The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “The Wounds of the Past”

This week’s chapter in Before They Are Hanged says it all, “Wounds of the Past.” The opening line, quoted later in the post, plays quite clearly into the old idiom, ‘those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.’ It’s a theme that runs throughout the chapter, but one that Abercrombie twists, which I’ll discuss in more detail below.

This is also a chapter with a surfeit of world building courtesy of three ‘as you know Bob’ sections. Despite revealing a lot of interesting information and a huge nugget at the end of the chapter, I think it’s probably one of the weakest chapters in the entire series, shoehorned in to give the reader a sense of the time and space that our erstwhile band of heroes occupy on their errand for Bayaz.

But, that’s something you’ll have to judge for yourself I suppose.

“The Wounds of the Past”

Summary: Bayaz and Jezal walk into the city of Calcis as the former lectures the latter about the importance of history. The Old Empire, he tells Jezal, is the cradle of civilization, cultivated by Master Juvens before it came apart at the seams. The lecture continues with the nature of how to rule, to be firm and feared, but not a tyrant. Jezal finds the discussion all together boring, and nearly says so before they’re interrupted by a representative of the Imperial Legate, Salamo Narba, inviting them to an audience.

Logen and Brother Longfoot share a similar walk through the city, highlighted by Logen’s injuries hampering their progress. Remembering his past close scrapes, Logen muses on how likely it is that his shoulder wound will sour and he’ll die in a haze of pain and confusion. Longfoot expounds on the fact that without Ferro Maljinn’s expert needle skills that might very well have been the result. And, considering their journey will likely result in future skin sewing, Longfoot is quite glad to have her along. Longfoot hurries Logen along. They have work to do disguising themselves as merchants for the trek through bandit infested territory, which means, of course, that they’re hiding from another sort of threat all together.

In the Legate’s offices Bayaz attempts to divine the best path across the Aos river. Narba argues that the situation is far to volatile and the bridges inaccessible due to infighting between the various self-proclaimed emperors vying for the title. In fact, the Legate makes it quite clear that Bayaz’s presence is unwelcome given that it will only make the situation more troublesome. Bayaz’s colleague Zacharus was in Calcis just a month ago, arguing in favor of Emperor Goltus’ supremacy. Narba demands that Bayaz leave the city in three days. Bayaz gets pissy.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Seario, Goltus, and Cabrian.

Quotes to Remember:

‘The mistakes of old,’ intoned Bayaz with the highest pomposity, ‘should be made only once. Any worthwhile education, therefore, must be founded on a sound understanding of history.’

As I read this sentence, I very much get the feeling that Bayaz is saying we must understand history to avoid repeating mistakes. However, as the chapter continues we get comments like the following:

‘The failure of something great is never a simple matter, but, where there is success and glory, there must also be failure and shame.’

This statement speaks to inevitability of things—history operates in cycles of human behavior that are immutable. Which is it? Can Bayaz change the pattern of things by changing the behavior of leaders or are we doomed to endless conflicts and wars? I’m not sure Abercrombie really answers this question directly, but given how long Bayaz has been ‘the man behind the man’, I think I know which side he comes down on.

Analysis: The chapter opens with a lecture from Bayaz on the sordid history of the Old Empire. Founded by Juvens, collapsed by the greed of petty warlords, and occasionally stitched back together by a tyrant, Bayaz is trying to teach Jezal something about the nature of leadership, which is odd considering Jezal’s position in the grand scheme of things. Thus far the Contest winner has proven himself to be nothing short of worthless outside a dueling ring. This isn’t the first time Abercrombie has dropped hints about Bayaz’s plans for Jezal in the long term, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the nobleman isn’t on the this jaunt for his brawn—that’s Logen’s job.

While Bayaz is lecturing Jezal (and the reader) about the political tensions in the Empire, Longfoot is giving Logen an earful about its geography. Over the hills and through the woods, Longfoot paints a map (which Abercrombie’s books rarely possess) of the terrain through which they’ll be moving. We’ve often theorized about the purpose of Longfoot in the narrative. Some have suggested he’s the comic relief, but I would argue he’s actually an information bot. Without Longfoot, Abercrombie has no mechanism to communicate with the reader about the world outside the point of view character’s perception. Bayaz keeps everyone in the dark and Logen and Jezal are about as well traveled as grubs. I would argue having a character whose sole purpose is to be a GPS is rather problematic, but there you go. What do you think?

The Legate actually serves a very similar purpose, laying out the hurdles that the group will have to overcome to reach their goal. He also gives us a zinger though in the form of the news that Zacharus is lobbying on behalf of Goltus’ ascendency. Zacharus has been a subject of some consternation, and now he seems to be putting himself on the level with Bayaz and Khalul as he manipulates his own faction in a war whose goals we still don’t understand. Bayaz seems equally confused by his colleague’s presence, but, combined with the Legate’s presumptuous suggestions, it does seem to piss him off a tad.

So, what did we learn?

  1. The Old Empire is old.
  2. Juvens founded it.
  3. It’s now the battleground for three warlords, one of whom has Zacharus’ backing.
  4. The population seems all together less enthused than the Union and the infrastructure has fallen into disrepair.
  5. The group is posing as merchants to avoid an unnamed threat, which is odd considering that posing as merchants exposes them to another threat of bandits.
  6. And Jezal seems to be often confused about Bayaz’s lectures which would seem to be more well suited for Crown Prince Ladisla. SUBTLE.

Next Week: Glokta walks the walls of Dagoska. Slowly. And probably with lots of gum licking.


Justin Landon runs Staffer’s Book Review where his posts are less on-color. Find him onTwitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

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