Wednesday 25 June 2014

Joe Abercrombie: The First Law Book One: The Blade Itself (2006)

"'People are born to their station here. They have commoners, to fight, and farm the land, and do the work. They have gentry, to trade, and build and do the thinking. They have nobility, to own the land and push the others around. They have royalty...' Bayaz glanced at the tin crown '...I forget why. In the North you can rise as high as your merits will take you. Only look at our mutual friend, Bethod. Not so here. A man is born in his place and is expected to stay there. We must seem to be from a high place indeed, if we are to be taken seriously. Dressed as we are we wouldn't get past the gates of the Agriont.'"

'The Blade Itself' is a joyride through humanity's worst side. Joe Abercrombie has created a fantastically cynical work. Violence is very much a way of life in The Circle Of The World. In the Agriont, the king is a dribbling moron; arrogant, conniving and corrupt noblemen vie for prestige and ruthlessly exploit the working class whilst the real power is wielded by the treasonous Merchants' Guild and the fanatical and paranoid Inquisition. To the North, the barbaric Northmen are being united under Bethod, their first king, who is keen to take back Angland from the Union; in the South, the Gurkish Emperor is massing forces under the guidance of Kahlul and the Eaters, those who have broken the Second Law and eat human flesh. Truly it would be hard to conceive of a more grim set up. So how does Abercrombie manage to make it so much fun?
   Much of the book's success comes down to Abercrombie's characters. Everyone in 'The Blade Itself' is far from heroic, especially the protagonists, but they are all compelling and well drawn. So we have Logen Ninefingers, a world-weary barbarian tired of fighting, who when the battle madness takes him becomes a psychotic killing machine. Then there's Inquisitor Glokta, once a dashing soldier and fencing champion who was captured and brutally tortured by the Gurkish, now he is a torturer himself, tasked with eradicating corruption and treason in the government, unsure of why he still goes through with all the horrific things he does. And Jezal dan Luther is a handsome, rich young nobleman tipped for greatness in the fencing championship, and a spoiled, arrogant, conceited jerk. None of them are particularly likable, to say the least, but because they are intriguing characters with believable flaws and understandable drives, the reader becomes invested in their fates. Logen, Glokta and Jezal also make effective protagonists because all three of them balance each other out quite nicely. Logen and Glokta know damn well that they're far from good people, whilst Jezal is utterly unaware of how much of a schmuck he is. Both Glokta and Logen are sick and tired of the brutality and violence of their lives, but Glokta suffers from niggles of conscience, whereas Logen is more down to earth and able to resign himself to what he is. Despite this, Glokta's conscience rarely stops him from torturing people, whereas Logen, when he's not in his berserker rage, exhibits genuine acts of kindness and friendship towards others. And Glokta is a twisted reflection of Jezal's possible future; he once was as handsome and feckless as Jezal before his capture and torture. The contrasting yet complementary natures of the characters allows Abercrombie to effectively show us different perspectives on the fictional world and to delineate each character more strongly.
   The plot is complicated. Logen is separated from his fellow Northmen after a skirmish with the Shanka, and is summoned to Bayaz, the First of the Magi, because he can see spirits. He travels with Bayaz to Ardua, the capital of the Union, so Bayaz can take up his place on the Closed Council and open the House of the Maker. Jezal is training for the fencing competition, drinking too much, hitting on his friend Major West's sister and generally making a nuisance out of himself whilst Major West tries to prepare for the inevitable war with Bethod, the new king of the Northmen who wants to take Angland back from the Union. Meanwhile Inquisitor Glokta uncovers a plot by the Merchant's Guild, which he eventually discovers was set up by elusive bankers. All three protagonists are brought together at the end, as Bayaz leads them all into the mysterious and unsettling House of the Maker to remove an ancient artifact. As the book ends, Bayaz demands that Jezal accompanies him and Logen, along with Brother Longfoot the prolix Navigator and Ferro, an ex-slave out for vengeance against the Gurkish for wrecking her life, on the next part of their quest, and Golkta is sent to Dagoska to protect it from the Gurkish forces whilst investigating the disappearance of the last Superior of the Inquisition there. Meanwhile war breaks out between the Northmen and the Union.
   'The Blade Itself' is very much the first part of a trilogy, with no resolution at the end of the book, so I will have to wait until I have read the other books to see how this all pays off, but there is plenty of interesting stuff happening here. The supporting characters are varied and well developed, especially Logen's old band of Northmen, who go on their own quest to warn Bethod that while he is fighting the Union the Shanka are growing in number and becoming more dangerous. Major West and his sister Ardee make good foils to Jezal. The West family is working class, and Major West worked his way up to his position on merit alone, the complete opposite of the privileged and pampered Jezal, and his quiet dignity and competence begin to challenge Jezal's inherent snobbishness, especially when he finds himself attracted to the fiercely intelligent and devastatingly witty Ardee. The long suffering Major West is the closest thing the book has to a straightforwardly 'good' character, at least until he loses his temper and beats Ardee. It's worth noting that 'The Blade Itself' is low on female characters. However the book does take the plight of women in an oppressive, male dominated society seriously, and if Ardee is sidelined from the action, Ferro is a strong, unusual female character with agency who gets some good opportunities to kick ass, especially in the fantastically bloody climactic fight.
   Beyond the excellent character work, 'The Blade Itself' has interesting things to say about stratified class systems. There's an excellent scene, quoted at the top of the page, where Bayaz and Logen have to go to a theatrical costume shop before they present themselves to the court. The pageantry reveals as much as Bayaz's speech does about how ludicrous the whole set up is. This is contrasted with the barbarians in the North, where their society may be anarchic and violent but at least a person's position is decided by merit rather than birthright and social status. This is shown in the contrast between Logen's old gang, who bicker and fight but are sensible and down to earth and get things done, and the nobility of the Union, swanning around like peacocks in their fancy dress, utterly unprepared for the war encroaching on them from both sides. There is also clearly something interesting going on with the magic and folklore of this world. No one in the Closed Council believes Bayaz is who he says he is, because Bayaz, First Of The Magi, is a near mythical figure from the Union's past. Is Bayaz lying for some ulterior motive? What exactly he is up to is not made clear in this book, yet we have seen him scorch Northmen troops to nothing with his powers, so he is clearly no mere charlatan. The magical history of the Circle Of The World is only hinted at as well, with the rival forces of Juvens and Kanedias the Maker, their conflict with each other and the Magi. But it's clear from the episode in the House of the Maker that magic does exist in this world, and that Bayaz is up to something big.

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