The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “On the List”

I’m going to sidebar for a minute. Stick with me.

There has been no shortage of discussion in recent days about the nature of the author and fan relationship. The argument goes, “authors shouldn’t involve themselves in discussions about a readers interpretation of their work.” And the response is generally, “I love talking to fans about my work and want to engage.” There’s a reasonable case to made for either side.

I bring it up, not to rehash what has become a tired diatribe, but to mention that if Joe Abercrombie commented on this reread every week it would fundamentally change the way it conducts itself. My writing would be different and, far more significantly, your commenting would be different. I won’t characterize it as better or worse, but it would be different. I don’t know what the right answer is, as to how authors and fans should interact in online space, but to suggest those interactions won’t change the conversation is a bit… silly.

You know who else is super silly? Practical Frost. Trust me.

This week in the reread I ended up doing only a single chapter. I streamlined in large part because if I did both “On the List” and “An Offer and a Gift” this post would have been 3,000 words long. Also because there’s a lot going on, particularly in “An Offer and a Gift,” and I didn’t want to leave either chapter with short shrift. Thank you for your patience. . .

“On the List”

FedEx: Sent to arrest Mercers “implicated” by Salem Rews, Glokta finds his marks murdered before he arrives. Suspecting a conspiracy from within the Inquisition, Arch Lector Sult gives him the authority to conduct a sting to catch the culprit.

US Postal Service: Ordered by Arch Lector Sult to root out the misbehaving Mercers on Salem Rews’ list, Sand dan Glokta creeps toward Villen dan Robb’s townhouse. Accompanied by Practicals Frost and Severard, they infiltrate the premises with little help from the Inquisitor. After entering, Frost clears the lower level, while Severard investigates upstairs. The need for stealth is quickly abated when Severard discovers:

A handsome young man lay on his back under the window, staring up, pale-faced and open mouthed at the ceiling. It would have been an understatement to say that his throat had been cut. It had been hacked so savagely that his head was only just still attached. There was blood splattered everywhere, on the torn clothes, on the slashed mattress, all over the body itself. There were a couple of smeared, bloody palm-prints on the wall, a great pool of blood across a good part of the floor, still wet. He was killed tonight. Perhaps only a few hours ago. Perhaps only a few minutes .

‘I don’t think he’ll be answering our questions,’ said Severard.

‘No.’ Glokta’s eyes drifted over the wreckage. ‘I think he might be dead. But how did it happen?’

Frost fixed him with a pink eye and a raised white eyebrow. ‘Poithon?’

While Villen dan Robb’s death is inconvenient, Glokta and the trio set off to find the next name on Rews’ list. Unfortunately, Solimo Scandi is also dead. The coincidence is too strong for Glokta who reasons there must be a mole within the Inquisition who’s alerted the Mercers to their liability.

Glokta arranges to meet Arch Lector Sult at a park to discuss the result of his investigation. Sult is disappointed to learn that Glokta wasn’t able to apprehend Villen dan Robb and instructs him to continue down the list. Glokta glibly points out to the Arch Lector that he’s discovered everyone on the list is dead. The Mercers are cleaning house.

Sult agrees with Glokta that a mole is likely, and Glokta asserts Superior Kalyne is the most the likely culprit. Taken aback by Glokta’s accusation, Sult makes it very clear that any accusation of that magnitude against a Superior of the Inquisiton must be based in a fact. An operation is concocted to use Salen Rews to spring a trap for the Mercers and the Inquisition mole. Glokta’s assignment is simple, “I want names.”

After the meeting with Sult ends, Glokta stays on the bench, in no rush to stand on his aching leg. Lord Marshall Vaurz strolls up and awkwardly engages his former fencing student. He asks Glokta to intervene on his behalf with Jezal, who despite immense talent is unwilling to commit himself to his steels as Glokta did years ago. Despite resenting Varuz’s pretense, Glokta agrees to assist.

Important characters introduced: None.

Minor characters introduced: Some dead Mercers

Quotes to Remember:

What a useful fellow he is. Without him and Frost I am just a cripple. They are my hands, my arms, my legs. But I am their brains.

This would seem to back up some of the reasoning I applied to the term PRACTICAL. They are Glokta’s tools, a practical extension of his complex mind. It also speaks to Glokta’s character, about how he’s continued to serve despite his tortured body. He finds pride in his mental fencing as much as he ever did in his actual sword work.

‘The commoners are up in arms again near Keln. Some idiot of a landowner hangs a few peasants and no we have a mess to deal with! How hard can it be to manage a field full of dirt and a couple farmers? You don’t have to treat them well, just as long as you don’t hang them!’

Oh, Arch Lector Sult, you cad!

Just a bit of world building, as it further demonstrates the continued decline of the Union as any kind of functional government. It seems to be a government on the edge of collapse, pressured from all sides and rotten within.

Tracking Information: So, quickly, this chapter gives us little in the way anything about the world. It’s a tight point of view on Glokta dealing with his own problems. However, it does begin to flesh out the Mercer/Inquisition conflict, which, to be honest, continues to feel a little thin.

Arch Lector Sult clearly wants to upset the status quo due to his distaste for the bourgeois. What is not clear is on whose orders Sult is issuing his commands. Is it his own agenda? The King’s? The Closed Council’s? Or is there another force at play? Is he merely trying to upset the merchant class who he sees as a threat to noble authority, or is there a deeper intent? At this point it looks like a purge for the sake of a purge. In any case, with a possible conspirator within the Inquisition it seems likely we’ll get a better idea of the long game on both sides.

Putting that aside, the real focus of this chapter is Abercrombie’s voice when he’s writing Glokta. In “On the List” that voice trends more toward humor than ever before. Although I don’t mention it in the summary, the opening bits of this chapter feature Glokta dressed in black and his cane wrapped in cloth, playing the cat burglar. It’s absurdity is only heightened by his thoughts, which reminds me of the classic Austin Powers inner-monologue gag that ends with, “How do I let them know because of the unfreezing process, I have no inner monologue? I hope I didn’t just say that all out loud just now.” Combined with the the hilarious quote in the summary from Practical Frost, this chapter had me laughing out loud several times.

Juxtaposed to that comedy are some of the blackest moments (so far) in the book. Not only do we get some gruesome descriptions of death, but Glokta’s selfsame monologue also includes the clearest depiction of how he views himself in the world. And let me tell you something, it’s depressing.

Glokta doesn’t just lament the loss of his body, he actively courts the notion that he is universally rejected from his previous associations because of it. Abercrombie highlights this by his reaction to Lord Marshall Varuz. Since we only see these interactions from Glokta’s point of view, we would be led to believe he’s been treated as a pariah since his return from Gurkhish prison. I can’t help but wonder whether Glokta is as responsible for poisoning the well as his former colleagues are for erecting a wall between them. One thing is clear though, Abercrombie portends some very real conflict between yesterday’s fencing champion and today’s aspiring one.


Next week: I deliver the aforementioned “An Offer and a Gift,” in which Jezal gets beat up by Varuz, loses interest in women not named Ardee, and gets an eye full of Fenris the Feared in the Open Council. Also, will Joe Abercrombie show up in the comments to set us straight? Only Stubby the Rocket knows.

Actually, Stubby doesn’t know either.

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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