The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Flatheads” and “The Course of True Love”

Apologies for missing last week. I was moving into a new home. Did you know that when you move into a new house your stuff doesn’t magically appear in place? I was horrified to discover that my books were in boxes! And I didn’t have a desk set up! In any case, I’m reequipped with a larger office, more book shelves, and dedicated writing space. This in no way is likely to translate to better quality writing. Alas. In any case, thanks for your patience.

This week is the first introduction to Logen’s gang, the men he so swiftly left behind back in the opening bits of The Blade Itself. Told from Dogman’s point of view, so named for his keen sense of smell, Abercrombie continues with the theme of brutal men in brutal environs.

The second chapter covered is centered on Jezal. He’s confronted by Glokta, runs into a wizard, and is further ensorcelled by Ardee. For a guy with everything, he seems to be struggling to catch a break.


Catching a whiff: The Dogman contemplates life after Logen as the members of the gang reunite. Over Black Dow’s objections, Threetrees assumes leadership and the group heads south, encountering a band of Shanka along the way.

Laying down the scent: Dogman and Tul Duru Thunderhead wait in the meeting spot. While Tul paces impatiently, sure the others are dead or AWOL, Dogman keeps things calm. Before they know it Black Dow and Harding Grim appear among them, a threat implied by their stealthy entrance.

Tul and Dow get into a pissing match, nearly comparing the length of their equipment when Rudd Threetrees shows up with Forley the Weakest in tow. Dow turns his ire on Threetrees who the gang recognizes as the command presence with Logen dead.

“Ninefingers may be dead,” said Threetrees in Dow’s face, “but your debt ain’t. Why he saw fit to spare a man as worthless as you I’ll never know, but he named me as second,” and he tapped his big chest, “and that means I’m the one with the say! Me and no other!”

Once again Dogman plays peacemaker, reminding them of the Shanka all around. Things calm momentarily, manifesting as icy stares. With all of the gang, sans Forley the Weakest, unwilling to break eye contact with Dow, he relents. The wolf among them senses no weakness. Threetrees decides to head south.

Along the way they encounter a band of Shanka taking their leisure. The group plans an attack whose strategy hinges on a signal, which of course none of them bother to demonstrate ahead of time. The signal ends up being Dow running into the Shanka camp like a bat out of hell, resulting in a surprisingly successful raid. At the conclusion of combat they come to a realization that the Shanka threat is more manifest than originally imagined, and they ought to warn someone.


Important Characters Introduced: No new characters, but lots of existing ones fleshed out: Tul Duru, Dogman, Threetrees, Black Dow, Harding Grim, and Forley the Weakest.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

He watched Black Dow rubbing a rag on the head of his axe, looking at the blade with eyes soft as a lover’s.


A lot of men, most men even, wouldn’t have dared meet no look like that from Black Dow. He got the name from having the blackest reputation in the North, with coming sudden in the black of night, and leaving the villages behind him black from fire. That was the rumour. That was the fact.

Two quotes, one purpose. Black Dow is a bad man. He’s not the toughest guy on the block maybe, but it definitely seems he’s most lacking in human decency. There’s a lot of set up here for there not be something in the cards for Dow. I’m scared of him. Aren’t you?

Also, this gives you a great taste of Dogman’s voice. Abercrombie does a lot of cool stuff with the grammar here to really entrench the “in the trenches” mentality that Logen’s crew possess.

Sniffing out the truth: Abercrombie is employing very intentional tricks with his characters. I hadn’t necessarily noticed it before, but with the Dogman it’s terribly clear. Abercrombie’s point of view characters are universally despicable. We only root for them because everyone else around them is even worse. Although George R.R. Martin didn’t invent it, this technique could easily be called “pulling a Jaime Lannister.”

He also makes them underdogs by putting responsibilities on their shoulders that seem beyond their capability as human beings. In this chapter Abercrombie charges Dogman and his gang with warning others of the Shanka incursions. They take responsibility for something that seems far too large for such a rampant band of thugs. All of that goes to show that Abercrombie isn’t making us love his characters solely by making them interesting and vulnerable, but stacking the deck in their favor by twisting our perception of them.

The most significant plot point here is definitely from the Threetrees quote above. He references Black Dow’s debt to Logen. In Logen’s chapters we’ve been given hints that he fought single combat on Bethod’s behalf, but Threetrees is indicating that all the members of the gang were only allowed to live by Logen’s grace. He beat them all and they owe their lives as a result. Dogman and Threetrees most especially seem to respect that debt, while Black Dow thumbs his nose at it. The rest seem neutral at best.

My only conclusion in this chapter is Dow needs watching. Like a (Lady)hawk(e).


“The Course of True Love”

Innocent Flirt: Jezal shows up at practice to find Inquisitor Glokta waiting for him. Glokta mocks and goads Jezal. With no Marshal Varuz to train him, he wanders by Yoru Sulfur who insists Jezal cannot quit fencing. Seeking advice from Major West, he instead ends up spending more time with Ardee who convinces him to keep fencing.

Full Blown Proposition: In a rush to arrive at practice on time, Jezal dan Luthar is rather surprised to find Inquisitor Glokta waiting for him at the fencing yard. Already at the end of his rope, almost ready to quit, the fencer’s reaction to Glokta’s presence is like ice water down his back.

Glokta informs Jezal that he’s there to chat. He asks simple questions, but demands complex answers. Why does Jezal fence? The answers are many—for country, for honor, for family. Glokta sweeps them all away. Recognizing himself in Jezal, he declares,

“…Men don’t fence for their King, or for their families, or for the exercise either, before you try that one on me. They fence for the recognition, for the glory. They fence for their own advancement. They fence for themselves. I should know.”

Hitting too close to the mark, Jezal tries to go on the offensive, but Glokta maintains the upper hand, leaving him with a parting thought.

“Give it up. Lord Marshal Varuz will be disappointed, and Major West, and your father, and so on, but please believe me when I say,” and he leaned down, still smiling his horrible smile, “that I couldn’t care less.”

Annoyed, and with free time on his hands, Jezal wanders the streets surrounding the Agriont. Sitting beneath a tree, Yoru Sulfur waves Captain Luthar over. Sulfur introduces himself and makes opaque references to his relationship to Bayaz. When Jezal mentions giving up fencing Sulfur’s reaction is outsized. He demands that Jezal retract his negative aspersions.

Confused, Jezal seeks the only person he feels might be sympathetic—Major West. Instead, he gets Ardee in something less than a sober condition. After a great deal of banter he admits to her his desire to quit fencing. Her reaction is laughter, “I had a bet with Collem. He was sure you’d stick at it. And now I’m ten marks richer.”

Captain Luthar reacts with anger, then embarrassment, then renewed commitment to proving Ardee wrong.

Important Characters Introduced: None, but I really want to see more of Sulfur.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

And from a woman too! A woman! And a bloody commoner! How dare she? He had wasted time on her, and laughed at her jokes, and found her attractive! She should have been honored to be noticed!

Abercrombie has taken some criticism at times for being so male heavy with his characters, but this passage makes me realize that the author is quite aware of fantasy’s historical failings. He’s actively pointing his finger at wrongheaded notions here, I think, even if he isn’t entirely practicing what he might be preaching by actually depicting women in a more equitable light.

Reading between the lines: A lot of Jezal’s chapters are going in this same kind of three scene pattern. Fencing, random encounter, major plot mover. I have no idea what that means and it’s probably coincidence, but I’ve noticed it. In this chapter each of those scenes has the same point, a ratcheting pressure for Captain Luthar to follow through on his commitment to winning the Contest. There’s a complete character arc in many ways within the chapter itself. Jezal begins in denial and ends up accepting the fact that the only reason he’ll fence is to prove someone wrong. It’s about pride and self-image.

There’s an honesty to it though. How many heroes in fantasy assumed that role for glory hidden behind genuine sacrifice? I find it a much more realistic motivator, even moreso than to meet a father’s expectations or to impress a love interest. It’s a motivation that resonates for real people in a much more meaningful, if uncomfortable, way.

An interesting line amid all of Jezal’s petulance, Ardee mentions she’s reading The Fall of the Master Maker. We recently learned that the Maker murdered Juvens. What brought about the Maker’s fall? She calls it “Full of wise Magi, stern knights with mighty swords and ladies with mightier bosoms. Magic, violence and romance, in equal measure.” Many of the kinds of things said about fantasy fiction. Interestingly, like fantasy fiction I suspect the simplicity and fanciful nature of the narrative may bely some deeper truths. Are you as excited as I am to start drawing conclusions about Kanedias, Juvens, and Bayaz?


Next Week: We finish PART I of The Blade Itself with “How Dogs are Trained” (Glokta) and “Tea and Vengeance” (Logen). More importantly, we’re two weeks away from Ferro Maljinn’s debut performance! Things are about to get a lot more dynamic.

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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