Aug 1 2014 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “Among the Stones” and “The Fruits of Boldness”

Reading the First Law Trilogy has been a different experience this time around. The pulse pounding excitement and visceral action has been far scarcer than I remember, replaced with thoughtful trope inversion and deeply fascinating characters. In fact, before this week there had been less than five scenes where serious ass-kicking (or blood letting) took place. This trend is changing in a major way at this point in Before They Are Hanged as Logen’s crew takes on their pursuers and Colonel West’s army is destroyed by Bethod. I’m pretty excited about it!

Get your athletic tape out and reinforce those joints, we’re about to get grimdark up in here.

“Among the Stones”

Summary: Jezal watches the sun rise as Logen prepares him for what’s coming. Jezal admits his fear, but the Northman reminds him that everyone is scared before battle except those too damaged to feel. Think of your family, Logen suggests. Jezal doesn’t have one he loves and Logen lost his long ago. Logen’s family now is Jezal, Ferro, Quai, and Bayaz. You don’t pick your family, Jezal realizes, you make the best of it. He accepts Logen’s request to guard the camp.

Forward from Jezal’s position, Ferro and Logen observe the arrival of the thirteen men who have been hunting them. Led by Finnius, the men spread out and head up the hill where the crew will make their stand. Ferro picks off three with arrows, before moving closer. Logen wastes even less time, wading in among the enemy brandishing the Maker’s sword. After an arrow through the shoulder for Ferro and a concussion for Logen, the enemy is dead, but with several missing.

The missing members of Finnius’s crew aren’t lost, they’re flanking. Jezal faces them alone. As two men approach he draws his steels and prepares for what’s coming. Both men are dead seconds later, cut down by Jezal’s superior skill. Elated at his victory Jezal loses track of what’s behind him, and a third man knocks him unconscious.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Jezal’s talent.

Quotes to Remember:

‘Sometimes, when someone lives in danger for too long, the only time they feel alive is when death’s breathing on their shoulder.’

I love the recognition by Logen about Ferro. Many fantasy novels portray people as battle hardened and fearless. Lan from the Wheel of Time would fit this model. Logen is on that level of bad ass, but is constantly fearful, to the degree that he reminds himself he’s still alive after tussle. He gets over it, but to lack that fear is, frankly, nuts. Ferro isn’t all there and the people around her know it.

Where was the Bloody-Nine when you needed him? Logen spat on the ground. This fight he’d have to win alone.

EVEN LOGEN THINKS OF B9 AS A SEPARATE THING. Told you I’m not crazy. (I enjoy thinking of the Bloody-Nine as a Battleship coordinate! B9! You sunk my battleship!)

Thoughts: Logen is cute, isn’t he? I mean he’s an ugly mofo, who kills a lot of people, but his deep desire to have connect with people is just adorable. He calls this murdering band of whats-its his family. Ferro and Jezal, Bayaz and Quai. He tells Jezal, don’t die today because he doesn’t want to lose a brother. Man, that’s some legit emotion there.

Did anyone else find Ferro’s use of arrows a little strange? I get wanting to have a confirmed kill, but putting arrows into people’s chests seems like a pretty good place to move on to the next target. She only a handful of arrows left. It just seemed a little wasteful to me.

And then, we get maybe the biggest surprise of all! Jezal can actually fight! Say what? I mean up until now we’ve seen him dance around a little bit, but when he was really challenged by Gorst he needed Bayaz’s magic to win the day. Not to mention when West really pushed him, Jezal often folded. This time around Jezal dispatches two hardened (?) fighters in the blink of an eye. Did anyone else find this a little odd? This is the same Jezal who shit himself the last time he had to fight someone. This time he does it with no problems. No fumbling. Just ass kicking. It felt a little out of character and a little to easy. It’s all redeemed somewhat once he gets his brains bashed by the third guy.

The thing about this chapter is that it’s a long one. And it doesn’t do much other than get the blood pumping. So many of Abercrombie’s chapters, even the short ones, say a lot because he wastes so little time on describing what’s happening in favor of what those actions mean. When he’s writing action it’s quite the opposite. For this entire chapter’s length there are only a few passages worth paying attention to in any detail. Not a criticism, because I love the action, just a recognition of the limitations of battle sequence.

“The Fruits of Boldness”

Summary: Deployed for battle, Ladisla’s army sits and watches the Northmen form up. A ragtag bunch at best, the Prince feels confident sending his troops into battle. West is horrified, recognizing that the army before him isn’t Bethod’s best, but a trap to lure them into making a mistake. Ladisla will hear none of it, fashioning himself a bold Colonel Glokta. He orders the calvary to charge.

Once the calvary disappears over the hill, pursuing the retreating rabble, West realizes his fears were well founded. Heavy mist begins to rise around the Union forces, and emerging from it is Bethod’s true army unleashing hell. Ladisla, stunned and unable to react, asks for direction from West. West orders the retreat. Chaos ensues as the mist thickens.

Unable to see what’s happening, West is surprised when the Northmen reach him and the Prince. Before he knows it, he’s on the ground waiting for a thrall to end his life. Cathil saves him, the smithing hammer clutched in hand and wet with Northern blood. Along with Pike, Cathil’s father, they round up the Prince and escape into the trees, only to be found by Dogman who does them the favor of killing their pursuit.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Would someone please kill Smund?

Quotes to Remember:

‘Colonel Glokta was captured by the Gurkish, and caused the deaths of every man under his command.’

*Hops around excitedly* Every time we get a detail about Glokta’s last stand I get giddy. Wasn’t West under Glokta’s command? Was West the only survivor? I get a kick out of imagining Glokta as Jezal. I’ve commented on this many times. But, as shown with this quote, Glokta’s younger ego makes Jezal’s look like Bilbo Baggins, not Smog.

‘Threetrees… is going… to shit.’

I laughed. I’m such an easy mark.

Thoughts: Ladisla is really dumb. I mean, really Dumb. Capital D. He’s so dumb it’s absurd. This chapter requires some real suspension of disbelief I think. Sure, West is the only one with experience in the group. Yes, Ladisla is the Prince and rules supreme. I get it. But, you mean to tell me that no one else in the army has scouts? There are no Union men out there coming back and reporting that we need to GTFO? It seems like a house of cards built on an incompetence that isn’t terribly believable. Unless, we also believe that Collem West is pretty damn incompentent too and doesn’t even try to send out scouts other than the Northmen who have since deserted him.

Putting that aside, the mist is the real problem and clearly the work of Bethod’s eater we encountered back in the early part of The Blade Itself--Caurib. It’s not a kind of power we’ve scene displayed before. What are the limits of the Art? What are the limits of an Eater? Are the powers the same, just one easier than the other? Like the Light and Dark side of the Force in Star Wars?

You know, there’s another thing that seems weird to me here. I get that the mist is obscuring the battle, but it doesn’t feel right that West and crew can just disappear into the trees and escape a battle this size. They were pursued, but then Dogman materializes out of nowhere and picks them off. How are they not visible to the Northmen swarming about? And how were Dogman and crew able to stay out of it? I’m having a hard time picturing it. It feels like a plot contrivance. Am I being unreasonable?

Next Week: Things heat up in Dagoska! Less than two weeks to Loncon! I promise a picture of Abercrombie and me occupying the same space. I wonder if he’ll look me in the eye.

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. Johnnyboy
Firstly, I agree with you about the level of incompetence in the army being unrealistic. Surely any army will have some competent officers. I feel this is the one area of the trilogy which isn't taken seriously enough. I know Abercrombie likes to play for laughs (and I do giggle a lot when reading it) but it's just unfeasible for a developed, organised country to have a major part of its infrastructure like the army so poorly regulated.

However, just a random point on your observations on Jezal. Why is it so shocking that he is a decent fighter? He's trained extensively for a prestigious tournament (which I assume due to its small number of competitors is by invitation only given to the most promising) under expert tutelage and reached the final at least without the aid of magic. Then he faces two men (with more experience but not his mastery of technique) in a straight forward fight on even terrain and easily bests them, until he's undone by the randomness of a real battle. I thought it was a perfect moment from Abercrombie.
Iain Cupples
2. NumberNone
On the competence of the officers: remember, Burr split his army in three, and left the weakest with Ladisla, supposedly out of danger. They have the leavings when it comes to the men, and (I imagine) the least competent officers too - Ladisla's cronies and toadies, mostly, the noblemen appointed because of their birth rather than their talent. The Union army has a problem in having too many of this type of man, but it's likely Burr aggravated it in this instance by taking the bulk of the competent officers off with him.

Which does bring up a major point - this defeat is, in a significant part, Burr's fault. He got his strategy wrong in leaving such a weakened force with the Prince.

All that said, yes, Abercrombie lays it on a bit thick here, but it's the kind of thing writers sometimes do, particularly early in their writing career.

Agreed with johnnyboy on Jezal - he's good. The only issue he has is that he's never fought for real stakes, life or death. The usual trope is to have a character like that struggle when it comes to real blood being spilled, so it's nice to see Abercrombie invert it - and then restore it by having Jezal get blindsided because he's getting cocky.
3. Porphyrogenitus
There are so many historical examples of armies, even large ones, failing to conduct basic route security, and getting annihilated for their pains. Even the great Basil II Bulgaroctonos lost his first battle because he didn't pay attention to fundamentals. What sets him apart from many other failed generals is that he learned from that, and went on to become one of the greatest commanders in history. As for the fog, visibility in a battle is often notoriously bad even on a bright, sunny day. Throw in some magic fog that's unnaturally thick and pervasive and I see no problem with a very small party essentially disappearing from the battle with minimal trouble.
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
I agree that what helps Jezal here is technique. We don't really know anything about the way they fight in the Old Empire, but this bunch seems to largely rely on swinging their swords faster and harder than the other guy. Jezal his well trained in both blocking the other guy and finding openings to exploit. His sudden courage is a bit more surprising but I see two factors here. One, this is the first time he faces real consequences. All those times against West and against Gorst, there was no real cost to him for giving up or being sloppy. Two, he's spent several weeks in Logen's company and has come to respect and even like him. I think his talks with Logen, especially the one they had right before the battle, actually gave him a bit of backbone.

I found the incompetence of Ladisla's army to be reasonably believable. They have been scouting, as West ordered, that's why they moved up from the river in the first place (and against West's recommendation). West also wants to, at the very least, hold their current position and send out more scouts. What they see doesn't quite match what the Dogman and his crew reported earlier. But the Prince overrules him. Ladisla believes in old stories so hard, he makes Sansa Stark look like a hard-bitten, cynical realist. And he's surrounded by brown-nosing toadies who bought their commissions and are where they are simply because they have the parentage to be suitable companions to the heir. Skill doesn't even appear on the list of qualifications for their presence. West, on the other hand, can't get anyone to listen to him despite his colonelcy because of his lowly origins.

That may all sound unlikely, but the British Empire was built by an army (and a navy) commanded by the sons of wealthy noblemen who paid for their rank. The British benefited from professional soldiers who were skilled at getting their superiors to listen to them. And they still faced the occasional disaster or near disaster. Ladisla has West and the dregs of the peasant levies who are either ill-equipped or not equipped at all.
Justin Landon
5. jdiddyesquire
Yeah, y'all are right about Jezal being skilled, but Abercrombie has never really shown it. All we've seen is the arena combat which is glorified dance. When a real FIGHTER shows up (Gorst), Jezal is totally overmatched. I think it's significant to find out that he can actually get the work done.

What I struggled with from a believability stand point was how quickly he conquers his fear. First fight he's pissing himself, second time he grips and rips. From a story telling perspective I get it, but a little urine leakage would have been well received I think.
Justin Landon
6. jdiddyesquire
@Demetrios -- I'm also struggling to get past the idea that West is capable. More and more I feel like Abercrombie is giving us the ILLUSION that West is capable, just like he gave us the illusion he was a good person. Isn't it possible West is a total hack who has risen through the ranks thanks to being a good fencer and a lucky survivor?
David Levinson
7. DemetriosX
@6 Justin
West's officer skills may, at this point in the narrative, be at least a little questionable. He still seems to be more competent than those around him, but a lot of that may be because we're seeing them from West's POV. Marshall Burr seems to think well of him and later on we will see West do a fair job of command. OTOH, through his eyes we see General Kroy as a preening martinet, yet in The Heroes Kroy is a decent commander. On the gripping hand, every single one of Abercrombie's POV characters is an unreliable narrator, so who knows?
8. worse
I think it is hard to tell how someone will react in battle, Jezal is, after all, at least a fairly fast guy, (even mentioned to be fast by "real" fighters) which could easily give him the edge over, well, "mass" trained soldiers.
Plus, I do believe that Gorst is a bad example for an enemy he could not defeat fairly, because, taken the later stories, there are little people that could actually fight on par with him. He is not the prime example of a soldier you'd meet on a battlefield (aka cannon fodder).
Not to forget, once Jezal got himself to move there will be a lot of things that resemble his practices from the tournament so routine might also have an effect on his ability to overcome his fear.
I do, on the other hand, agree that it may not be realistic for anyone to manage to fight like that, but I'd like to call it reasonable that some people could actually do it.

I am not too sure about the army's (in)competence, especially if you remember what Logan said about the soldiers he met in Adua back in The Blade Itself.
They should, as Abercrombie likes to focus on individuals more than other authors, have some competent people but the princes' entourage is a bunch of hand-picked idiots (at least when it comes to tactical matters, I am fairly sure they could pick a superb outfit for the army), and, well Burr should have taken most of the good officers with him, so there is a high level of incompetence to be expected. Abercrombie might take it over the top here with the armys' behavior, but this is still a novel so some things might work out worse than would be realistical.

Lastly, and this is more of a question, is Caurib ever said to be an Eater? I thought she was whatever sort of witch they had up north, more like Bayaz than Khalul. Thus giving a "new" sort of Abercrombie-magician.
Dylan Tullos
9. dptullos

While Abercrombie's narrators are usually unreliable, there is significant evidence to support the belief that West is an excellent officer, while there is effectively no evidence supporting his incompetence.

We already know that West goes the extra mile to ensure that his soldiers have their equipment. We know that Marshal Burr chose him to babysit Prince Ladisla, and that West predicts the disaster and does everything in his power to prevent it. In an army whose officers are usually born into their positions, West fought his way up without aristocratic patrons or money. Nobles can get promoted for being good fencers and lucky survivors; if a commoner rises to West's position, it's because he earned it.

We may see the world from West's biased POV, but that doesn't mean we can't judge West's decisions on their own merits. He breaks convicts out of a penal colony to get his men the weapons they need, putting himself in danger from the Inquisition so that they can have a chance. He consistently tries to keep Prince Ladisla from making unsafe decisions that lead to the destruction of the army. Ladisla doesn't listen, and his army is wiped out. It doesn't matter how biased West's beliefs are if the results keep agreeing with him.

General Kroy can be a preening martinet and a good officer. His rivalry here and now with General Poulder may distract him and keep him from performing as well as he could; later, in The Heroes, he is an older, wiser man who is less concerned with advancing his career and more concerned by the consequences of his actions.

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