The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “To the Last Man” and “Jewel of Cities”

Last week I encouraged commenters to comment on Tolomei, daughter of the Maker and lover(?) of Bayaz. You ignored me and told me it was too soon! Cue the shaking and rattling of a rereader gone drunk with power, calling down the heavens for your impudence. Or, you know, you were right. Whatever.

This week’s chapters are a little more pedestrian in terms of information reveals compared to last week’s, but I can assure you that they are the calm before the storm. We’re starting to get into the home stretch of Before They Are Hanged. Get ready to run!

“To the Last Man”

Summary: General Vissbruck reads the letter from Arch Lector Sult to Glokta. It instructs Glokta to return home in secret and to leave Vissbruck in charge of the cities defense with orders to fight to the last man. The general is, obviously, displeased but seems to accept the assignment with some measure of resignation. Glokta cannot seem to find pity for the man, but recognizes that the city of Dagoska is being given a poor turn from the Union. Before what little is left of the ruling council leaves his presence, Glokta urges them to surrender. While it may not buy them much good will, something is better than nothing.

After, Glokta sits on his bed remembering the moments of horror in the room. From Yulwei’s appearance, to Sheckel’s attempted cannibalism, to signing a receipt from the banking house of Valint and Balk, survival in Dagoska has been no mean feat. Grimacing as he rises, Glokta begins to pack when behind him someone asks, ‘Going without saying goodbye?’ With a jerk, Glokta turns around to see Sult’s spy, Vitari, lurking in the doorway.

Vitari has not received orders to return to Adua, a fact Glokta is all too happy to rub in her face. She pounces on the man and holds a blade to his throat, her anger a palpable thing. Ready to die, Glokta taunts her mercilessly. A moment before her blade severs his jugular; she breaks and begs for him to take her with him. Almost on the verge of tears she implores him, not for herself, she says, but for another. Demonstrating a weakness for desperate women, Glokta agrees to bring her to Adua.

Soon enough, Vitari, Frost, Severard, and Glokta are rowing across the channel, leaving Dagoska and the war behind.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

‘The recruiting sergeant sells dreams but delivers nightmares?’

This is a pretty compelling indictment, isn’t it? I’m reading another book right now called Space Case, which features a base on the moon staffed by scientists and their families. The comedic thread running through the book is how awesome NASA made the base sound on Earth when, in fact, it’s pretty horrible. Nothing quite like being sold a bill of goods.

Few indeed are those who get a choice.

Glokta remembers Sheckel saying this to him about her descent as an Eater. Haunting. Quite a lot of fatalism with our little Glokta, isn’t there?

Analysis: So do we really think Glokta and crew are ditching Dagoska? It seems awful anti-climactic doesn’t it? I feel like there’s a twist looming here. For all his whining to the contrary Glokta seems predisposed to not let hundreds of thousands of people get slaughtered for his, or Arch Lector Sult’s, mistakes. We’ll see what happens.

For me, the most important moment in “To the Last Man” is Vitari’s confrontation with Glokta. We finally see behind her facade now that she’s being abandoned by the Inquisition. Odd isn’t that the Sult would leave his spy behind while bringing Glokta home? When she begs Glokta to take her with him she says it’s not for her, but for someone else. Who could it be? Why can’t she just leave on her own? Clearly Sult has something she holds dear otherwise she could just disappear into the Known World, presumed dead in the Gurkish invasion.

That said, as vulnerable as Vitari makes herself appear to Glokta, once she gets what she wants her mask goes back on (literally) and she sobers thoroughly. After watching Glokta grant clemency to Eider, I suppose it’s quite likely she realizes where Glokta’s weak spot sits. And is there actually weak spot? My magic 8-ball says, yes. During Vissbruck’s kvetching about Glokta’s orders we’re privy to the Superior’s lack of pity. He thinks he used up all his pity when he let Eider survive. Glokta is a sucker for the women. This will only become more obvious as the series progresses methinks.


“Jewel of Cities”

Summary: Finally astride a horse, Jezal is almost whole, the splint on his leg and the dressings on his arm removed. Sore, yes, but small things make him happy these days. They ride in a somber silence brought on by the desolation through which they ride. Along the road, dead tree stumps jut from the earth.

Bayaz explains. Juvens planted them with his own hands, lining the road to the city gates for twenty miles. When Gludstrod seized the city, he felled them all to feed his hearth. They haven’t rotted away these thousand years because ‘Even rot is a kind of life. There is no life here.’ Disturbed by these descriptions, Jezal imagines a different future now than he once did. He wonders what it would be like to marry Ardee in truth, to live a simple life on an officer’s salary. No fame or power or wealth, but warmth and safety. The new Jezal finds these things far more attractive than he ever thought possible.

Soon they arrive at the gates of Aulcus, jewel of cities. To their eyes it is a crumbling dark place. It gives Logen the same feeling as the open door of the Maker’s House, as if he were looking into his own grave. The gate, a long tunnel through the outer wall of the city, deposits the party within the city stunning them with views of colossal buildings rising up either side, of towering columns and great walls. Aulcus seems a city made for giants. Regardless it is a city where nothing lives, no birds, no dogs, and no people. Nothing.

Before continuing, Bayaz tells them of a hill south of the city. Three miles away, with a temple on its summit, the Saturline Rock it was call in the Old Time, will be their rendezvous should they be separated. Logen doesn’t much care for that admonition and asks Ferro to watch her back. Surprisingly she consents, if she can.

Ferro begins to hear things, the clank of weapons, and movement out of the corner of her eye, dark shadows creeping. It comes to nothing, Bayaz almost mocking her caution. Eventually they come to a place in the road where a massive sinkhole has opened up, denying them their chosen route. The delay will force them to spend a night.

Even diverted they reach the Maker’s bridge before night fall, looking like it was built just yesterday and not thousands of years before. Where all other things in Aulcus have crumbled, Juvens labors included, the Maker’s bridge stands undiminished. There is a lesson in that perhaps, Bayaz seems to suggest. Ferro balks at crossing the bridge, demanding answers from Bayaz as to their purpose and how she might take her promised revenge of the Gurkish. She wants to know about the Seed.

Showing no surprise that Ferro knows of the Seed, Bayaz names it the thing that Gludstrod dug from the earth and turned on his brothers. It is the Seed that did all this to Aulcus. Quai says it is from the Other Side, left behind from when Euz cast the devils from the world. Ferro wonders why the Seed requires her. Only one with the blood of demons can carry the Seed, like Juvens and Kanedias and Gludstrod. Ferro descends from those such as them, ‘a last weak trace of the blood of the Other Side.’ She decides in that moment. Revenge is all she wants and Bayaz can give it to her. But, something is following them. She knows it.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

‘Men must sometimes do what they do not like if they are to be remembered. It is through struggle, not ease, that fame and honour are won. It is through conflict, not peace, that wealth and power are gained.’

More coaching from the magi to our injured nobleman. However, doesn’t this seem somewhat of a departure? Hasn’t Bayaz been preaching leadership and force of personality and such? Now he’s saying sometimes you just have to kill a dude. Bayaz comes off increasingly unhinged as we get closer to the Seed.

The only thing worse than a city full of people is a city with no people at all.

Ferro makes me cry. Every time we’re narrating from her point of view I feel lonely and isolated. Abercrombie does a fine, fine job with her sections.

Analysis: Between the previous chapter and this one I notice that Abercrombie is using two typical fantasy arcs. Glokta is experiencing the siege! Helm’s Deep (Lord of the Rings), Tyrsis (Sword of Shannara), and Tar Valon (Wheel of Time) are just a few examples. Dagoska, in Before They Are Hanged, is following the same basic pattern. An overwhelming force is assaulting a well-defended position staffed by relatively very few defenders, vulnerable only through treachery. Treachery ensues and the defenders either die in a heroic last stand (Gates of Fire) or pull victory from the jaws of defeat (most everything else). Thus far, Abercrombie subverts that by having Glokta abandon ship before the issue is decided. Compelling and surprising, we’ll see if it holds.

In the North, Bayaz and his merry band are doing the travelogue, an arc anyone in epic fantasy is excessively familiar with. Whether it’s the Companions of the Dragonlance Chronicles or the Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings or Shallan in Words of Radiance, the epic fantasy author’s best friend for world building purposes is to send their characters on a jaunt through historic country. We’ve had our campfire story time and now we get our “look at these statues and ancient buildings” exposition. It gets us from A to Z and gives us a bunch of context we wouldn’t have otherwise. Two for the price of one! Double-threat!

For the purposes of the reread the most significant moment comes when Bayaz lauds the Maker’s work over Juvens. Juvens’ masterpieces have fallen, but the Maker’s still stand. Whether it’s his tower back in Adua, the sword Logen carries, or the bridge they walk on today, the Maker has found some measure of immortality. Why have his things survived while Juvens have crumbled? I suppose it’s easily explained, but it seems symbolic somehow. Does something of the Maker still live? Perhaps his daughter, Tolomei, has something to do with it? Probably a stretch, but interesting to consider.

Oh, and hey guess what! The Seed is the thing Glustrod dug up. I’m pretty sure we figured this out months ago.

Next Week: Our travelogue gets frisky!

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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