The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “Prince Ladisla’s Stratagem” and “Until Sunset”

I hope all our U.S. readers had a nice Fourth of July last week. I mean, I hope you all had a nice July 4th, but I figure it was just a regular Friday for the rest of you! As a result of the holiday the reread took a short break from its otherwise breakneck pace! In the interim, Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King hit the streets in the United Kingdom, debuting at number three on the Sunday Times Bestseller list. While the world enjoys his new offering, we’ll just keep picking apart the first things he ever published!

With this week’s chapters we find ourselves on the cusp of two battles. The one in the North is a situation that should be won, but won’t due to inept leadership. The one in the South is a situation that should surely be lost, but success seems possible due to Glokta’s capable hand. It’s an interesting juxtaposition Abercrombie has set up.

“Prince Ladisla’s Stratagem”

Summary: Colonel West spends far more time than he should in the smithy with former criminals. Pike and his daughter, Cathil, seem more honest to him than the Prince and his lackeys. Of course, Cathil’s figure has nothing to do with his presence.

Knowing he has an army to lead, he allows Cathil to shoo him out, where he runs into Threetrees and Dogman bearing grim news. Bethod is on the march and days from the camp with 10,000 battle hardened thralls and carls. West immediately goes to Prince Ladisla to argue for an orderly withdrawal. The Union Army has no chance of defeating Bethod’s host.

The trio present themselves to Ladisla in his tent, which is decorated with the kind of opulence that breeds contempt. While the Dogman stuffs some sliced beef in his mouth, West presents the situation to the Prince. Ladisla, urged on by Lord Smund and his other flunkeys, demands that the army march on Bethod without delay. The Prince imagines a heroic victory on par with Harod the Great and King Casamir. West cannot dissuade him.

Threetrees declares them all fools. His crew won’t fight for a Union too blind to find their shoes in the dark. Dogman is happy either way; he took a whole fish from Ladisla’s table.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Lord Smund (introduced in chapter two, but wasn’t mention then)

Quotes to Remember:

She might handle the metal as well as any of the men, but the shape of her face, not to mention her chest, her waist, the curve of her backside, all unmistakably female…

Male gaze! I have heard some complaints over the years about Abercrombie’s treatment of the women in the First Law Trilogy. I went into this with an open mind, despite my fannish love of the work. There’s mounting evidence that Abercrombie is probably a little over reliant on using sexuality to define his female characters. Interestingly, of all the points of view, Logen seems to be the only one that doesn’t deploy a pretty skeevy male gaze.

‘Here you pick the ones who know the least to lead, and fix on the biggest fool o’ the whole pack for a commander!’

Weird isn’t it how survival of the fittest sounds like the most sensible and least sensible solution to governance simultaneously?

Analysis: I was curious about bad military leaders. So I Googled, “Worst Generals,” which returned a name that seemed appropriate here, General George Armstrong Custer. Custer, for those familiar with their American history and, I presume, ubiquitous cultural touchstones for racism and sucking at stuff, attacked thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians in 1876 with a force of 600. Losing over half of his command in a single battle, Custer’s defeat was a result of racist arrogance. He did not believe the Indians capable of defeating his command, not only because of their numbers, but their “nature.”

The similarities between the Battle of Little Big Horn and the disaster Prince Ladisla promises is too similar to ignore. Not only is Ladisla confident in his incredible Union army (except they’re really a starving, ill-trained bunch of old men and children), he’s irreconcilably sure that the Northmen are incompetent. Much like Custer, I suspect it’s going to be an utter disaster. I wonder if the American general had his own Colonel West kneel before him beginning him to reconsider.

There’s quite a sense of tragedy surrounding West in this chapter. He knows that they’re going to lose, that they may all die, but he’ll do his duty. He’ll obey his Prince. As Threetrees so eloquently puts it, how stupid is that?

 

“Until Sunset”

Summary: Practical Vitari wakes Glokta up to warn him that Dagoskan ruling council is meeting without him. An ambassador from the Gurkish has arrived to offer terms. Annoyed he wasn’t notified by the other members of the council, Glokta heads in that direction.

In the chamber, Glokta greets the ambassador who is unquestionably Glokta’s opposite in every way—fit, tall, thin, and majestic. The Lord Governor isn’t present, only Vissbruck, Vurms, and Eider. The Emperor sends his representative to offer a peaceful surrender, in which the Aduans will return to their shores and leave the city to the Gurkish with no loss of life. His argument seems sounds as he references the fact that the Union is fighting a two front war in the North and the South, an untenable arrangement. Glokta can hardly argue with him, and promises to give him a decision before sunset.

After the meeting Vitari confronts Glokta, asserting that surrender is not an option. Arch Lector Sult will have their heads if they give in that easily. Glokta reminds her who is in charge when he gets confirmation from Severard that the ambassador is in their custody.

Below the palace Glokta questions the Gurkish emissary about the traitor within Dagoska. After a few pieces are sliced and diced, the man admits that Vurms and Eider are the traitors. Glokta shows no surprise a the first, but feels oddly disappointed in the second. He tells Frost, ‘You know what to do.’

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Shabbed al Islik Burai (very minor)

Quotes to Remember:

‘Very well, Practical Vitari, if you really can’t resist me. You’ll have to go on top, though, if you don’t mind.’

See above.

‘I come as emissary from the rightful ruler of all the South, mighty Emperor of mighty Gurkhul and all the Kantic Lands, Uthman-ul-Dosht, love, feared, and favoured above all other men within the Circle of the World, anointed by God’s right hand, the Prophet Khalul himself.’

I find it interesting that there’s this ‘God’s right hand’ business with Khalul and yet he suffers an Emperor. Why isn’t Khalul just Emperor himself? I find the whole notion that Bayaz and the other Magi and Eaters are satisfied being the power behind the power. Why is this? Why not just be the man instead of the man behind the man?

Analysis: The crux of this chapter tilts on whether or not we believe Shabbed al Islik Burai. Are Vurms and Eiders the traitors or is it a red herring? I theorized last week that Vissbruck was the traitor, but, while he’s utterly incompetent and a coward (see negotiating without Glokta present), it would seem that’s not the case. There’s not enough evidence to make any guesses really about who is actually the traitor or who the Eater inside the city might be (per Yulwei).

My favorite detail from “Until Sunset” is what Vitari reveals about her role. After Glokta informs the Gurkish he’ll consider their offer, Vitari pulls the Superior aside and reads him the riot act. She says that Arch Lector Sult will have their heads if he caves. She takes him by the arm. She squeezes his arm. She implies physical violence. She also says, ‘I told Sult you could handle things!’ To me her comments imply an interesting power dynamic between who is leading who. Although Glokta has the illusion of power in Dagoska, is Vitari the real power? Does she wield the Arch Lector’s authority or is she merely an informant?

One of the other things about Vitari that strikes me is that the female characters in the First Law Trilogy seem to be either sexual objects (Ardee, Cathil, various ladies of Jezal’s interest in Adua) or as badass shit-kickers (Ferro, Vitari). We see sexual references to both Vitari and Ferro, but both of them aggressively reject those terms. There seems to be little middle ground at first blush. However, knowing what I know about the direction of the series and characters, I think Abercrombie undermines those preconceptions about Ferro and Ardee. It’s something I definitely want to keep an eye on as things progress.

Next Week: A bunch of REALLY short chapters. It may be a three-chapter week.


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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