Fri
Apr 25 2014 10:00am

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “The Great Leveler”

Before They Are Hanged First Law reread Joe Abercrombie

Well, wouldn’t you know it? I’m back for round two with Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. In round one we made it through The Blade Itself relatively unscathed. My biggest faux pas was misspelling Glokta’s name for a few weeks. Since I managed to not screw things up so bad, the powers that be decided you’re stuck with me for a while yet.

Because of the nature of the first book, things were kept pretty spoiler free in those posts. The reality is so much of what happens in the first book is really just foreshadowing and structural work for what comes later. So, I would expect things to get a lot more obviously kooky as we continue through. Thus, I would remind anyone reading this reread who isn’t already intimately familiar with Joe Abercrombie (his work I mean… erm… yeah) should sally forth to their local retailer before returning here in a few weeks. Make sure to leave some cavalry in reserve.

Now, we begin Before They Are Hanged with the words of Heinrich Heine, “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.”

“The Great Leveler”

Summary: The Dogman trusts his nose, and his nose tells him there’s trouble. The crew has been moving through a war zone for days, and with the mist closing in around them it seems more threatening than ever. At the river’s edge Dogman stops to take a drink and sees a body, and then another, Northmen and Southerners alike. Before he knows it he’s scrambling through the mist covered territory like a greenhorn in his first battle, scared and rattled by the tableau around him. Before he knows it he’s on the ground, a pair of monstrously strong hands clamped around his jugular.

Black Dow recognizes the Dogman and pulls him to his feet, but not without mocking him for his discovery. It isn’t just a few bodies, but an entire battle’s worth spread throughout the valley. Although some of the bodies belong to Bethod’s armies, the vast majority are Union corpses. Bethod is winning this war. Rudd Threetrees reckons it’s the crew’s job to teach the Union some new tricks.

At the gate of Ostemhorn, Threetrees and Dogman shove through a cavalcade of refugees attempting to enter. With the rest of the crew left behind, Dogman figures they have a chance at success. At the gate is a pedantic Union officer, who not only rejects entry to the city based on their Northern identity, but laughs at the idea that a group of the most feared warriors of the North could contribute anything to the Union war effort. Swallowing his anger, Threetrees stomps away with Dogman in tow.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

Death that is. He levels all differences. Named Men and nobodies, south or north. He catches everyone in the end, and treats each man the same.

This is basically the chapter title writ large. It is, also, one of the themes I most closely associate with grimdark. Characters who see death as something that wipes out the scorecard are characters who don’t believe that deeds matter. Good or evil, there’s nothing on the other side to reward or punish. What’s the result? An unpleasant place to call home.

They were scattered out across the grass in the valley bottom like nails spilled from a sack, twisted and broken on the brown dirt road.

This sentence has nothing to do with the chapter really, but it seems like a bit of a growth moment for Abercrombie. I didn’t notice very many rich descriptions like this in The Blade Itself. I’m sure there were a few winning metaphors and the like, but I don’t remember reading them. This one stood out for me. As you’ll see below there are a few writing things going on in Before They Hanged already that weren’t here in book one.

Analysis: We begin Before They Are Hanged with a character we only have a few chapters from in The Blade Itself—Dogman. One of the members of Logen’s old crew, he seems like a decent sort of killer, one mostly willing to do the right thing unless it’s really inconvenient to his well being. Despite his killer mentality, right away he turns tail and runs when fear strikes, just as panicked as any new recruit would be at the site of bodies. It’s a clear reference to the idea of the ‘great leveler’. No one is immune to these things.

As I read through this chapter I noticed something. None of the point of view characters from The Blade Itself are leaders. They are all following someone else’s direction. Why might this be? Well, when you consider decision making as something that has a moral component—every situation has a right and a wrong answer—the person who executes another’s orders can justify rightness or wrongness of the action is not theirs to bear.

You’ll notice the chapter title and the quote about death above. This all ties back to the same idea. We can all pretend that deeds don’t matter. And even if they do, we can pretend that our deeds are really someone else’s. It’s a powerful drug that, freeing in all kinds of ways. Of course, a silly argument like that only holds up so long before it comes crashing down.

A observational note from a craft perspective:

“The Great Leveler,” told from Dogman’s point of view, has a very distinct voice. It’s a voice that Abercrombie hinted at in The Blade Itself, but seems much thicker now. More confident, dare I say? In the first novel Dogman had some affectations, with a few dropped Gs and odd verb conjugations or word choices.

It seemed a long time waiting, up in the leaves, staying quiet and still, looking down at all them new walls.

In this chapter though it goes beyond that, with Dogman fully assuming the country twang of an uneducated Northman.

Dogman knew Bethod weren’t far away, though, his army spread out across the land, looking for town to burn, food to steal, people to kill. All manner o’ mischief.

Am I just noticing because it’s the first chapter of the new book or is there an actual change by the author to ramp up voice of the Dogman? What do you think?

Next Week: Major West makes war. Can you believe it? BOOK TWOOOOOO!


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.

1 comment
Brian Malbon
1. Brian Malbon
Awesome! I'm so freaking excited!

I never noticed the change in Dogman's voice before now. I think we (or I) trend to assume that Abercrombie doesn't out of the ether as a fully formed genius, and forget that the Blade Itself is actually his very first novel. It's a wonderful development, either way and one of the things that keeps me coming back to these books over and over again is the richness of their voices. I genuinely love the Northern dialect. Like Mal Reynolds' dialogue in Firefly, it's one I often find myself wishing I could pull off.

I'd suggest that one of the reasons none of the POV characters are leaders now is because some - or most - of then become leaders later on, after their own fashion. It's an easy trick to show how far they come along the way, and also an easy disguise so that we don't realize until too late that they haven't come far at all.

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