Aug 22 2014 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “Heading North” and “Scant Mercy”

Joe Abercrombie First Law trilogy reread Before They Are Hanged So, where was I last week when I should have been posting a reread? I was in London, attending Loncon3 and the Hugo Awards. I was nominated for Best Related Work for a book I edited titled, Speculative Fiction 2012: The Year’s Best Online Reviews, Essays, and Commentary. I didn’t win. Please leave a mocking comments below.

While that part of the trip was a failure, the rest of it was a grand success. I had the opportunity to meet a ton of people and renew some friendships. Most relevant to this particular post, I got to hang out with Joe Abercrombie. Since this is the internet, pics or it didn’t happen, right? Well…

Justin Landon Joe Abercrombie

This picture was taken at the Tor UK party. I ended up ambushing him later in the programming green room where I pulled a bottle of Arbeg 10 out of my bag and offered some single-malt in exchange for a conversation. You’d be amazed at how effective this was. We only had a few minutes before we both needed to be at a panel, but during the chat Abercrombie mentioned how much he was enjoying the reread. He then said that anyone who disagrees with me is clearly daft because I’m such a genius when it comes to evaluating his work. It’s possible I made that last part up. In any case, I hope you’ll forgive me for being a slacker last week.

“Heading North”

Summary: Dogman, dug into the muck and mire to hide his presence, observes the movements of Bethod’s army. They move North, ignoring the easy pickings of Ostenhorm and further targets to the South. He remembers working for Bethod. The notion of being on the other side gets him thinking about the point of it all. Harding Grim, laying next to him, shrugs and finds the conversation moot. They’ll figure it out when they’re dead.

Returning to the group, Dogman and Grim are stunned to find such little progress made since they left. Prince Ladisla is terribly slow overland, and Colonel West, Pike, and Cathil aren’t much better, although they complain less. All Black Dow can think of is sexually assaulting Cathil, something Dogman finds distasteful. He reminds Dow that Threetrees wouldn’t approve either. It does remind Dogman of the last time he was with a woman, before Bethod exiled him. Curled up with his Shari, Scale dragged him away. He could remember everything about her.

Around the fire, Dogman makes his report to Threetrees. Ladisla, asserting his once authority, demands they escort him South, to safety. Laughs from the Northmen who would be delighted if the Prince went South, while they went North. Staying ahead of Bethod is essential if they are to warn Marshall Burr and the Union forces of his approach. Otherwise, Bethod will pull the Union army apart one piece at a time.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Dow’s skeeviness.

Quotes to Remember:

He could hardly remember what his ambitions used to be, but this hadn’t ever been among ‘em, he was sure of that. All that wind blown past, all that snow fallen, all that water flowed by. All that fighting, all that marching, all that waste.

One of the things I adore about the First Law Trilogy is this sense of aging. So much of fantasy is concerned with youth, not experience. Many of the characters in this series are past their prime, in careers where living that long is an accomplishment in and of itself. They look back on their lives and wonder what it was all for because, for the most part, they’re still toiling away at the same damn job with no discernible improvement in lifestyle.

Well-used memories, picked over and worn thin like a favourite shirt. He remembered it like it was last night. He had to make himself stop thinking about it.

A similar experience to the previous quote, but I really enjoyed the simile here.

Analysis: God I wanted to punch Ladisla right in the mouth! He’s like a more incompetent Joffrey. Is that even possible? Except, in this case, I think he’s on to something. Sure heading North to warn Marshall Burr makes a lot of sense, but you know what doesn’t make sense? Everyone going. Why isn’t Threetrees sending Pike, Cathil, the Prince, and one of two of his crew South to safety? Why is he dragging the whole band along, making them slower and easier to spot? Why is West going along with it? I’m totally confused and have no choice but to decide that Abercrombie needed everyone to go North to satisfy the plot. Without Ladisla imperiled, a lot of what he has planned for other characters falls apart. Still, it seems sloppy to so obviously make Threetrees, West, and the others participants in such a stupid tactical decision.

Other than the bit I describe above, the rest of “Heading North” is very melancholy. Dogman is lamenting his life choices, both in that nothing has changed now that he’s fighting against Bethod and that Black Dow is a sick bastard. Once again we see sexual violence as a shorthand for bad guy, and Dogman’s unwillingness to participate in it as redeeming his otherwise ambivalent nature. We do get to see a glimpse of life before all this though, as Dogman remembers himself in bed with Shari.

I’ll note here that Shari was around when Bethod exiled the group. We know Dogman was with Logen when he found his family dead, which predated their relationship with Bethod. My theory that perhaps Logen and Dogman were related, or had some kind of childhood relationship doesn’t earn itself any points with this reveal.

A lot of how this chapter is written is illuminated by the knowledge that the original drafts of the series had Dogman’s chapters written in the first person. It’s my thought that in a lot of ways Dogman was to be the novels truth teller, the character who interpreted the horrible things around him into emotional digestions the reader could cling to. He still serves this purpose, but in the third person it’s to a far lesser degree.


“Scant Mercy”

Summary: Glokta sulks down by the water, joined by Frost and a manacled prisoner. Frost pulls back the prisoner’s cowl to reveal Carlot dan Eider’s face, now gaunt and worse for wear from the dungeon. Expecting death, Eider challenges Glokta, but he surprises her by putting her on a ship to Westport. Eider is free to go provided she never return to Union land. Not one to take a gift for granted, she touches the Superior’s face and flees.

Atop the Dagoskan walls the siege has begun in earnest. Wave after wave of Gurkish soldiers has been turned back by Cosca’s forces. But, they’re losing. The trenches are being filled. Soon the army will have a clear run at the walls. Vussbruck remarks that they’re to be admired for such a willingness to give their lives. Glokta and Cosca have fewer ideals. As the trio converse a mercenary points into the sky, tracking a massive boulder about to crash into the city. Now under bombardment, Dagoska faces another charge from the Gurkish forces. Severard suggests they find cover, to which Glokta eventually agrees. The sneaky Practical wonders why they haven’t been called home by the Arch Lector. They found the traitor, surely their work is done?

Inside, Glokta seeks out the wounded and Kahdia who tends many of them. Over a conversation of guilt the two come to the conclusion that there’s little hope. The Gurkish won’t quit coming and help from the Union is impossibly distant. Kahdia commits himself to prayer. Vitari interrupts the moment to speak with Glokta alone. She wonders where Eider has gone. What should she tell Arch Lector Sult? Glokta assures her that Eider is dead, sunk to the bottom of the sea. Vitari is not convinced and attempts to become complicit with Glokta, recognizing that Sult has not called her home and the Gurkish horde a hairsbreadth from victory. Glokta does not budge.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

‘They have that most strange and dangerous of qualities,’ said Cosca. ‘They think they’re in the right.’

Isn’t this really at the core of any good war? Both sides think they’re right. Vissbruck serves the story like the General you get in other fantasy novels. He’s fascinated with the idea of charges and self sacrifice. He demonizes the enemy and sees himself as righteous and them as evil. Cosca is just doing his job. I find the latter resonates much more with me.

According to our lack of belief in anything.

I remarked on the Union’s atheism last week. Here Glokta is thinking of the differences in how the Dagoskan people are handling death. I just wanted to highlight it.

Analysis: It’s been a while since we’ve seen Glokta actively trying to connect with another human being. We see a bit in The Blade Itself with Collem West. Here, Carlot dan Eider is spared solely because Glokta likes her. She’s beautiful, smart, and doesn’t quail at the sight of his ruined face and mangled body. The way it’s worded makes it seem like Glokta has a plan for her, but it’s a smokescreen surely. When she touches his face to say goodbye you can almost hear the ice melting off him. Then he verbally scourges his flesh and reminds himself how detestable he is. This is one screwed up torturer. Oxymoron, I suppose.

After a moment of conscience, of course, Glokta goes to the field hospital to see if he’s losing his edge. Looking at all the dead and dying he realizes not really. Every time we start to think one Abercrombie’s characters is softening, we get to find out it was a momentary lapse in an otherwise emotionally stunted existence.

As the battle begins, it’s quite clear that Cosca is nuttier than a loon. He carps about on the ramparts and laughs at death. He’s probably too drunk to notice. He is, however, pretty good at his job. Glokta knows it’s hopeless. The Gurkish are going to win eventually and Dagoska will fall. And Arch Lector Sult is becoming increasingly disinterested in keeping it from happening. With all of this going on, we finally start to see Vitari’s facade come down. She’s scared. She knows Arch Lector Sult is going to leave them hanging out to dry and she’s desperately looking for a life raft. It seems like more than just self preservation. Does Sult have something over her?

Next Week: Jezal tries to speak. And thank the Maker he can’t. 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.

Iain Cupples
1. NumberNone
Justin: congratulations on the nomination. I actually saw you on the blogger panel: had to rush off or I'd have come up to say hello!

This is one screwed up torturer. Oxymoron, I suppose.

Is this really what you meant? I'd have thought 'tautology' was more like the word. To torture for a living, even when you know some of the victims are innocent... you have to be screwed up to do that, or if not, it must soon make you so.

I'll have a stab at explaining the Ladisla situation: I don't think splitting up would work, in the end. Threetrees' priority is heading North, true. He'd move faster without Ladisla and the others, true. But Ladisla and the others would soon die if he sent them off alone. And who is he going to send with them? Who would he trust with that job? Who'd agree to do it, and who can he spare?

Dogman, surely, can't be spared. If Dow did agree to do it, well, this chapter shows why he couldn't be trusted. Would Grim or Tul Duru agree? Can Threetrees spare them?

It's an unhappy compromise, I think. Threetrees can't bring himself to abandon them but he can't bring himself to send someone with them, either. But so long as they can stay ahead of Bethod's army, he can hang onto all his band and keep the others alive too. No, it's not the most logical course, but I can see why he'd take it. It puts off a tough decision. And people are always inclined to do that, if they can.
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
I won't mock you for losing. I mean, you have to be realistic about these things.

All of these older characters are something of a departure from the norm, which isn't all that odd for Abercrombie. Even West isn't as young as he used to be. Having older characters makes it easier for Abercrombie to reflect on the futility of war and to question why they keep doing what they're doing. I'd say the whole thing really culminates in Curnden Craw in The Heroes, a man who almost literally says "I'm getting too old for this shit" as soon as he's introduced.

I also thought it was strange that they didn't send Ladisla south. West would certainly have gone north in any case, since he's the Northmen's liaison with Marshall Burr, but it does seem to be a bit "because plot". The best reason I can come up with is that they're just ahead of Bethod and going south would be running straight into his arms. If they originally expected Bethod to head for Ostenhorm, then taking Ladisla north makes more sense. Once they found out otherwise it was too late.

I really did think Glokta was softening in this chapter, and he does appear to harden again after sending Carlot away. On the other hand, he makes a deal with Vithari here and it would be harder to believe in his final effort to save Ardee without this moment. But this act will have incredibly far-reaching consequences, with echoes still going on 15 years later.

We don't really get a good look at Cosca here or even later in LAoK. Based on what we see of him in the standalones, I'd say simply that he just doesn't give shit. The only thing that Cosca really cares about is Cosca, followed by money, which only matters because it can be used to buy wine. If he winds up getting run through by an enemy or squashed by a catapult-flung rock, well at least he doesn't have to worry about where his next drink is coming from anymore. But Cosca in the trilogy is a trifle undercharacterized. He's more of a trope figure, inverted to be even less savory than he might otherwise have been.
Justin Landon
3. jdiddyesquire
I actually think Cosca in RED COUNTRY is a fundamentally different Cosca than we see in this series. The characterizations feel inconsistent to me. More on this later when we really see more of Cosca.
Justin Landon
4. jdiddyesquire
@NumberNone - er... yeah... I meant this is one well adjusted torturer! Oxymoron. Or something like that. I'll let it stand for comedy's purposes.
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
Justin @3
I agree that Cosca in RC is rather different than we see here. By then he's old and bitter. He's lost his joie de vivre. (Not to mention having to be a Mexican Army commander.) I was thinking really more of the way he is in Best Served Cold. He's already been betrayed by Monza, but suffered no further setbacks. That Cosca should be pretty much the same as this one.
Jordan Frandsen
6. jorgecuervos
@DemetriosX I won't mock you for losing. I mean, you have to be realistic about these things. Awesome.

I disagree that bringing Ladisla North is 'plot' as he would be needed to convince the syncophants leading the other factions of the Union army to try to stage any stand against Bethod. With only West, or only on the word of the Northerners, nothing would happen, or the army they eventually found would turn straight into Bethod to go and 'rescue' the (clown)prince.
And yes, the Northerners are complex, not-well-adjusted mercenaries. Just without a steady pay-check right now. Black Dow is a bad dude.

But seriously Justin: congrats on the nomination. I enjoy this reread and look forward to getting into the compiled book for which you got the nomination.
Iain Cupples
7. NumberNone
@Justin: well, I suppose Glokta is well adjusted, in a way. Chip on both shoulders, and so on. ;)
Emily Colgan
8. opentheyear
I think that repeated dance around emotional walls coming down is part of what makes grimdark so... well... grim and dark. Anytime one of these characters is on the cusp of letting themselves care about someone, they have to remind themselves how much it sucks to deal with loss and grief, which is a daily facet of the world they live in. It's worldbuilding as much as character development-- though I find that the most interesting characters in these worlds are the ones who find themselves softening against their will. One might argue Glokta might never be able to forge the relationship with Ardee that he does, without Eider having been in his life first.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment