Fri
May 9 2014 12:00pm

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

The first two chapters of Before They Are Hanged have been in the North, where the Union are at war with Bethod. Although the content itself is new, they’re really a carry over from The Blade Itself, resolving Threetree’s goal from the first novel—find the Union and be useful. In contrast, this week’s chapter is well into the stage where Glokta is acting on the conclusion of The Blade Itself. Not to mention it’s the debut of a new setting within the Circle of the World—Dagoska.

Like all Glokta chapters, Abercrombie delights us with an incisive inner-monologue. In other novels I find inner-monologue obnoxious because who thinks in complete sentences? But, in Glokta’s case I find his insanity and bitterness lend themselves perfectly to the technique.

“Questions”

Summary: Sand dan Glokta reads the letter Arch Lector Sult gave him. He has the authority of the Closed Council to take matters in Dagoska into his own hands. In fact, Glokta has something of a free hand as long as he has clear enough evidence to keep his nose clean.

Met at the dock by Inquisitor Harker, one of the cadre of underlings at the House of Questions, Glokta makes his way to seat of government. Walking through Dagoska proper, he’s struck by the abject poverty of the indigenous people and the absurd wealth of the ruling elite, which is exclusively Union. Harker demonstrates himself to be an ignorant bigot as they walk, providing a running commentary on how the Gurkish are better off under the Union’s heel.

Before meeting with the city’s governor, Glokta begins his investigation into the death of his predecessor. Of course, Harker has beaten anything with brown skin to death and there’s little to be gained by interviewing the servants. Glokta has Practical Frost dispose of Harker for his incompetence and tasks Vitari with cleaning up the Inquisition’s mess. Among the servants only one survives, whom Glokta takes into his own service.

It’s time to make his presence known among the city government. Glokta enters a meeting of Dagoska’s equivalent of the closed council, which includes Carlot dan Eider of the Spicers, General Vissbruck, Lord Governor Vurms, Korsten dan Vurms, and Haddish Kahdia, speaker for the people of Dagoska. They’re less than thrilled to learn of Glokta’s carte blanche. The torturer settles in for a long meeting about the condition of the city walls.

Important Characters Introduced: Carlot dan Eider

Minor Characters Introduced: General Vissbruck, Korsten dan Vurms, Haddish Kahdia, Inquisitor Harken, Governor Vurms

Quotes to Remember:

How very appropriate. A temple to the making of money. Our own little religion.

More grenades thrown at the glass house the Union lives in.

‘I would hardly say taking charge, but I will be attending all further meetings of this council. You should consider that the first of a great number of changes.’

Oh hey. I’m here to do some stuff, but I’m not in charge guys! This feels like the United States occupying Iraq. Hey! We’re just here to empower the local government! Honest!

Analysis: Putting aside for a moment the shiny lights of Glokta’s takeover of the government and Harker’s incredibly distasteful personal views, let’s take a look at a short exchange presented on the walk through the city.

‘Balk. Valint and Balk.’ So some old acquaintances are here before me, eh? I should have known. Those bastards are everywhere. Everywhere there’s money. He peered round at the swarming marketplace. And there’s a lot of money here.

We don’t know much about Valint and Balk except they had their fingers deep into the pockets of the Guild of Mercers, who all but ran Adua. Now, in Dagoska, we find the Guild of Spicers reigning supreme and seemingly in bed with the baking partners. If that’s the case, what is Carlot dan Eider’s relationship to them? Glokta is clearly intrigued by her on several levels, not the least of which is her ability to repress any reaction to his disfigurement.

Who are these money-men? Have we met anyone who represents the bank? Reading the tea leaves, particularly with regard to the condition of Dagoska’s defenses and the Union’s cash poor financial situation, it seems Valint and Balk may soon find themselves with additional leverage in the marketplace.

On another subject, just before the quoted passage above, Harker dumps a litany of hate speech on Glokta and Vitari.

‘They’re all scum, these browns. Gurkish, Dagoskan, all the same. Killers and thieves, the lot of them. Best thing to do is push them down and keep them down.’

If I were the Rock, I would be doing the People’s Eyebrow right now. It’s an interesting choice by Abercrombie to confront such abject racism in the novel. Although we’ve seen Ferro refer to the Union as “pinks” before, it read more as a statement of fact than some kind of value judgement or bigotry on her part.

In “Questions” Abercrombie jumps whole hog into open ethnic warfare with Harker. Although I don’t enjoy reading it much, it seems to serve a very real purpose. Although Glokta is perfectly happy torturing someone to death should it serve his purposes, he is deeply offended by Harker’s ignorance. As the reader, we put aside our feelings about Glokta’s flaccid morality because in this instance we agree with him. It’s an example of the classic grimdark technique of making reprehensible people likeable because they’re the least ugly.

The interaction between Harker and Glokta also speaks to an ongoing discussion in Glokta’s chapters about the nature of privilege. In The Blade Itself he engaged on the subject through Jezal and West. Jezal is your classic privileged rich white man who succeeds with ease at almost anything he attempts, even when he’s not nearly a good at it as he’s been led to believe (see, fencing). West on the other hand wasn’t necessarily born privileged, but when juxtaposed with the crippled Glokta, he seems to have the world at his feet. I’m not sure this discussion is nearly as powerful as it could be since Glokta is both a nobleman and white and was once quite hale, but perhaps it’s aided by Glokta’s perspective of a ’fallen god’.

In other words, there’s a real empathy to Glokta. He recognizes the hurdles the less privileged have to overcome and seems to genuinely want to move as many of them out of the way as he can. Hell, it’s probably what makes him so good at his job. Sick bastard.

Next Week: Jezal and the merry band of Bayaz’s fellowship come to the Old Empire.


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.

6 comments
Dr. Batman
1. Dr. Batman
I'm assuming spoilers are ok in the comments here, but I'll still tread lightly. What I really wanted to say is that I just read "Red Country" again and actually put together who The Mayor is this time around. I feel dumb for not knowing the first time......still it made me appreciate that character all the more in this trilogy!
Dr. Batman
2. Kirshy
Enjoying the reread so far. It's been awhile since I have read these books. I've only done it the one time so far. I wish you would do more than one chapter at a time though.
Justin Landon
3. jdiddyesquire
@Kirshy: I've bounced between two chapters and one, Kirshy. It just depends on whether I have a lot to say or not. I'll give two chapters a go next week.
Justin Landon
4. jdiddyesquire
@Dr Batman: Totes! I remember reading Red Country and saying I KNOW WHO THIS PERSON IS... wait... who is this person?
Dr. Batman
5. JReynolds
@Dr.Batman: I just finished Red Country as well.

Entertaining that after their running battle in book 1, Ybtra naq Ivgnev fcraq fbzr gvzr unccvyl onatvat njnl va EP.
Dr. Batman
6. Brian Malbon
@jreynolds - yeah, all that... stuff you just said.
But that's what I love about the standalones - figuring out what all the recurring characters are up to and piercing together the middle story in between.

@jdiddysquire - So here's where the social commentary takes a huge leap forward, with allusions to Iraq, as you said, as well as British colonialism and racial attitudes that still sadly persist. Although the Dagoskans aren't Gurkish. They were "liberated" fromthe Gurkish in the last war. Again, shades of Iraq.
And Glokta gets all the good social commentary again, proving that despite his personal brand of limited, intimate evil, he is still our conscience four the rest of these books, the only one in all the series with the balls to be honest with himself.

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