The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “So This is Pain” and “One Step at a Time”

Welcome back to the First Law Trilogy reread! I normally write a creative introduction with clever anecdotes. Not today. What can I say, I’m all clevered out.

Today’s post covers the chapters “So This is Pain” and “One Step at a Time,” from Jezal and West’s points of view, respectively.

“So This is Pain”

Summary: Jezal dan Luthar wakes up, his entire body throbbing with pain. He tries to speak, but realizes he can’t force the words out of his mouth. All that’s audible are grunts and mumbles, and his body doesn’t want to move. Logen Ninefingers comes into his line of sight, hovering over him. Logen tells him it will get better in time. He knows. He’s been through it enough times himself.

Feeling helpless, Jezal lets his thoughts drift to despair. Will he become one of those broken, shattered, ruined veterans of war? Will he be shunned? Will he become Glokta? Such a future terrifies him. Logen comes again, this time with water. He lifts Jezal’s head, but the injured man can hardly keep it in his mouth. Most of it ends up on his front or in the sand beneath him. Logen asks if Jezal remembers what happened. The nobleman shakes his head.

There was a fight, Logen tells him. He and Ferro took care of most of them, but three slipped behind. Jezal dispatched two of them himself, rather neatly Logen admits, while the third crept behind him and bashed his head in with a mace. Jezal is lucky really, because Quai bashed the offender’s head in with a pan before he could do any further damage. Logen commiserates with stories of his own injuries, but realizes he’s probably not helping.

Later, the crew stops on the shore of a lake. Ferro examines Jezal’s wounds and redresses them. She manages it without offering even a modicum of support for Jezal’s mental state. Bayaz watches, awake now after weeks of comatose recovery. He gives no explanation for his torpor, but looks older than ever. Bayaz explains that more than half of their journey is over. He lectures the injured man about suffering: how it gives one strength! Such talk sends Jezal further into misery.

As his international monologue complains, Jezal begins to realize that perhaps he has not been such a good person. Weakness reminds him how he has treated others, now that he’s at the mercy of those such as Ferro, Logen, and Bayaz. He vows to do better in the future, to be a better man. Ignorant of Jezal’s ruminations, Bayaz remarks how the scarring suits him.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Jezal’s new jawline.

Quotes to Remember:

‘Suffering is what gives a man strength, my boy, just as the steel most hammered turns out the hardest.’

Cool quote, but a bit trite. On my electronic copy of the book this is one of the passages marked as “often highlighted.”

‘I daresay girls could still be persuaded to swoon for you, if you were to do anything worth swooning over.’ He nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yes. All in all, I think it will serve.’

I discuss this a bit more below. I do really enjoy that Bayaz notices the ladies don’t swoon as much for Jezal as he thinks they ought to. Maybe not being a dick will help.

Analysis: Ever been seriously injured? Well, me either. I mean, not in a mace to the side of the face kind of injured. But, I have had two major surgeries. I had my ACL replaced and my meniscus repaired in 2005 and my Achilles tendon repaired earlier this year. Both injuries stemmed from doing things on a basketball court that my body disagreed with. After surgery, as your atrophied muscles start to come back alive, you begin to wonder—will I ever be as good as I was before? Will my body ever recover? Or will I be permanently… less?

As I read Jezal in “So That is Pain” I remembered my moments of fear. In many ways, I’m still experiencing that fear. I still can’t jump like I did before I tore my Achilles tendon in half. I still can’t do a one footed calf raise. If the zombies attacked, I could outrun a few people, but not most people. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Jezal is experiencing that same doubt here. He’s physically imperfect for the first time. To someone whose entire self-worth is predicated on physical perfection, both aesthetically and in performance, he needs to reevaluate how he relates to the world. We see him begin this process in “So That is Pain”. And we see his role model in the effort become Logen. Do we suppose it’ll stick? Or is it a temporary personality change brought on by emotional trauma?

I find it odd that Bayaz is reintroduced to the story the way he is. He’s been out of action for a while, and rather that show his awakening from the point of view of Logen or Ferro, Abercrombie has him reappear without batting an eyelash. Jezal even isn’t reacting much to him walking around. And, the old Magi falls right into his old routine of providing odd speeches about how to be a leader.

These speeches are becoming increasingly overt in their attempts to educate Jezal about the past. Constant references to Harod the Great, in particular, are the norm. With Jezal’s injury, Bayaz using words the “it will serve” imply a plan, one that involves Jezal needing to command respect and admiration and knowing how to use that attention for a purpose. Feel free to go into spoilers on this subject in the comments. God knows I know what’s coming.


“One Step at a Time”

Summary: Threetrees leads his crew, now burdened with the Southerners, back to Marshall Burr, desperately pushing the pace to stay ahead of Bethod’s fast moving army. West freezes. Prince Ladisla, wearing West’s jacket, complains. Cathil and Pike do fine. Black Dow is cranky.

At the crest of a hill, Ladisla throws himself to the ground, refusing to go any further. He must rest. West, still trying to do his duty, implores Threetrees to let them rest. Although the big man threatens and curses their manhood, he agrees to a brief respite. Ladisla takes the opportunity to whine about the situation. West snaps at him, and the Prince seem to humble, admitting that some portion of the blame for their predicament should fall on him. West scoffs. Merely some?

Ladisla places most of the blame on the dead Lord Smund. In truth, the Prince is far more concerned about how this will play back home, where, in case anyone had forgotten, he is to marry Princess Terez. Threetrees calls for the march to resume. As Ladisla struggles to his feet, Black Dow pulls West aside and offers to kill the laggard. West responds with violence of his own. He’ll kill Dow if he touches any of the Southerners. Dow is entertained by the idea and suggests West might want to tread carefully.

West sidles over to Cathil to ask after her well-being. She’s nonplussed by all of it, having survived her fair share of horrible situations in recent years. West seems particularly concerned that she’s not been molested by any of the Northerners. She can handle herself. It won’t be the first time she’s dealt with it. West is shocked to learn that Cathil has been used harshly. She, however, is rather practical about the whole thing.

Around the campsite, without a fire, West asks Pike about his past. To West’s great surprise he learns that Pike served in his unit against the Gurkish, under Colonel Glokta. Pike remarks that he looks somewhat different now, but he remembers West—a good officer. As West drifts to sleep that night, sandwiched between Cathil and the Dogman, he dreams of being the hero again.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: West’s creepy affection for Cathil breathing on him.

Quotes to Remember:

He wondered if giving his coat to Ladisla had been the worst decision of his life. He decided it probably had been. Except for saving the selfish bastard in the first place.

But, he’s still doing his duty! Say what you will about Major West, but he does his duty.

Perhaps things could still be put right. Perhaps he still had the chance to be a hero.

Gut wrenching hope here. West’s days as a hero seem terribly numbered. Although we think he’s talking about failing to stop Ladisla, it goes deeper than that, right? I feel like he’s also talking about Ardee, and seeing Cathil as a means to make up for his failures with his sister.

Summary: Prince Ladisla. Man. You make Jezal pre-face bashing look like a real stand up dude. As I read this chapter I was reminded of a character from Daniel Abraham’s Dagger & Coin series. Geder. If you’ve read Abraham you’ll know what I mean. Geder is going the opposite direction as Ladisla, from nothing to something, where Ladisla is obviously falling from his pedestal, but both of them demonstrate a vacillating nature. One moment they are empowered, demanding what is theirs by right, and the next wallowing in self-pity, decrying some ineffable thing for their failures. It is, in my humble opinion, what separates good-enough characters from great characters.

See, Ladisla could just be an ass. He could be an arrogant princeling constantly doing the wrong thing because he’s an ego-maniac and thinks his shit doesn’t stink. But, Abercrombie doesn’t take that route even with someone who is ultimately a throw away character. Ladisla, even with his limited number of lines, is a fully formed character. I commented way back when we were introduced to Bremer dan Gorst that Abercrombie never half asses his characters. This is another great example. Ladisla is layered and it’s awesome.

Some interesting factoids in this chapter. One, Pike and Cathil aren’t actually related. Two, Pike was in West’s unit in the Gurkish war. The first doesn’t seem that significant, but it hints at an interesting past for them both. How did they connect to one another? And why? West seems to dance around the idea that their relationship is sexual, but Cathil hints otherwise. As for Pike’s past in the army, how did he get from there to here? He survived the war. How did he get burned? Was he present when West from first through the breach? Was here there when Glokta made his stand and West fled to safety?


I feel compelled to talk about Cathil’s revelations about the various sexual abuses she’s suffered, but then I’m still not sure I’m ready go down that rabbit hole yet. I promise by the end of the series I’ll have a thoughtful take on how Abercrombie deploys these sexual violence tropes.

Next Week: It’s a Ferro point of view, but get to hang out with Zacharus! Also, Glokta fears the end is nigh.

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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