicate the Master of the Mints.

Man, this is getting complicated. I thought this was a Joe Abercrombie book?

What a tangled web we weave: Inquisitor Glotka walks down a hall, the agony of each step a reminder of his shattered body. He comes to a set of stairs that leave him baffled. Who invented such sordid things as stairs? Through great agony he makes it to the bottom where he enters into white-walled, blood stained chamber.

Inside sits Salem Rews, a fat, naked member of the Guild of Mercers, who’s been evading the King’s taxes. Next to him lurks Practical Frost, Glotka’s muscle and an all-around charming guy. Before Glotka puts Rews to the question, he asks nicely. Why has he been embezzling? Who are his co-conspirators?

The interrogation is interrupted when another Practical, this one named Severard, calls Glotka away to meet with Superior Kalyne. A bit priggish, Superior Kalyne accosts Glotka for his overzealous pursuit of the Guild of Mercers whom, up until now, have been able to operate with impunity relative to the crown. Glotka notices the Superior’s fine furnishings in his office, wondering if the Mercers’ writ of freedom was bought and paid for. The Superior seems on the verge of throwing Glotka to the wolves when Practical Severard strolls in, a chest of confiscated Mercer gold in his arms, and provides the Inquisition’s leadership with incentive to leave well enough alone.

Before Glotka can get back to his interrogation he’s waylaid by the Arch-Lector, or more descriptively, the head of the Inquisition and one of the most powerful men in the Union. As the conversation develops, the Arch-Lector reveals elements of Glotka’s past. A nobleman, champion fencer, and Union war hero, the crippled Inquisitor was once a man on the rise. Captured by the Empire, tortured, and broken, then rescued against all odds, his star fell, with the only the Inquisition to take him in. At the end of their heart to heart the Arch-Lector commands Glotka to add a name to Salem Rews’ confession—Sepp dan Teufel, Master of the Royal Mints.

Glotka finally returns to his interrogation room where he finds the Mercer’s tongue loosened. Rews pens his confession and fingers Teufel. But, a torturer’s work is never done. Glotka orders his Practicals to stay ready, for Sepp dan Teufel must be found… TONIGHT!

Important Characters Introduced: Glotka, Practicals Frost and Severard, Arch-Lector Sult

Minor Characters Introduced: Superior Kalyne, Sapp dan Teufel, Salem Rews, Sult’s Practicals(?)

Places of Note: Angland, “the Empire,” Adua, the Union

Quotes to Remember:

If Glotka had been given the opportunity to torture any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of steps.


If Glotka had been given the opportunity to shake the hand of any one man, any one at all, he would surely have chosen the inventor of the chairs.

These two quotes, two pages apart, are such a delightful demonstration of Abercrombie’s writing. He’s isn’t just funny, but also clever. By creating these devices within the text he says to his reader, pay attention not just to what’s happening, but how I’m saying it. This is not often the case in much of the fantasy that Abercrombie is satirising.

“Is this where I beg for mercy? Is this where I crawl on the ground and kiss your feet? Well, I don’t care enough to beg and I’m far too stiff to crawl. Your Practicals will have to kill me sitting down. Cut my throat. Bash my head in. Whatever. As long as they get on with it.”

Glotka, ladies and gentleman. Abercrombie gives us a man who truly has nothing to lose. Death would be a relief from pain. What is such a man capable of?

Pedantic Pontificating: My goodness that’s a lot of walking down hallways, am I right? Hey, crippled guy! Walk to this room. Just kidding, go to this room. Oh, so sorry I’m going to need to redirect you over here. Abercrombie is about as nice to Glotka as Michael Jordan was to the Utah Jazz.

Anyway, Glotka’s pretty screwed up, right? His legs barely work, he missing all kinds of teeth, his spine is crooked, and he’s got some severe nerve damage. All thanks to the mysterious “Empire” who is at this point unnamed. Glotka apparently fought, rather bravely, in a war between the Union and the Empire, before getting cut to ribbons and unceremoniously dumped into the Inquisition. And now they’re pissed because he’s too good at his job. Well, welcome to the Union!

Intermixed with all this delicious character building, Abercrombie also begins to roll out something else. Rews is involved in some tax evasion, which apparently Superior Kalyne is complicit in, and Arch-Lector Sult is working at cross purposes to everybody. Or so it seems. Something is afoot in Adua, but what?

Beyond the plot, Abercrombie begins to unveil the world to us bit by bit. We have Angland to the North. “A filthy stink of violence and corruption,” to hear Glotka tell it. We also know Logen is up North. Any connections to be made? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The Inquisition itself raises some intriguing questions of its own. Each Inquisitor seems to have a pair of Practicals, who, at least for Glotka, exist as extensions of his will—the power behind his punch. They wear masks that hide who they are, while the Inquisitors openly flaunt their affiliation. Why? There’s little revealed of the Arch-Lector’s masked tandem, but Glotka pays them notice. They may bear watching.

Alas, there are few lines to connect this early in the game, but rest assured I’m watching Joe Abercrombie like a hawk. He’s having dumplings for dinner.


Next Week: Sadly, we did not arrive to the first chapter of Jezal dan Luthar. I am sorry. But, this Glotka chapter had so much to chew on that I felt compelled to let it breathe. Forgive me.

In our next installment, we get Logen high on hallucinogens and Jezal drunk as a skunk. It’s a week of Joe Abercrombie fugue state fiction. Don’t miss it!

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.


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