The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Three Signs” and “The Theatrical Outfitter’s”

The last couple of chapters have taken a turn thematically. Where the early bits were all epic-fantasy-is-full-of-lullz, and the subsequent bits were all the-human-condition-is-really-dismal, the more recent bits seem very interested in societal commentaries. In the last chapter we learned that Valint & Balk, a BANK, is behind much of the corruption and abuse in the Union government (probably). In this week’s chapters we find out it might be idiocy as much as it is corruption.

Perhaps apropos of nothing, The Blade Itself was published in 2006, roughly two years before the major financial collapses. Although it’s near impossible to project what Abercrombie was thinking about as he wrote this novel, I think it’s clear he recognized some of the inherent flaws in our systems of government. Namely that wealth begets wealth and the powerful serve only staying in power. These are themes I want to pay attention to as the reread continues, in addition to the others already established…

“Three Signs”

Generally: Major West finishes a practice session with an improving Captain Luthar, and informs him that he better step off his sister. West then visits with Lord Marshal Burr, learning of incursions by the Northmen into Union territory. He is appointed to the Marshal’s personal staff over his objections due to the lack of blue pigment in his blood.

Specifically: Major West finds himself losing to Captain Luthar more often than he’d like of late. Even Varuz seems to align himself with Jezal’s emerging commitment to his craft. After a recognition that fencing is a young man’s game from all sides, West mentions his impending appointment with Marshal Burr to discuss the coming war.

Jezal makes the mistake of mentioning his own plans, poking the crucible that lurks beneath West’s ponderous exterior. The Major demands the Captain leave off visiting his sister, who has suffered enough in her life and doesn’t need the kind of man he knows Jezal to be toying with her emotions. His anger runneth over.

Arriving at his meeting with Marshal Burr, West is given the opportunity to view the King of the North’s gifts to the Union—the three heads of its border commanders. Discussions ensue regarding the Union’s political and military handicaps. All the while, Burr clearly has a burr in a stomach because he’s constantly complaining of indigestion.

Ultimately, Burr orders Major West to put himself on the Marshal’s personal staff to help command the forces that will move north. West, concerned that his commoner roots will undermine the Marshal’s orders, tries to beg off, only to be shutdown by Burr’s absolute need for capable people—something the Union lacks in every respect.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Lord Marshal Burr

Quotes to Remember:

West realised he was squeezing Jezal’s arms with all his strength. How had that happened? He only meant to have a quiet word, and now he’d gone way too far.

You’ll remember that Major West got a little angry with Ardee earlier. Here’s another example of his temper when it comes to family matters. He can’t stop himself from physically threatening Jezal if he doesn’t stay away from his sister.

As an only child I find this kind of behavior a little odd, but then my brother in law had a very similar talk with me. You know, minus the swords.

This war was a bad thing, a terrible thing, no doubt. He felt himself grinning. A terrible thing. But it just might be the making of him.

Yup, this is the same Major West whose debut chapter was titled “The Good Man.” With an opportunity to rise, something West assumed was denied to him as common born, is it possible he’ll find himself more closely associated with Jezal dan Luthar’s rampant self-aggrandizement?

Hazy: I love West’s chapters because he actually does stuff where Jezal is always observing others or reacting to them. He has no impetus of his own other than, don’t embarrass his family and get noticed. It’s like the difference between Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. Rush is always waiting for someone to do something stupid so he can talk about how amazing his world view is, where Stern actually does stupid things (I’m REALLY good at analogies, don’t you think?). I suspect if Jezal was a female character there would be much calamity over how little agency is given to the character.

Now, West is an agent. He needs to protect his imperfect sister and continue to excel at the only thing that allowed him to elevate his family—soldiering. While doing all this agent-ing, we learn that the Union’s military power is only skin deep. Still recovering from the war with the Gurkhish the Closed Council has decided to send every troop they have to fight in the North, hoping to overwhelm Bethod and end the war before the Gurkhish can react. Given what we know about how fiction works, I feel safe in pointing out that hopes and dreams work about as often as picking up a grenade and throwing it back.

Two important observations here, I think:

  1. Burr is actually really capable. He’s the first person in the Union, so far, who seems to have his head on straight. There’s a real recognition by him that the core of Adua is rotten, and they’re in desperate need of people like Collem West to get them through. Given how Abercrombie treats “nice people,” I wouldn’t expect “capable people” to get much better treatment.
  2. Burr observes that the Inquisitions destruction of the Mercers has eroded the support of many powerful nobles to the degree that they’re dragging their feet on raising levies for the war effort. This begs the question, did the Inquisition foresee this and it’s part of their plan, or did Sult screw the pooch?
  3. Oh, and if you think Marshal Burr’s stomach ache is indigestion and not some blatant foreshadowing for later, I have a leaking thermo nuclear device to sell you.

Long story short, the Union is in a bad situation, which only become more clear in…


“The Theatrical Outfitter’s”

Aside: Logen, Bayaz, and Malacus Quai arive in Adua, leaving Logen stunned by its size. He’s equally stunned by the poor quality of soldiers he sees preparing to march on Bethod. Bayaz takes them to a costume shop to acquire appropriate garb for their visit to the power halls of the Union.

Soliloquy: I could write this out long hand, but it wouldn’t provide much more illumination than what I’ve offered above. The purpose of the chapter is really to give Adua the city, and the Union at large, some more color—an unbiased perspective if you will. To be succinct, something I should endeavor to do more of since this post is rapidly approaching 2,000 words, I’ll just say Adua is all the things wrong with “modern” nations.

  • The poor are mistreated.
  • It’s crowded and stinks.
  • The rich are really rich and the poor are really poor.
  • And no one seems to care.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

“The great wage secret wars for power and wealth, and they call it government. Wars of words, and tricks, and guile, but no less bloody for that.”

This is a quote from Bayaz, something I find very ironic as he considers reclaiming his place in the power structures of Adua… no?

“A clan once sent their poorest warrior, a man called Forley the Weakest, to fight me in a duel. They meant it by way of surrender. Why does this Union send their weakest?”

To answer Logen’s question, I would posit Abercrombie believes they do it out of hubris. The Union believes its own press. Their proverbial scat was not shat, but delivered to the toilet by magical storks with tophats. Also, a bit of oh-that’s-why-Forley-is-part-of-Logen’s-band here.

Monologue: There’s an idea in this chapter that appearances are everything. Abercrombie is almost quoting the O’Jays through Bayaz, “Give the people what they want!” And in this case, the fine people of Adua have exactly the same expectations that we do as readers. Proper wizards should be garbed in absurdly appointed finery and savage Northmen ought to have loincloths.

Compare this to the last chapter, where Glokta watches Magister Kault plummet to his death as a result of cheap clothing and the extended metaphor for the Western world starts to emerge. Spelling it out, perhaps we’re a little too concerned with style over substance.

As Logen adjusts to life in the big city, he’s most stunned by the poor quality of soldier being sent North. “The dirty beggars, the gaudy lads. It was hard for him to say which were stranger.” A stranger to all of this, he seems the only one capable of recognizing the absolute narcissism present in the Union’s behavior. How do they imagine they can defeat Bethod’s army with this rabble?

The chapter ends with a bit of comedy as we imagine Logen dressing a part for the benefit of the Adua elite. Abercrombie via Bayaz winks at the reader as if saying, all those other fantasies are play acting too, I’m here to give you the real shit. It’s about the closest an author comes to speaking directly to his reader sans Deadpool showing up for a conversation.


Next Week: Jezal and West fence for an audience, and the Captain exhibits some xenophobia.

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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