The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “What Freedom Looks Like”

Guess what! We made it through Part I!

I’m pretty proud of us for two reasons. One, none of us (and by us I mean me) got unduly depressed by all the horrible soul sucking stuff the characters dealt with. Two, the opening bits of The Blade Itself are easily the slowest of the series and I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t bored in the least. It’s a testament to Abercrombie’s really interesting characters. Because let’s be honest, there’s been an awful lot of walking around and standing in place so far.

With the opening of Part II we get a look at a completely new point of view character. And she’s a she. If I’m not mistaken, Ferro is only the fourth significant female character in the book, along with Ardee, Caurib, and Lady Ariss dan Kaspa. There are more to come, but it seems an odd choice. It’s more a discussion for down the road, so I’ll leave it at that.

“What Freedom Looks Like”

One sentence: Ferro Maljinn buries the last of her crew of escaped criminals and slaves when Yulwei, an apparent Magus, shows up to give her purpose.

Many sentences: A woman buries her crew because that’s what crews have done for one another since time began. As she digs, she reflects on the battle between her crew and the dead soldiers around her. The only survivor of the conflict, she has little sympathy for anyone involved.

When a voice says, “Ferro Maljinn!. . . I know who you are!” she reacts violently, firing an arrow at an unarmed old man. Despite prodigious skill, Ferro misses, the arrow seeming to curve in the air. Not Gurkhish, or bounty hunter, Ferro reasons the old man must be one of them—an Eater. She fires another arrow that misses him again by inches. She figures magic is at work and talking might be more effective.

Introducing himself as Yulwei, he takes several attempts by Ferro to impale him in stride. He offers to help, arguing that without him the soldiers on her tail will catch her, and take her to the Emperor who will torture her in unimaginable ways. And they’re not alone. They have an Eater.

As they talk, Yulwei gives water to one of the soldiers who’s clinging to life. Ferro responds by putting her shovel through the dying man’s head, sparking a response from Yulwei who presses her on what she wants for herself in this life. Realizing she’d rather live than die she accepts his help in exchange for a future favor.

Important Characters Introduced: Ferro Maljinn, Yulwei

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

Ferro was bored with this. Let them come, and the Eater too. She wouldn’t die in a cage. She would cut her own throat, if it came to that. She turned her back on him with a scowl and snatched up the shovel, started digging away furiously at the last grave. Soon it was deep enough.

This phrase really captures Ferro well. She’d cut her throat to spite someone, but at the same time she honors her dead companions even though she despised them.

The hate and the fury were gone, for the time being, but they had left a hole, and she had nothing else to fill it with.

Poignant, no?

More sentences about previous sentences: Before I get called out, let me mention that I didn’t include anything from the last few pages of the chapter in my summary. While there’s lots of good character building bits in there for Ferro, none of it really contributes to the plot. Yulwei does a good impression of a Romulan Warbird (cloaking device!) and Ferro gets emotionally hollowed out.

From a craft perspective I appreciate what Abercrombie is getting into here. He needs to get Ferro from zero to sixty, catching her up in development to his other major point of view characters in half the time. The result is a lengthy chapter that really forces Ferro to confront the scared, angry, and directionless person Gurkhish cruelty has made her.

Oh, the Gurkhish sound really crappy. I’m not sure I feel a heck of a lot better about the Union or the Northmen either, but still.

The major item worth discussing in “What Freedom Looks Like” is the use of the term “Eater.” Given that it clearly refers to a magic practitioner and Juvens’ Second Law states that eating the flesh of men is a no-no, I think it’s safe to say Abercrombie just introduced a competing faction of Magi. Remembering Bayaz’ reaction to Caurib (Bethod’s adviser), I feel comfortable inferring she might be the first Eater shown to the reader. But, what are their powers? How do they differ from the Magi we’ve seen so far? Bayaz, Yulwei, Yoru Sulfer, and Quai (kind of).

A few other interesting things:

  1. Yulwei seems to do a lot of magic in this chapter. He avoids getting stabby stabbed by Ferro a half dozen times. He then masks their travel through an armed encampment, yet he never seems to experience the kind of shakes Bayaz does after his firestorm in the previous Logen chapter. Is this inconsistency or something about magic we just don’t understand? I tend toward the former as it’s a convenient plot device, but I can’t remember every detail so I’m going to be keeping an eye on this as we learn more about the magic.
  2. After vilifying the Gurkhish early in the chapter through Ferro’s bias and then through Yulwei’s description of what they’d do to her, Abercrombie gives us another perspective at the chapter’s end. Yulwei and Ferro observe a squad of soldiers talking about their fear of her and the families they’ve left back home. The take away, at least for me, is that Gurkhish aren’t much different.
  3. While many fantasies would be offering us the hard bitten Northmen, the noble Union with a Westernized government, and a backward savage Empire, Abercrombie offers us a trio of cultures that all have the same kinds of hopes and fears. I hesitate to call his world building complex. It really isn’t. It’s just as simple, in some ways a lot more simple than the kind of world building the Feists and Eddings gave us, but it’s far more emotional charged. He creates conflict within each of these cultures and it makes for an incredibly rich tapestry without a great deal of exposition.

Spoiler: Yulwei is taking Ferro to Adua. Excuse me while I giggle maniacally at the thought of all these screwed up people in one place.


Next Week: We get the chapter that probably should have finished Part I, namely Glokta revealing the Mercer plot in the Open Council.

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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