The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “Coming Over” and “Cheap at the Price”

The best part of this reread has been the folks commenting. They see things I never would have. This week rather than a clever lead, I want to quote a few things said last week that I thought were particularly insightful.

From Xena Catolica: “The whole time he’s giving Jezal advice on good leadership he’s blatantly not doing that himself & that’s [Abercrombie] drawing our attention to the fact Bayaz has intellectual/theoretical knowledge to match his age, but not the moral mojo to go with it. The disconnect between power and judgment ought to apply to Bayaz like it does to everybody else.”

From DemetriosX: “Abercrombie tells us right out what he is. He says Bayaz looks like a butcher and that’s what he is.”

From Horto: “Caul Shivers, its certainly worth keeping an eye on him over the series.” (Get it? AN EYE ON HIM.)

From Mayank Bansal: “When Tul Duru is drunk, he is singing songs of the Bloody-Nine! A fight in which the Bloody-Nine was using an axe to do his stuff. So the B9 is waaay popular in the North. Even in A Red Country, Shivers says that all the songs are forgotten, except his.”

All of those were worth repeating up here. Figuring out Bayaz is the key to figuring out everything, and the observation about Tul’s singing is excellent. Logen, for all his humility, is a lot more important to the cultural identity of the North than we realize. On to this week’s chapters!

 

“Coming Over”

Summary: Up on a ridge, Dogman and crew observe Bethod’s base of operation—a massive fortress. With the Union stupidly letting Bethod move around with impunity, he has positioned himself ideally. Discussing their options Black Dow turns the conversation, asking about the method of intimacy Cathil employs with the Dogman. After a fair bit of teasing they decide that given his recent luck with the ladies, it’s Dogman who will find Bethod’s scouts.

Creeping through the trees, an arrow nocked but not drawn, Dogman nearly stumbles when a figure in the trees calls his name. The man is Caul Shivers, son of Rattleneck (not the dead one, the alive one, who isn’t as young as everyone thinks he should be because everyone else is a lot older than they want to think they are).

Turns out men like Shivers don’t much like Bethod and his witch. Bethod’s raising up all kinds of savages. Men from Crinna and, worst of all, the Shanka. Dogman takes him back to camp, where Dow enjoys Shivers’ response to his bullying. Although intimidated a bit by the named men around him, Shivers argues passionately that Bethod is no good. And all that pales in comparison to the Feared, who is worst of all.

Important Characters Introduced: Caul Shivers

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

‘I reckon whoever got to stick his twig in the fire last night should be the one to face the cold this morning, eh, lads?’

I giggled. I won’t lie.

“He had long black hair hanging in his face, but one eye peered out at the Dogman, watchful.”

One eye, you say?

Analysis: Once again I am floored by the early depth of Abercrombie’s characterizations. Shivers is a blank slate at this point, but already we’re seeing allusions to one-eye nasty boy Caul. We’re seeing his youthful exuberance. He’s intimidated by the named men around him to some degree. Or, at the very least, doing a fair share of fan boy squeeing.

I can’t help but begin to consider Shivers’ place in the larger conversation. Consider for a moment that Caul Shivers might be the protagonist of all of the Circle of the World books. Consider for a moment that he is the farm boy, going out into the world wide eyed and naive, only to find his veneer of innocence shattered by harsh reality. Consider for a moment what it might be like for that character to come out the other side, which, as of yet, we haven’t seen now six books through the cycle. This is what I want to happen. I want to find someone who actually grows, changes, and comes out better and stronger than they started. Maybe he did this with Shy South, but she never sank quite so far as Logen or Ferro or Monza or Shivers. I don’t know. Something to ponder.

The beginning of the chapter is fascinating too, with Dow and Tul and Threetrees giving Dogman a hard time for his liaisons with Cathil. The camaraderie that’s present is almost touching. These are men who genuinely, despite all their vicious predilections, care for one another. Knowing what we know about who will betray who in the coming book, it’s a little heart wrenching. Especially when I consider that he is often the one leading the camaraderie. Charisma is as necessary in a benevolent leader as it is in a tyrant. Something important in that discussion, don’t you think?

Also, Dogman’s reaction makes me think his relationship with Cathil is something more than a turn in the hay or a financial transaction. I suppose we’ll find out for sure in a few chapters.

 

“Cheap at the Price”

Summary: Barnam, Glokta’s steward, escorts Arch Lector Sult into his master’s apartments. Sult banishes Barnam quickly and vents to Glokta about the situation in the countryside. Near Keln, Tanner is in the midst of another uprising. Lord Finster misjudged the mood and got three of his guards killed and his manor besieged. Glokta offers to begin packing immediately to leave for Keln, but Sult forestalls him. Dagoska has fallen and the Emperor has sent an envoy to Adua to negotiate peace.

With Dagoska in the hands of the Gurkish, Glokta no longer has anywhere to be Superior over. In recognition of that, Sult dubs him Superior of Adua, a laudable title, but one currently occupied by Superior Goyle. Sult laughs and assures Glokta there is room for both. Glokta surmises it more likely that Sult is pitting them against one another to find his favorite and the other dead.

The Emperor’s envoy is far more humble and authentic than Shabbed al Islik Burai, whom Glokta beheaded in Dagoska. This envoy, Tulkis, expresses his people’s disappointment that they did not find Glokta’s body among the dead in Dagoska. He says it with a smile though and Glokta finds himself considering this envoy more warmly than the previous.

Tulkis explains that perhaps the previous envoy was closer to the church than the state and that things between the Emperor and the church are not as rosy as they might appear from the outside. Dagoska was harder to take than Khalul promised. The Emperor desires peace. Peace alone may not be enough for the Union after losing Dagoska, Glokta argues.

In response Tulkis offers a dozen scented and gold bound ebony chests to be delivered with his peace. Empty though those chests will be, the Union government can claim they contain whatever they like. More than the value of Dagoska itself, perhaps. Glokta agrees to take the offer to his superiors, promising nothing.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: Tulkis

Quotes to Remember:

‘War is harshest on the brave.’

Both of the quotes here are from Tulkis. Abercrombie uses these incisive comments to build credibility with Glokta. He connects with Glokta’s pain.

‘We are leaders. War is what happens when we fail.’

I think we’ve got a few leaders in our world who would do well to remember this, eh?

Analysis: Are we ever going to actually explore the peasant rebellion in the countryside? Who is Tanner? I feel like Vizzini in The Princess Bride—I must know! It seems like such a huge potential plot point to be glossed over the way it has been. Abercrombie even teases us with it only to send Glokta on a, seemingly, much more boring mission. Envoy meeting!

We also learn that back in Dagoska there was some treachery that let in the Gurkish (Cosca, anyone?). Vissbruck killed himself (really?) rather than be captured, but most of the mercenaries were “merely” enslaved and the native population was left largely untouched. Without knowing any details it feels like Cosca’s hands were probably all over this defeat/surrender.

It is interesting to learn that not all is nice and cozy in the Gurkish government. Is this a ploy from the envoy suing for peace or an actual conflict between Khalul and the Emperor? If it’s the former things are going to get nasty when the Empire backs out on its deal. If it’s the latter, I can’t imagine the Emperor having much leverage when Khalul can field hundreds of Eaters. There’s a serious power dynamic problem in the South. Not to say the same problem is extant in the Union, but it’s a little more subtle. For now.

Next Week: Canweil, the scourge of the Edge of the World, shows up.


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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