The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

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

Last week I quoted the epigraph from Before They Are Hanged—“One should forgive one’s enemies, but not before they are hanged.” Attributed to Heinrich Heine, the German poet, the quote references a special kind of forgiveness—after vengeance. In other words, forgiveness is only a commodity to the giver, not the receiver. All of the characters in this series could use some forgiveness for the things they’ve done, but do they deserve it? And even if they did, would that forgiveness in any way absolve them from punishment?

I’m of the opinion that Abercrombie consistently answers in the negative to these questions. While we love Logen Ninefingers and Inquisitor Glokta and Major Collem West, we do not look past their transgressions. By beginning his second book with the Heine quote, he’s telling us exactly what to expect. I’m going to hang these bastards and then, maybe, you can decide whether or not you want to take their confessions. That’s as strong a foreshadowing as you’re likely to ever see before a book even starts.

“Best Laid Plans”

Summary: Major West and Lord Marshall Burr stand before Lord Governor Meed, the ranking nobleman in Angland. Burr dresses the Governor down for committing his men to the field contrary to orders from the King to await Burr’s arrival. Meed’s response is self-absorbed, only able to lament the loss of his sons in their silly charge against Bethod’s ambush. Burr ends the conversation by taking command of Angland, setting the local government to the task of providing succor for refugees.

At a meeting of the command staff, Major West briefs them on Angland’s geography. The Generals and their flunkies seem far more concerned with petty interests than with the war to come. Burr follows West’s briefing with a detailed strategy that will split the army into three commands, two to flush Bethod onto the field where the Union’s five-to-one advantage can win the day and one to guard their back led by Prince Ladisla. Burr, fearing Ladisla’s capabilities, assigns Major, now Colonel, West to be the Crown Prince’s primary military advisor.

With the meeting concluded, Burr takes Colonel West with him to inspect the first regiment. Indulging in memories of his youth, the Lord Marshall puts his spurs to his horse and takes off out of the city gates. West curses his commanding officer and rides in pursuit, remembering a long ago ride fleeing the Gurkish. A rope pulled taut across the road rips both men from their horses and into the muck where Rudd Threetrees offers an alliance. Lord Marshall Burr assigns the crew of Northmen to Colonel West.

Burr still has “indigestion.”

Important Characters Introduced: General Kroy, General Poulder (or, as I like to call them: frick and frack)

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

If the measure of a man was the size of his hat, these were great men indeed.

Classic line. It sums up the kind of people West is dealing with in the Union forces so succinctly. Is there really anything else we need to know about these men to judge them unworthy? Great piece of description.

The two great generals themselves jostled each other in the doorway, which was more than wide enough for both of them, neither wanting to turn his back on the other or follow behind him. They turned, bristling, once they had pushed their way out into the corridor.

Presented without comment:

Analysis: Once again I feel like I’m detecting a crisper voice for Collem West. He’s more observant and confident, but also increasingly bitter about his parentage.

“The man seemed to have no other expressions. He had a frown for hope, a frown for satisfaction, a frown for surprise. This was a frown of the most intense anger.”

This is a function of Abercrombie’s improved writing and, perhaps, an example of West’s increased superiority within the King’s own. As Burr promotes him, the Colonel is finding validation while simultaneously becoming more and more aware of the limitations of his birth. He is supremely frustrated, a state of mind that’s only going to get worse now that he’s babysitting the Crown Prince.

West frustration seems to have merit, right? The Angland government has wasted its tactical advantage by rushing into battle in a Charge-0f-the-Light-Brigade-inspired moment of idiocy. Isn’t it just like Abercrombie to make sure the fighting force with the good guys’ three sons at its head, beating off the barbaric invaders, ends in a massacre of no repute? Even when Burr’s command staff tries to laud their countrymen for their bravery, the Lord Marshall is quick to point out how stupid it all was.

There are two big bits of foreshadowing here. The first, painfully obvious, is that Lord Marshall Burr continues to burp as often as Miley Cyrus sticks her tongue out. Does anyone want to guess that it’s probably something more significant than indigestion? The second, less obvious to first time readers, is the assignment of Crown Prince Ladisla to rearguard action. As Burr himself admits, ‘…war is anything but a predictable business.’

Finally, Dogman and his crew find purpose. Their method of joining the Union army is rather comedic and perfectly inline with the Northern way of thinking. Named men are not so different than generals and kings when it comes right down to it. With the group assigned to West’s command, I can’t help but wonder how that mentality will feed into West’s various bugaboos. Threetrees, Dogman, Black Dow, and the rest, have lived their whole lives in a meritocracy (can you kill the man above you?). The Union forces are anything but. It’s a great juxtaposition. I’m looking forward to seeing how West handles it.

Next Week: Sand dan Glokta arrives in Dagoska, which always looks like Dagobah to me (lifetime geek alert!).


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.


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