The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “To the Edge of the World” and “Before the Storm”

Thunder and lightning kept me awake all night. Nature is a powerful thing. It can make you feel small and vulnerable. I imagine it’s a lot how Jezal, Logen, and Ferro felt sitting between Bayaz and Cawneil this week, or Colonel West between General Poulder and Kroy. In both cases the experienced ones, the ones who should know best, are squabbling like children, putting the responsibility for acting like an adult in the hands of the less capable.

Abercrombie might be playing once again with the trope of wizened experience that’s often present in fantasy, but I think it’s far more likely that instead he’s offering the idea that doing things as they’ve always been done is hardly a recipe for success. Perhaps instead he’s making a comment on his own work, which is clearly not doing fantasy as its always been done.

Food for thought.

“To the Edge of the World”

Summary: Nearly at the end of the world, Logen and crew find a pair of farmers working the land. Bayaz calls to them in an unfamiliar language and asks them to lead him to Cawneil. One of them agrees and the group follows him through poor country and into a dilapidated town. He leaves them at a building near collapse, a building Logen identifies as a library and Bayaz confirms. Cawneil will be found in the Great Western Library, the place where Bayaz cut his teeth on the High Art at the feet of Juvens.

Inside the library Cawneil greets them. Although she exudes a certain sexuality, Jezal observes that she is as old as Bayaz looks, her hair painted with dyes to maintain a youthful illusion. She reminds Bayaz of his failings, of when he left her for Tolomei, and when his actions led to Tolomei’s death. There is a long and sordid history between the two. Cawneil invites them to dinner, flirting with Jezal, but utterly perplexed by Malacus Quai who she cannot figure.

Dinner is not the most pleasant dining experience. The food is poor, the furniture is rickety, and the company is rancid. Cawneil and Bayaz stare at each across the expanse of table, stalking each other like predators. Bayaz asks after the boat that will take them to Shabulyan. Cawneil knows her duty and has kept a boat in fit shape for the trip as Juvens’ commanded even though it’s rotted a hundred times over.

She then goes on to accuse Bayaz of seducing Tolomei to open the gate to the Maker’s House, which no amount of their Art could penetrate. That seduction led to Kanedias’ death, but to Tolomei’s as well. She decries Bayaz’s feelings for herself because he wept for Tolomei, but never shed a tear over their own relationship’s failings. Bayaz calls her a fool for her selfishness, for hiding at the Edge of the World.

All present are stunned to silence by the awkward exchange.

Later that night Ferro sits naked, watching Logen sleep. She can’t figure why she’s let him get so close. She lies down beside him and fits into his warmth. She realizes she’ll take the peace while she can. Nothing good lasts for long.

Important Characters Introduced: Cawneil (yeah, we’d heard her name before, but now we meet her!)

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

Logen was holding his fork in his fist, frowning and stabbing clumsily at his plate as if it were a troublesome Shanka, the ballooning sleeves of his ill-fitting doublet trailing occasionally in his food.

This is a fantastic image. I picture Logen like Lenny petting the bunnies, prodding his meat to see if it’s going to get up and walk away.

‘As Juvens fought Glustrod, as Kanedias fought Juvens, so Bayaz struggles with Khalul. Smaller men in a bigger world, but with no less hatred, and no more mercy.’

Cawneil goes on to wonder if it will be any different for the people caught in between these titans. I suspect not.

Analysis: We’re definitely starting to learn more about Tolomei. There are a few things that happen in this chapter that are important for later. First, Canweil can’t place Quai. He doesn’t fit within her paradigm. While she assigns attributes to Logen, Ferro, and Jezal, she just seems confused by the First of the Magi’s apprentice. Second, during the dinner discussion, everyone is made uncomfortable by Bayaz and Cawneil arguing, but Quai is angry, staring daggers at Bayaz. Keep these in your mind as we progress.

I absolutely adore Cawneil. She is the anti-fantasy (in a genre sense). The entire genre is predicated on doing hero stuff, on participating in world altering events, on the individual influencing those events on a grand scale. Cawneil rejects all of that. She has the power to move mountains, but she’s far more concerned with her own puttering about than with changing the world to suit her image. Of course, the implication is that Bayaz and Khalul are concerned with only that, which seems accurate doesn’t it? Bayaz is vain. He wants to make the world fit his image. Or so it seems to me.

The last moments of the chapter, with Ferro sleeping with Logen, are touching. She wants to be close, but can’t seem to let herself have it. And now, finally, we see her actually give in to the intimacy. I’m going to quote the entire passage here. I think it’s worth reading. Abercrombie at his finest.

His big warm body pressed up tight against her back no longer made her feel so trapped. The weight of his pale hand resting gently against her ribs, his heavy arm around her felt almost… good. That made her frown.

Nothing good ever lasts for long.

And so she slid her hand back over the back of his and felt his fingers, and the stump of the one that was missing, pressing into the spaces between her, and she pretended that she was safe, and whole. Where was the harm? She held on to the hand tightly, and pressed it to her chest.

Because she knew it would not be for long.


“Before the Storm”

Summary: In the command tent, Colonel West listens to Marshall Burr outline his plan of battle to generals Poulder and Kroy. Bethod is encamped outside the fortress of Dunbrec to draw the North to war. The intelligence delivered by Caul Shivers through the Dogman and crew lays out the distribution of Bethod’s forces. Kroy and Poulder question the source, but West assures them of its accuracy.

Burr orders Kroy to proceed down the road to Bethod’s forces to commit him to combat, while Poulder brings his troops through the trees to take Bethod in the flank. Burr will hold the Calvary in reserve. The Marshall then warns them of rumors that Bethod has brought unknown savages from the high places and their role in the battle may be a wild card. After the generals leave West asks whether they can be trusted to do as they’ve been ordered. Burr assures him they will. Neither would let one receive glory without the other.

With the meeting ended, West finds the Northmen to give them orders for the following day. Figuring the crew deserves a rest after all the work they’ve done for the army in scouting Bethod’s forces, West orders them to high flank of Poulder’s line. It will be the safest place in the battle. As he finishes, Cathil approaches him from behind. Although knowing it is unfair, he can’t stop himself from being angry and embarrassed.

She knows it was him that day in the woods. She feels a need to apologize. He demands to know why she chose him. And then immediately contradicts himself, hissing he has no right to know. Cathil awkwardly finishes the conversation by saying West is just too angry for her. The unfairness of it chokes West with rage.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

‘But my being polite now won’t change that. They hate me for what am I, not what I say. I might as well say what I please while I can.’

Hypocritical wouldn’t you say? It seems to be that West is being treated this way by his “betters”, while he simultaneously thinks the same of men like the Dogman, who have no right to be with a Union woman like Cathil.

‘I didn’t mean to… well. I owe you a lot, I know. It’s just that… you’re too angry for me. That’s all.’

See below. But, daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn.

Analysis: Isn’t that last quote just devastating? Colonel West who does not see his anger, but Cathil sees it perfectly. He’s a brute. And Dogman, the true savage of the North, is a kind man. How does West internalize that? With more rage. He feels like he deserves more than the Dogman because he’s from the Union. He feels superiority and wonders how Cathil can’t see it. This seems very much to me like Abercrombie have a conversation about privilege. Or, maybe it’s something I see more because we’re having such a conversation about it now. Regardless, it resonates with me in that way.

Meanwhile, referencing the first quote above, West is completely oblivious to how similar this situation is to his relationship with the nobility. Where they punch down on West, he punches down on Cathil and even, to a smaller degree, the Northmen. He’s just another blind Union asshole. Ugh. I can’t get over how much I loathe Collem West. I can’t write any more. Too mad.

Next Week: We begin the process of electing a new King of the Union.

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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