The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “How Dogs are Trained” and “Tea and Vengeance”

Joe Abercromie and I had some interesting interactions on the Twitters this week. The first time I asked, “Do you think writers take criticism harder than other professions?” Because I like poking things with sticks. Abercrombie’s response can’t be printed here. I laughed.

My second question was a bit more interesting. I asked something like, “Is grimdark dead insofar as it’s no longer in dialogue with the tropes of high and epic fantasy, but instead in dialogue with itself?” Now that statement needed all kinds of unpacking, which I won’t bore anyone with here, but it elicited a fascinating response from Abercrombie. He said, “the conversation may be over among bloggers and connoisseurs. In the wider public, it’s barely started.” The conversation went on to suggest that there’s nothing really wrong with grimdark taking the next step into a subgenre of its own rather than an offshoot of more standard fantasy.

Whatever. None of that’s particularly relevant except that I strongly believe the First Law Trilogy, which I’m spending an inordinate amount of time writing about, is the absolute pinnacle of the dialogue I reference above. I would also argue that subsequent Abercrombie works are in dialogue with other mediums (war, western, etc.). With a young adult novel under contract, I’ll be intrigued to see if he continues the trend there. Are there applecarts that could use upsetting in the YA market? 

In any case, as a blogger it’s always healthy to be reminded that I spend a lot more time thinking about this stuff than 99.9% of readers. Tobias Buckell wrote a pretty fascinating post on exactly that subject. I suppose if I have to be reminded of it by anyone, I could do worse than Lord Grimdark himself. 

Enough of my meanderings. This week’s chapters feature something of a culmination of the novel’s early story arcs for Glokta and Logen, which makes sense as it marks the end of Part I of The Blade Itself. Like Jezal last week, Glokta and Logen are moving past the introductory stage. We know who are they and what they stand for, and it’s time to put those characters to a test. 

In my mind they’re like three bowling balls. They’ve toed the line. The pins have been set. All that’s left is for the author to take three steps and send that ball down the lane. I’m smiling right now just thinking about Part II.


“How Dogs are Trained”

Abbreviated: Glokta kidnaps a high ranking Mercer named Hornlach by bribing the sailors hired to smuggle him out of Adua. After applying pressure in classic Glokta fashion, namely through threats of torture and psychological tomfoolery, Hornlach agrees to admit he defrauded the King.

Less Abbreviated (just kidding): Short covered it. One of the shortest chapters thus far. And I’ll make up for in the next chapter.

Major Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None really. Carpi, the assassin hired by the Mercers, is named here for the first time.

Quotes to Remember:

“I do apologise for that. I know it’s quite uncomfortable, but clothes can hide things. Leave a man his clothes and you leave him pride, and dignity, and all kinds of things it’s better not to have in here.”

Damn. Glokta really knows how to cut someone down to size doesn’t he? Hornlach caves pretty freaking fast after this line.

It’s the truth I swear:  This really feels like the first time Glokta tortures someone whose hands aren’t entirely dirty. Hornlach clearly knows something is going on, but seems genuinely uncomfortably admitting his culpability. Sepp dan Teufel, Salem Rews, and Carpi are all obviously involved. Glokta seems to have evidence to that effect. In the case of Hornlach he seems to be the highest ranking Mercer he could get their hands on that Carpi knew (who was still breathing). As the chapter concludes we learn that Glokta is training Hornlach to testify. I suspect the Inquisition has some pretty specific phrases they’d like him to use.

One of the highlights of this chapter is that Practical Severard is really starting to be fleshed out. It started when he brokered the purchase of Glokta’s “safehouse” and continues here. Despite Glokta’s own hardened sensibilities there are frequent moments of awe (fear?) at his Practical’s capability for emotionless violence. Although Practical Frost is the big bad ass muscle dude, it’s really Severard that’s to be feared.

Also, more gum sucking. How does Glokta have any gums left? My God man!


“Tea and Vengeance”

A Ditty: Bayaz, Logen, and Quai sing John Denver’s On the Road Again as they head south. (Most of that happened.)

An Opus: Logen, Bayaz, and Quai depart the Great Library, heading south. As they ride Bayaz comments on the day and the beauty of the countryside; something Logen cannot bring himself to see. He sees a potential battleground, ambush sites, and opportunities for great victories or crushing defeats. It forces Logen to consider the position the trio is in. Bethod will crave vengeance and they’re vulnerable on the road. Bayaz strengthens Logen’s wariness by admitting the witch Caurib is far more capable than he let on.

Around the campfire that night Bayaz grills (pun intended!) Quai about various types of plants. No one seems particularly enamored with the discussion except Bayaz who drones on about the importance of knowledge. Quai is forced to quote from Juvens’ Principles of Art:

Base magic is wild and dangerous, for it comes from the Other Side, and to draw from the world below is fraught with peril. The Magus tempers magic with knowledge, and thus produces High Art, but like the smith or the carpenter, he should only seek to change that which he understands.

Logen, intrigued by the statement, assumes this means Magi can do anything. There are rules, Bayaz remarks. The First Law, that it’s forbidden to speak with devils, is offered by Logen to the Magi’s surprise. Bayaz offers the second, ’It is forbidden to eat the flesh of men.’ Bayaz quickly changes the subject to Logen and Bethod

Hesitant to discuss the subject, Logen only remarks that his quarrel can wait. Bayaz is surprised given the reputation of the Bloody-nine, a name used to scare children in the North. Even with evidence to the contrary, Bayaz is stunned at Logen’s mental capacity, not to mention his speaking with spirit.

Their pleasant journey takes a turn for the worse when a party of Northmen ambush them on the road. Blacktoe, a Northman warrior Logen respects a great deal, offers them a chance to come peacefully. Logen takes the opportunity to pump Blacktoe for information. He learns of Old Man Yawl’s death, Bethod’s increasing megalomania, and the Feared’s connection to Caurib. Knowing only death awaits him if he goes with Blacktoe, Logen attacks.

Viscera flies and wounds are taken. 

Eventually Logen is cornered and forced to give up his weapons. Only when Blacktoe demands Bayaz follow suit does the Magus get involved.

There was no word of command, no strange incantation, no arcane gestures. The air around Bayaz’ shoulders seemed to shimmer, like the air above the land on a hot day, and Logen felt a strange tugging in his guts.

Then the tree exploded…

The fight ends quickly. Blacktoe, pinned beneath his horse, is gravely injured and recognizes to return defeated would mean his death anyway. Logen does the deed as his old colleague thanks him for doing it. Logen is not amused in the least.

Major Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Blacktoe,  Old Man Yaw

Quotes to Remember: There are so many awesome quotes here. It’s got a lot of classic Logen voice in it, not to mention a pretty good primer for some of Abercrombie’s commentaries. It ends with the quote below and I think it really says everything.

Logen stared at the blade for a moment. It was clean, dull grey, just as it had always been. Unlike him, it showed not so much as a scratch from the hard use it had seen that day. He didn’t want it back. Not ever.

But he took it anyway.

There’s a real resignation to those words. Logen cannot be anything but what he is. The world won’t let him. And even if it would, would he let it?

I’m worn out from that summary: Long damn chapter, right? So much happens in conversation between Bayaz and Logen. Really every time these two talk throughout the series it’s required PAY ATTENTION time. Real quick here’s some of the things that were covered and a little something about it.

  1. Caurib has a power called ‘the long eye’—basically she can keep an eye on where Bayaz and Logen are going. Handy plot device, eh?
  2. Quai is a pretty crappy apprentice. His memory is bad. He lacks constitution. Why is he Bayaz’ apprentice? It doesn’t make any sense.
  3. Magi gain power through understanding nature. Why? How? I don’t know. Just go with it. With all the subverting Abercrombie does, he sure doesn’t invest any time in ground his magic. Pretty standard hand wavy so far, isn’t it?
  4. The second law… don’t eat people. Seriously? This is a law you had to spell out? I know why it’s a law because I’ve read this thing a billion times, but I love how odd this law is at this point in the story. Don’t eat people. MAGIC GIVES YOU MAD COW OK?
  5. Logen doesn’t like Bethod, but it’s still not really clear why. It’s almost like Logen just got tired of doing the things Bethod wanted him to do. If it’s as simple as that I continue to be unimpressed by his moral turpitude.
  6. This talking to spirits thing for Logen gets my goat a bit. I’m telling you right now the spirits thing is not important for later in the series. Unless it’s the subtext that allows for Logen’s personality issues. That is to say, is the Bloody-nine a separate and distinct entity from the Logen we ride along with? I bet I’m going to write a long post about this as more information comes to light during the reread.
  7. Back to why Logen left Bethod. In his interactions with Blacktoe, they seem to dance around notions of how a Northman is supposed to act. Old Man Yaw is this strong independent man who refused to bow. Blacktoe bows only because Bethod can threaten his family. Is it possible Logen refused to break his Northern creed? Could be. One of the commenters last week really got me marinating on this subject more.
  8. And finally, Bayaz blows some shit up, but we learn that there’s a cost. He begins to shake after his fireball. Magic has a weakness! It’s still really hand wavy.

That’s all I’ve got…


Next Week: Part II begins. Ferro is introduced. Glokta goes to trial (sort of). I leave you with the quote that begins Part II.

“Life—the way it really is—is a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse” –Joseph Bradley

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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