The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “Barbarians at the Gate” and “Next”

If you follow any of the rereads there’s something I insist you do. Read the comments. I’m brilliant and find all kinds of fun and interesting things in the text, but truth be told I’ve got nothing on the folks who comment on what I write. They see things I completely overlook, often with entirely different readings of the text. It’s exciting. It’s what makes a reread like this work. I start the conversation and everyone who reads it improves on it. I’ll get back to this in my analysis of…

“Barbarians at the Gate”

Conan Dialogue: Jezal fantasizes about Ardee as he runs to morning practice. On arrival, he’s informed he and Major West will duel before an audience. Jezal trounces West, receives some congratulations, and heads off to his duty station where he encounters Bayaz and Logen. He escorts the pair to their meeting with Chamberlain Hoff. He sees many august personages within the meeting before he’s summarily dismissed.

Thundarr Dialogue: Captain Luthar runs through Adua with a ease, a nod to his growing physical prowess since rededicating himself to fencing. But, as he moves his mind keeps turning to Ardee and a complex ever changing series of fantasies that leave him sexually aroused.

Just as a particularly fine fantasy jolts him from his run, Luthar arrives at his morning practice session and a lurking Major West. In recent days, West and Jezal have been distant from one another, with the latter convinced he is better qualified to be on Lord Marshal Burr’s staff—his blood is excellent, don’t you know? And, of course, Ardee lurked between them, and “Everyone knew that [West] had the devil of a temper.”

West informs Jezal that Marshal Varuz has a surprise for him, an audience to prepare him for the Contest. In attendance is High Justice Marovia, Lord Isher, Crown Prince Ladisla, Inquisitor Glokta, and, naturally, Ardee West. The duel begins and Jezal, self conscious at first, warms to the task. He loses himself in the rhythm of his strokes and dispatches the Major with little effort. Ardee approaches him after the match and demands to know why he’s been ignoring her. Rather that express his complicated feelings, Jezal flees in shame.

Later, standing guard duty on the south gate, the Captain spots the Lord Chamberlain’s man, Morrow, looking suspicious. He approaches Morrow to inquire as to his business when he’s surprised by Yoru Sulfur, who waits at the gate for his master, none other than Bayaz, First of the Magi. As they talk Bayaz arrives. Jezal is blown away by his presence, and immediately recognizes him as the statue on the Kingsway. The Northman with him, on the other hand, gives Jezal nothing but the willies.

Morrow prepares to lead Yoru, Bayaz, and his Northman companion to Chamberlain Hoff when Jezal objects. The Union is at war! Jezal demands their weapons, which the Northman gives without argument, and insists on escorting them. They arrive at the Hoff’s office and Jezal is dismissed, but not before seeing Arch Lector Sult and High Justice Marovia within. Three members of the Closed Council meeting with a few crazy old men and a Northman. Strange times.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

A magnificent old man was striding purposefully across the bridge, bald head held high, a fabulous gown of shimmering red and silver flowing about him in the breeze.

So Jezal is apparently the kind of person that Bayaz mocks at the costume shop. I am not stunned.

Never in his life had Jezal seen a more brutish-looking man. Even Fenris the Feared had seemed civilised by comparison. His face was like a whipped back, criss-crossed with ragged scars. His nose was bent, pointing off a little sideways. One ear had a big notch out of it, one eye seemed touch higher than the other, surrounded by a crescent-shaped wound. His whole face, in fact, was slightly beaten, broken, lop-sided, like that of a prize fighter who had fought a few bouts too many. His expression too, was that of one punch drunk. He gawped up at the gatehouse, forehead furrowed, mouth hanging open, staring about him with a near animal stupidity.

This is a description of Logen Ninefingers. Sexy ain’t he? Good lord. Abercrombie makes him sound like Sloth from The Goonies. Only not as attractive.

By Crom (no reason, I just wanted to say it): Last week, one of the commenters wondered why I hadn’t mentioned a throw away line by Lord Marshal Burr about Crown Prince Ladisla wanting to lead in the coming war. Perfect example of why this reread would be incomplete and duller without comments because it was a huge bit of a foreshadowing for the future of the Union. In “Barbarians at the Gate,” Ladisla makes an appearance as a spectator. When Burr referred to Ladisla, and his capabilities, he was less than glowing. After telling us so, Abercrombie backs it up by showing it.

‘Oh.’ The Prince seemed confused for a moment, but soon perked up. ‘But you’re my man!’ he shouted at Jezal, poking once more with his fingers, the feather on his hat waving this way and that. ‘You’re the man for me!’ He danced off towards the archway, decorative chain-mail gleaming.

Prince Ladisla will not fair well when he heads North. How could he? The fact that Ladisla looks incapable next to Jezal is something of a race to the bottom since Jezal can only think of tearing Ardee’s clothes off everytime he considers war in the North.

The significant bits in “Barbarians at the Gate” are two-fold:

  1. Jezal has turned the corner as a fencer. His body is now taking over and he defeats Major West, an accomplished fencer and Champion in his own right, with mocking ease. This is the first time we’re really shown a Jezal that’s capable and confident (with reason).
  2. There’s a recognition that Bayaz is someone important, but a natural denial that he is the Bayaz of legend. I’ve ruminated several times throughout the reread of whether the Bayaz we’ve been following is the same Bayaz ensconced in statue on the Kingsway. Abercrombie is now forcibly connecting those dots to ask the same question. I’d point out that it was Major West who witnessed Yoru Sulfur’s petition to Chamberlain Hoff for a meeting some chapters back, not Jezal. I had to flip back because I was confused why Jezal didn’t know the meeting was coming.



The Long and Short of It: Arch Lector Sult exults in his victory over the Mercers while chiding Glokta for his sloppy investigating of Superior Kalyne’s involvement. Superior Goyle from Angland is being reassigned to take Kalyne’s place in Adua. Unimpressed by the choice, Glokta argues that Goyle is a hack. Sult disagrees and the two go on to discuss Valint and Balk. Glokta wants to investigate the bank, but Sult rejects the idea, claiming them too “well connected.” Sult assigns Glokta to investigate Bayaz, who must be a fraud despite possessing the appropriate paper work to assume the traditional seat on the Closed Council reserved for the First of the Magi.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters introduced: Superior Goyle (Mentioned in Glokta’s first chapter, but he’s a real dude now.)

Quotes to Remember:

‘I take no pleasure in it.’ I take no pleasure in anything.

Oh really? I think you take quite a bit of pleasure in winning. Or, perhaps, in being good at something. I dub thee unreliable narrator, Sand dan Glokta!

‘There is an empty seat on the Closed Council, there always has been. A pointless tradition, a matter of etiquette, a chair reserved for a mythical figure, in any case dead for hundreds of years. Nobody ever supposed that anyone would come forward to claim it.’

Lots of world building in this little sentence. It shows that Bayaz, if he is truly the First of the Magi, is hundreds of years old. He is a mythical figure, something like a Gandalf figure. His showing up to claim a chair on the Closed Council final gives us a reason for why he’s dragged Logen south. Sort of. The question becomes, what is Bayaz trying to accomplish? Particularly given that we know he helped Bethod get to where he is today.

More than meets the eye: This is a brutally short chapter, like a Glokta prisoner’s fingers. Abercrombie packs a lot into it though, but does so with a shoehorn approach that makes for some awkward writing. The most glaring example is the second paragraph where Glokta’s inner monologue is given free reign to explain Sult’s double cross as Glokta sees it. This probably could have been done more elegantly, but Abercrombie gets the job done. Basically, Sult set Glokta and Kalyne and Magister Kault up, but Glokta isn’t an unwitting dupe as he’s full of his own machinations.

Of course, Sult isn’t done using his favorite tool. Handing off the Mercer investigation to Superior Goyle, Glokta has a new task, investigating Bayaz. Abercrombie seems to be discarding the Valint and Balk plot line here, but be warned fair reader, it comes back with a vengeance later. In the meantime, Sult seems to believe that Bayaz is a fraud at best, and a spy for the Gurkhish at worst. Or perhaps more as a proxy for the nobility who remain rather put out by the Mercer downfall.

I think a commenter some posts back called Glokta’s chapters CSI: Adua, and it seems terribly true now. Abercrombie is writing almost episodic arcs for Glokta thus far, where is it going? How will it tie together? I’m not sure any of it would work if Glokta wasn’t such an incredibly compelling character because as it stands now his arc is rather disjointed.


Next Week: We take a break to give thanks for Joe Abercrombie. Then the following week we get to see some more Ferro and Logen goes site seeing.

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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