Aug 8 2014 1:00pm

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “One for Dinner” and “One of Them”

I begin this week’s chapters with the quote between Part’s I and II of Before They Are Hanged.

‘He is not fit for battle that has never seen his own blood flow, who has not heard his teeth crunch under the blow of an opponent, or felt the full weight of his adversary upon him.’

This quote can be read many ways, but I read it this way. Battle is love, or at least making meaningful connections with other people. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. And you’re not fit for it until you’ve tried it and survived. All of Abercrombie’s characters undergo this journey. Some more successfully than others. It’s a fitting quote to conclude the first part of Before They Hanged. It recognizes that character arc for Logen, Ferro, and Jezal, while pointing out West and Glokta’s inability do it.

Or it just means you’re a wuss until your crunch someone’s skull with a morning star. I’m open to discussion. This week’s chapters take place just before that quote, one long and one short.

“One for Dinner”

Summary: Glokta writes to the Arch Lector relating the status of things in Dagoska. He relates to the capture of Carlot dan Eider and Korsten dan Vurms, who have admitted to conspiring with the Gurkish to surrender the city without a fight. He admits he has not uncovered the assassin who disposed of Davoust. Lord Governor Vurms, whose son is the traitor, has been detained and will be sent back to the Closed Council as soon as possible, along with Inquisitor Harker. Neither man has proven to be a traitor, but both are incompetent, which Glokta finds tantamount to treason. The fight with the Gurkish has begun in earnest, but the worst is yet to come. Catapults are aligned to batter the city into submission. Regardless, Glokta assures Arch Lector Sult, the Union will hold firm.

Finishing the missive, Glokta sits before Carlot dan Eider, head of the Guild of Spicers, and begins his interrogation. Many of the plot’s details have been revealed by Vurms. She offered the governor’s son money to forge his father’s signature on orders to open the gates. His head now decorates that gate. But dan Eider’s reasons are still a mystery, as is the identity of the Superior Davoust’s murderer. If she won’t tell, Glokta will be forced to start cutting.

Her body deflates and she tells her story. The Spicers ruled in Dagoska long before the Union came, but greed encouraged them to reach for more power. So they aligned with the Union, who captured the City, but had no interest in running it. Union administrators only exploited the natives, while the Spicers never turned a profit, spending massive sums on the walls and mercenaries. Nearly bankrupt, the Guild brought it on themselves. Approached by the Gurkish, she agreed to help to stop the bloodshed. If not for Vurms’ demand for more money, the city would have fallen months before Glokta’s arrival. When Davoust discovered their plot, she informed the Gurkish of the problem, and he was gone the next day.

Her betrayal, she argues, was victimless. No one would have died and the Union would be better off, unencumbered by the anchor weight of Dagoska. Now the life of every man, woman, and child in the city is forfeit so the Arch Lector can claim a point on a map. Glokta has her sign the confession and asks the only question left unanswered, ‘Who is the Gurkish agent?’ She cannot answer what she doesn’t know.

Unable to given any further information, Vitari loops her chain around the traitor’s neck and begins to strangle her. As she weakens, Glokta has a crisis of faith, wondering how the world would better off without the carnage he leaves in his wake. Before the Spicer dies, Glokta orders Vitari to stop. They have use for Carlot dan Eider yet. What those uses are, the Superior has no idea, nor how he’ll justify it to the Arch Lector.

From his room’s balcony, Glokta watches the Gurkish pound the city with flaming missiles flung from catapults. His room servant, Shickel, steps out and he waves her back, admitting he’s expecting a visitor who would do her harm. She responds, her voice different than before, ‘A visitor, eh?’ Glokta realizes that Shickel is the visitor. She is the Gurkish assassin and she’s been here all along.

As she moves to kill Glokta, she admits to killing Davoust and eating him. Before she can strike, Severard, Vitari, and Frost descend on her. After breaking bones that won’t stay broken, they wrap Shickel in layers of chain. Glokta has someone new to question.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Glokta’s conscience.

Quotes to Remember:

Who could have supposed, when I saw it fizzling on the bench of the Adeptus Chemical, that it might make such an awesome weapon?


‘Seven years, we have been here, and we have done nothing but evil! It has been an orgy of corruption, and brutality, and waste!’

Ugh. The comparisons I could draw here are endless. I can’t help but think of all the times countries have been occupied by another. Often good intentions are always at the fore, but that never seems to be what it’s really about. Does it?

Thoughts: Abercrombie writes something in this chapter that really stuck with me. As Glokta watches the Gurkish assault he, “[frowns] out into the night, and [watches] the wrath of God rain down upon Dagoska. The wrath of God. Has anyone else noticed how rarely the notion of divinity is discussed in these books? In fact, as far as I can tell, the Union discusses it not at all. Khalul calls himself the right hand of God. He believes, or at least his followers believe he believes.

But, the Union seems to be functional atheists. Euz and the sons of Euz are mythical figures, but still seem to be considered just men. Perhaps there is some ancestor worship among the Northmen, but, again, it is largely undiscussed. Isn’t that terribly unusual for a fantasy book? God and gods and divinity are central to notions of fantasy. What does this say about the world? How does it change how we view the Union? I’m not sure, but it’s fascinating to see Glokta invoke God when watching devastation. It also feels a bit out of character since God does not seem to play into the non-Gurkish thinking. Maybe Glokta has been exposed to it more due to his capture?

Another fascinating note here is when Glokta realizes that Harker, the Inquisitor he deposed, was right to have Shickel detained. Glokta abuses the man, strips him of rank, and casts him into disgrace because he was torturing Shickel and some others for their association to the missing Davoust. Harker believes they knew something, but would not reveal it. Glokta thinks him evil and cruel.

It turns out the dude was totally right. Shickel is an Eater and murdered Davoust. Glokta was wrong. Think about that for a minute. Abercrombie’s characters are often wrong. They make wrong decisions constantly. It’s a rarity and probably one of the things that makes Abercrombie such an utterly compelling writer.


“One of Them”

Summary: Jezal dreams of Ardee’s kisses. Her kisses become more insistent, and then she begins to rip at his skin and scrape on his bones. Caught between dream and reality, he begins to feel pain as voices talk above him. There’s been damage to his body, and someone is fixing it. Resetting his bones and sewing his wounds, Jezal is unable to move speak. Before he blacks out, he sees a scarred man, hulking and huge. The man says, “You’re one of us, no, boy.” Horror spreads through him.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

He was so happy to be back where things made sense.

This is narrated as Jezal dreams of Ardee. I feel like this is a little revisionist, no? I’m pretty sure Jezal never thought Ardee made much sense.

Thoughts: Almost nothing happens in this chapter. It’s just Jezal getting his face worked over by Ferro. He’s got a broken arm, a broken leg, a broken jaw, and all kinds of cuts. The only significant thing, I think, is the dream at the beginning. Many dreams in the books feature the eating, ripping, and tearing of flesh. In this chapter Jezal images Ardee doing just that. I’m not sure what it means, but is seems significant. Do dreams of being eaten occur near Eaters? If that’s the case could we assume that Bayaz or Quai are eating flesh? Mayhaps…

Next Week: So ends Part I of Before They Are Hanged. Next week we’ll see Dogman and West, and more Glokta.

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.

David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
I think the quote is basically saying that, until you've actually been in battle and experienced all that it really is, there is no way to truly be prepared for it. All the training in the world isn't enough to prepare you for the reality of the blood and the pain and the fear. It's something that Abercrombie returns to a lot, most especially in The Heroes with Beck being the best example, but it's there in other characters too.

Somewhere or other, Abercrombie makes it pretty explicit that the Union is entirely secular if not outright atheist. Bayaz uses money to manipulate his pieces in his war with Khalul, while Khalul uses religion. OTOH, the Dagoskans were clearly religious before the Empire attempted to absorb them. In Best Served Cold, quite a few people refer to God in one way or another, but it's also said that a lot of Kantics fled to Styria to escape the Empire and brought their religion along with them. Glokta's use of God in his thoughts could be put down to his time spent imprisoned by the Empire. But as the stand-alone novels progress more and more people make reference to God, including those with a Union or North background. By the time we get to Red Country, belief in God seems to be pretty much the default (though a lot of that probably comes from the heavy use of Western tropes).

The atheist or secular approach seems at first glance like it would be unusual for fantasy. But the more I think about it, the more common it seems. No one pays much attention to the gods in Tolkien. I can't think of any in David Eddings' work or Donaldson. Terry Brooks, I'm not so sure about. The gods aren't taken seriously in Fafhrd and the Mouser, though they do seem to exist. Certainly, they're almost nonexistant in more recent fantasy. Outside of GRRM, I'm having trouble thinking of any.
Heim Kirin Grewal
2. kei_rin
Eddings plays around with gods all the time. 'The Redemption of Althalus' is about two gods going to war with each other. He did a 12 book series (The Belgaraid/Mallorean) that was basically again about gods/greater forces of the universe fighting each other. And the Elenium series was all about Church Knights and old gods.

I don't know about the other authors that you've mentioned but Eddings for sure plays about with gods a lot in his work. As for recent works in fantasy that mention religion/gods; ‘Throne of the Crescent Moon’ religion and God are corner stones of the world that being shown in the book. McClellan’s Powder Mage Trilogy is reintroducing gods into a world that’s almost forgot about them. I think a secular world, even a secular nation within a world, is far more rare in fantasy than non-secular worlds/nations.

I think it's actually pretty interesting that for the First Law series that it's demons that seem to take a bigger role in things. The greater than life figures of the past are known to be of demon blood and they aren't revered or worshiped because of it. But that could just be that the main view point characters that we are following are just people who aren't that worried about religious matters. I'm sure a story told form Shickles' POV would have a lot more mentions of God.
3. graftonio
@1 Terry Brooks sort of used "Gods" a bit in his Knight of the Word series. Eddings couldn't keep from making up gods everytime he turned around.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (and the sequals) has 13 different Gods that are talked about and brought up quite a bit.
John Lobello
4. johntocaelpiano
And let's not forget how Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy centers around an evil emperor who calls himself God and has systematically destroyed all the other religions except for himself. People even swear in his name, "Lord Ruler!" Even in the end (spoilers) the world is saved because one man has an encyclopedic knowledge of all the world religions.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen features a whole suite of gods and goddesses. Pretty much everyone knows they "exist" but often they only worship one or two.

In a sort of future-past example, Orson Scott Card's Homecoming saga involves a world where everyone's violent predilections and scientific pursuits that might lead to war-making technologies get suppressed by a "god" they call the Oversoul. They find out it's a massively complex AI set up by human settlers forty million years ago after Earth becomes uninhabitable. Later, there's another god-like force implied to be influencing events on Earth. I think it's one of Card's best works, though I'm a bigger fan of the Shadow series...

Interesting thoughts on how religion plays into things. George RR Martin sat down with Google for a big Q&A and talked about how he couldn't just take Islam, for example, pull the labels off, but keep all the ceremonies, and call it Mislam. Heh.

But yeah, later in the series, especially in Red Country, everyone has a pretty vague, but someone interchangable idea of who or what God is. Even the brown-skinned lawyer can say a prayer for all Union folk, the mixed-bloods and Northmen and nobody seems to bat an eye. Which is great in a multi-culti feely-g00dy kind of culture, but stuck out to me a little in terms of believability. Not that I minded all too much...

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