The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself: “The Ideal Audience”

Driving home from a conference, I was listening to the Coode Street Podcast with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe. They were discussing genre minutia, as they do, but in so doing brought up an interesting point about how genre relates to itself. Namely, they proposed the idea that a great deal of genre fiction looks inward. I took that to mean it responds to and manipulates tropes in such a way that only someone familiar with them can truly appreciate the attempt.

Often, when Joe Abercrombie is discussed in less glowing terms, it is because readers find the First Law Trilogy slow and unsatisfying. Over my many readings of the series I could never understand that reaction. I can’t claim that anymore. Reading The Blade Itself, at the depth and pace a reread requires, has allowed me to really understand the nature of the series better. And that nature is exceptionally inward looking. So much of what makes it compelling is a result of how it subverts expectations. To someone unfamiliar with the genre, The Blade Itself becomes asset deprived. Or, more clearly perhaps, it becomes somewhat exposed as a debut novel.

I would go on to argue that every novel he’s written since has become more outward looking. I could write an entire essay exploring this idea, but I thought it worth mentioning here. With that thought regurgitated for your delight, on to this week’s chapter…


“The Ideal Audience”

Regular Fantasy Summary: Glokta is interviewed by the Arch Lector as to the progress of his investigation. Despite a poor performance, Glokta reveals that only the real Bayaz could produce a key to the House of the Maker. The pair agree to pose Bayaz with the challenge at Jezal’s celebration banquet. Bayaz indicates he has a key, and declares he’ll enter the House of the Maker tomorrow.

The Way of Kings Summary (can you tell I’m rereading it this week?): Brought to Arch Lector Sults office, Glokta reveals the status of his investigation into Bayaz’s origins. Recounting the nighttime disturbance, his conversation with the man himself, the addition of a Navigator, and the corpse found outside Bayaz’s rooms, Glokta fails to impress the Arch Lector with his work. It isn’t until Glokta hands him the scroll describing Bayaz’s knowledge of the House of the Maker that Sult sees an opportunity to discredit the supposed Magus at Jezal dan Luthar’s victory banquet.

At the banquet, Logen Ninefingers struggles to fit in as he remembers mealtime in the North. Devoid of utensils or even plates, a chieftain’s table was full meat off a carcass and dogs scrambling for scraps. Warned by Major West that the flowers aren’t for eating, Logen strikes up a conversation with the former fencer. Happy to discuss anything but his own past, Logen describes Bethod’s tactics.

Meanwhile, Jezal pouts that no one seems to be nearly as impressed with him as they ought to be. Instead the table is rife with rumors of discord in the countryside. Malcontents lurk in every corner, looking to make a move while the Union projects weakness. 

Glokta observes it all, loathing Jezal for what he sees of himself in the arrogant noble. After a toast by Chamberlain Hoff to the Contest winner, a performance begins from one of Adua’s finest actors. A scene of Kanedias’ death and Bayaz’s response, Glokta sees it having the intended effect on the so-called Magus. As the play concludes, the Arch Lector challenges Bayaz directly to prove his identity by magic or with a key to the House of the Maker.

Refusing to perform magic, Bayaz removes the key from under his robe. Tomorrow he will open the ever closed House. Then, without disturbing anyone’s food, he makes Sult’s chair collapse beneath him.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: The Tanner

Quotes to Remember:

“I heard a song once, in Angland, about a nine-fingered man. What was he called now? The Bloody-Nine! That was it!” Logen felt his grin slipping. “One of those Northern songs, you know the kind, all violence. He cut off heads by the cartload, this Bloody-Nine, and burned towns, and mixed blood with his beer and what not. That wasn’t you, was it?”

Dun-Dun-DUN!!! We’ve not seen the Bloody-Nine in action yet, but damn if passages like this don’t me eager. Come on Logen, get down to business!

“Oh, but I have been. During the reign of King Morlie the Mad, and in the civil war which followed, I was tutor to a young man called Arnault. Later, when Morlie was murdered and Arnault was raised to the throne by the Open Council, I served as his Lord Chamberlain. I called myself Bialoveld in those days. I visited again in King Casamir’s reign. He called me Zoller, and I had your job, Arch Lector.”

Bayaz dropping the knowledge.

Dropping My Knowledge: So, what’s going in this chapter? Too much, probably. Once again we get a split point of view chapter. I don’t really recall that fact ever standing out before, but I very much notice now on closer reading. I find it a much more resonant technique here than in the previous chapter.

While the narrative of the chapter describes the culmination of the Inquisition’s unsuccessful attempts to discredit Bayaz, its purpose is really about increasing the tension for all the other story lines:

  • Logen describes what West will be up against in the North.
  • We get some more tidbits about Logen’s past.
  • Jezal gets what he’s always wanted, but still something is missing… Ardee?
  • Glokta finds himself very much on thin ice at the Inquisition, something that will surely only be exacerbated by his failure to indict Bayaz.
  • Bayaz demonstrates he is what he says he is and indicates a far more robust history with the Union than we ever suspected.

More accurately, chapters like “The Ideal Audience” are foundational for epic fantasies. It’s a layering of expectations and history that weaves into the actual narrative.

On the whole we’re left with little to speculate about. There were several items I found interesting, though…

  • Jezal recalls that Morlie the Mad and King Casamir had some odd personality quirks. Interestingly, both of those rulers were influenced by Bayaz’s direct involvement as he describes later in the chapter. What impact may he have had?
  • Bayaz says Kandedias never worked in gold because he did not care for beautiful things, only things that worked. This seems like foreshadowing, but it might just be color.
  • In describing the Tanner, the death of a King’s collector, and High Justice Marovia’s response to it, I can’t help but wonder if there’s some motivating force behind the unrest. Is the Empire trying to sow seeds of distrust or perhaps the weak King is about to be ousted from within? Is this a result of the Inquisition’s power grab or endemic?
  • More little intimations that some folks would be happy, and Adua might be better off, if Prince Ladisla bit the dust. Can you say… foregone conclusion?

And the tension and unanswered questions continue to grow…

Next Week: Into the House of the Maker we go. Secrets will be revealed!


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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