Fri
Jul 18 2014 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “Long Odds,” “The Road to Victory,” and “Necessary Evils”

Joe Abercrombie puts us on the cusp this week in Before They Are Hanged. Ferro (and crew), West, and Glokta all sit on the precipice of battle. Rather than give the reader several complete chapters detailing the run up to the clashes of arms, Abercrombie gives three extremely small bite chapters that hit like staccato notes.

Rather than write about each of these chapters individually, I figured I’d write about them as a group. Below you’ll find summaries of each of the chapters, and then, for the rest of the post, I treat them as one chapter. We’ll see how it goes.

“Long Odds”

Ferro stops the group at an old ruin, built before the time of Euz. She looks behind them and sees thirteen people following them. Friends of Finnius perhaps, they have no chance to outrun them. She and Logen agree that it’s best to stay and fight regardless of the odds. They won’t find better ground. Together they dig a pit, coming to a realization that neither wants to run. It’s a revelation to Ferro who can’t remember the last time she felt something for anyone.

“The Road to Victory”

Colonel West watches Prince Ladisla’s army collapse around him. In an attempt to meet Bethod in the field, the King’s Own have all but left behind the undertrained and equipped levies. Recognizing the victory is an impossibility, West detaches Jalenhorm and six of the King’s Own to find Marshal Burr and inform him of the Prince’s tactical error. Before Jalenhorm departs, West asks him to tell Ardee he’s sorry should he fall on the battlefield.

“Necessary Evils”

Glokta pauses at the entrance to the Dagoskan audience chamber, a white bag in hand. With Frost at his shoulder, the Superior limps into the room to find Eider, Vurms, Vissbruck, and Nocomo Cosca waiting for him. Cosca’s presence comes as some surprise, but Eider argues the fate of the city is in his hands more than anyone else’s. Glokta dumps the bag in front of them, revealing the Gurkish emissary’s severed head. Vurms recognizes immediately that Glokta knows who has betrayed the city, and tries to flee. Eider informs Glokta that the city is already in Gurkish hands, or will soon be, as Cosca’s soldiers open the gates. Glokta breaks the bad news. Cosca has switched sides thanks to Glokta’s newfound financial resources. Frost takes Vurms and Eider into custody, while Vissbruck and Cosca are sent to man the walls. Vitari congratulates Glokta on being the man she thought he was.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Emissary’s head, Ferro’s emotions, West’s guilt.

Quotes to Remember:

When the fighting is over, you dig, if you are still alive. You gather up the bodies in a line. You dig the graves in a row. You dig for your fallen comrades. Your slashed, your punctured, your hacked and your broken comrades. You dig as deep as you can be bothered, you dump them in, you cover them up, they rot away and are forgotten, and you go on, alone. That’s the way it’s always been. (“Long Odds”)

Debbie Downer! But, I feel like quote is really one of the best in the series. We are all level in front of death. We all face the same fear of death, but perhaps even more so of being alone.

Cosca clicked his tongue. ‘Heads on spikes, eh?’ He dragged the head off the head of table by its long beard. ‘Never goes out of fashion.’ (“Necessary Evils”)

Funny line. I love the way the sentence is structured because it could be he’s referring to the beard that never goes out of style.

Analysis: I wanted to make sure and describe these chapters together because they are all moments leading up to a clash. I don’t think there’s any coincidence that Abercrombie wrote them this way, all next to each other and all so concise. Each chapter also ends on a note of humanity, with Glokta’s perspective twisting things a bit more cynically.

First, we get Ferro who touches Logen’s hand as they agree to not abandon one another. There’s no question if Ferro ran she would be able to outpace the pursuit and even find her way to safety. Logen, perhaps less so, seems unwilling to abandon Quai, Jezal, Bayaz, and Longfoot. His trail of guilt is too long to add more. Ferro though seems to stay only for Logen. She sees a kinship in the two of them, I think.

Second, we get West. He’s watching the doom of an enormous group of men being sent to their death by a self-absorbed Princeling incapable of making war. Although he isn’t in charge of the army he is the closest thing to a commander they have. Instead of trying to solve the crisis he’s resolved to his failure, sending Janelhorm to carry the news. West is far more concerned with meting out his own guilt than he is about the lives of his men. It’s further evidence that this person we want to be a hero is really just a shithead.

And then last, it’s Glokta. Of the three chapters, he’s the only one not putting his sword into action on the front lines, but he is equally at risk. As he turns Cosca to his cause, Vitari and Cosca both reach out to the Superior in their own way. Vitari gives him a compliment, which Glokta rejects outright. And Cosca offers appreciation for his ruthlessness. His reaction to both is to lack reaction, to push them away from him without letting them in. Where Ferro and West have walls coming down, Glokta’s refuse to drop. Hurts a bit, doesn’t it?

Although not much happens in any of these chapters that impact the behind the scenes machinations of the Circle of the World, they are very illuminative about Abercrombie’s style. A former film editor, these three chapters seem to function like a film montage where the director switches rapidly between different points of view to ramp up the tension. I’m not sure it’s as effective a technique in prose, but I quite like how quickly it takes us through the lead-up to what promises to be a series of bloody confrontations.

Next Week: The blades come out. And someone actually swings them in anger. Huzzah!


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.

3 comments
John Lobello
1. johntocaelpiano
Whoa. Pretty mean towards a fictional character West.What could he have done? All his previous attempts to gainsay the prince were shrugged aside by Ladisla's flunkies. I mean, I'll agree with you on how West doesn't live up to expectations even after his trouble with his sister. Later in the story there's a moment where I thought he'd do the action-fantasy hero thing and behead the obstructive generals and take over the army, but he doesn't. He just waits around feeling sorry for himself even while his Northmen allies are dying by truckloads.

I think this was another example of Abercrombie subverting all those tropes. Unlike some other stories, in this one, the maverick, popular common-man's man who rises to middling-to-high rank doesn't instantly become the leader of the army at the best possible moment. He has to deal with the red tape and the bureaucracy like all the other peons. It didn't amount to much, but his sending Jalenhorm away was all he could do to warn the others and ask for reinforcements. I guess that's kinda heroic?

And then when we get to "The Heroes" we see that pretty much every other troop is just as incompetently run as Ladisla's and Gorst is just as incapable of giving them sound advice or indeed of doing anything else but be a badass... (I think about Gorst's training sequence from The Heroes whenever I lift weights. grr)

Enjoying this re-read!
Jordan Frandsen
2. jorgecuervos
The harshness towards West is deserved!! He is not fitting the stereotype/trope of the lowly soldier to champion to officer to noble nobility that we have been fed for so long.
Actually, I think it is very consistent that he acts the way he does, here and later on. Abercrombie's West is probably my favorite character, just ahead of BAMF Logen, because he is so deeply flawed, seen by other characters at times as both undeserving of his station by birth and rock-steady, when we know things are not that easily parsed out. johntocaelpiano got it right in his comment. West is held down by bureaucracy and hides behind that same bureaucracy.
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
I think the parallelism works quite well here, though it probably is influenced by Abercrombie's experience as a film editor. And he keeps up the parallelism through much of the rest of the book, sometimes more obviously, sometimes less. It's something worth paying attention to as we go forward.

Random thoughts: I think we've been introduced to West's guilt already. Wasn't he wallowing a bit when he acquired his smiths from the Inquisition, thus leading to him bringing Cathil along?

Cosca makes almost the exact same joke about the timeless fashion of heads on spikes in Best Served Cold. I think it's Cosca anway. Could be Monza or Duke Salier, but I'm pretty sure it's Cosca.

@1
In a way, West does achieve the apotheosis you describe. He just does it through subterfuge in this book and then through channels -- just in the nick of time -- in the next. Of course, all the tropes are still stood on their heads...

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