The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “Questions” and “Holding the Line”

I missed last week’s post. I have an excuse. The power cord to my MacBook Air inexplicably stopped working. One minute I’m the happiest little blogger on earth. The next I’m attempting to resuscitate a cord with mouth to mouth, shouting why over and over again. This screaming continued when I learned that the replacement was $80. This is not a joke.

In any case, I was probably missing the signs for several months that this tragedy was about to befall me. Maybe I had to wiggle the cord to get the light to come on. Maybe little bumps were developing where the internal wires were kinking. Maybe my little cord was constantly burping at serious moments and blaming indigestion. One things leads to another and it’s spewing blood all over the battle plans in the middle of a gods damned war!

Crap. I might be getting a little ahead of myself here.

On to this weeks chapters, one of which contains Lord Marshall Burr doing some things even my MacBook Air cord would be grossed out by.

“Questions”

Summary: Awoken by Vitari from a dream of Shickel, Glokta is summoned by Arch Lector Sult. Vitari leads Glokta into the Agriont, and then into the palace. Presenting their credentials to a Knight of the Body, one of the king’s elite guards, the pair are admitted into a more private area. As they ascend into the tower Glokta observes the scenes of forgotten victories and achievements of former kings covering the walls. Vitari motions down the corridor where a sobbing guard and three men stand.

As Glokta limps down the hall, he identifies the three men standing outside it: Chamberlain Hoff, Lord Marshal Varuz, and High Justice Marovia. All of them seem shaken as they move aside to allow the Inquisitor to enter the chamber behind them. Inside is opulent, even for the palace. Sult stands in the center of the room, frowning at the floor which Glokta observes to be covered in blood. Unlike the trio outside, who are disheveled, the Arch Lector is nattily attired.

The corpse on the floor has a gaping wound on one arm, as though it were bitten. One leg is broken and bent back on itself. The throat is mauled and head barely attached. Crown Prince Reynault is murdered. Sult mocks Glokta’s keen observations and reveals the true problem. The King has no siblings and, now, no heirs. When he dies his successor will be elected from the Open Council, a body that does not hold the House of Questions in good standing. Recognizing their vulnerability, Sult orders to Glokta to find the Prince’s murderer immediately.

Looking at the body, Glokta sees an Eater’s handiwork. Or at least the killer meant for that assumption to be made. The wounds are eerily similar to the death in the park months before. He notices a piece of cloth clutched in Reynault’s hand, a square of white cloth and gold thread glittering in the dim light. Glokta recognizes it. A clue too obvious to ignore or to trust.

In the interrogation room, Glokta confronts Ambassador Tulkis with the crime. Tulkis denies his involvement, claiming the schism between the Emperor and the Prophet has led to this attempt to frame him. Glokta demands he sign a confession. Tulkis refuses.

Glokta surmises that if Tulkis were an Eater he would never have been captured. Knowing the man before him is guilty of nothing, Glokta retires to speak with Sult. Sult laughs off his reservations and demands he attain a confession. Someone must pay for the murder and swiftly. After obtaining the signature, Glokta asks Severard to find the knight who guarded the Prince’s chambers during the murderer. The truth is something Glokta cannot ignore.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

‘The Open Council, voting for our next king. A few hundred self-serving halfwits who can’t be trusted to vote for their own lunch without guidance.’

Do you suppose this is how most politicians feel about the electorate? I think probably yes. And there’s also some merit to the statement, isn’t there? If you extrapolate the Open Council to being our electorates the notion that we have a massive number of uninformed people voting does occasionally lead to some odd outcomes. Is Sult just an arrogant elitist or does he have a good point?

We have seen wounds like these before, on that corpse in the park, months ago. An Eater did this, or at least, we are meant to think so.

So who was there in the park that day? Who saw that corpse and might be capable of recreating it? We have Severard, Frost, the gardener who found the body, Glokta, Adeptus Kandelau, and, at least in summation, Arch Lector Sult himself. And, of course, the person who killed Quai. The only intriguing names there are Kandelau, from the University, and the Arch Lector himself. What is afoot?

Analysis: Does anyone else notice that this is the fourth chapter titled “Questions” in the series? Twice in each of the first two books. In each case it appears to be Arch Lector Sult either assigning Glokta a task, or Glokta discovering the nature of his task. I can’t deduce why Abercrombie has recycled this chapter title, but I am paying attention to it.

The chapter ends as many Glokta chapters have ended before. Arch Lector Sult wants him to leave well enough alone and Glokta can’t stop investigating. Whether it’s uncovering the link between the Mercers and Valint & Balk or Bayaz’ true identity, our Inquisitor must know the truth. It’s probably the personality trait that makes Glokta most likeable. He’s a torturer. He’s selfish. He’s mean. But, he wants the truth. And that’s something that we consider rather laudable. It’s deft characterization by Abercrombie, I think.

As for the dead Crown Prince, who killed him? And why? All accounts say that Prince Reynault was a far superior candidate for the throne than he brother Ladisla. The realm should have been quite happy to see Ladisla dead and Reynault elevated. However, Ladisla was certain to be more tractable in his delusions of grandeur than the more level headed Reynault. Perhaps, Reynault was killed because he would have been too good of a king. But, who’s behind it? Khalul and his Eaters? The evidence points to that, but Glokta is unconvinced. As am I.

Our suspects are slim though. Sult, some nameless gardener, Adeptus Kandelau? Clearly there’s another hand a play that is not yet revealed.

 

“Holding the Line”

Summary: The morning of battle greets Colonel West, Captain Janelhorm, and Sergeant Pike. Outside the Lord Marshal’s tent they can see General Kroy’s division moving into battle order. They hope General Poulder’s troops are doing the same on the flank. Lord Marshal Burr emerges from his tent, his innards already producing sour burps.

As Kroy’s men advance, Janelhorm spies the Northmen lining up as orderly as the King’s own, but twice as fearsome looking. West can find no cavalry on the North’s side, a fact Burr brushes aside since Bethod seems to be falling right into their trap. A moment later the two sides clash. Burr’s confidence spikes as Kroy holds. Now only Poulder needs to do his job and Bethod’s forces will be crushed.

West notices, on the opposite ridge from where Poulder should appear, the glint of metal. Cavalry! Bethod had the same idea. Burr orders Kroy to hold the line against the cavalry and prays for Poulder’s quick arrival.

In Poulder’s line, Dogman and the other Northmen prepare to wait. The Union doesn’t seem to want their help much in their deployment, so Threetrees orders them to settle in, moving tree trunks to provide cover and the like. Although everyone seems mystified by the caution, they obey.

With some time to kill, Dogman decides making a fire is sensible. There’s no excuse to be cold when a fire can cure the problem. And his eggs need cooking. The breeze turns and Dogman smells something amiss. Handing the eggs to Cathil, he moves to the edge of their encampment. He recognizes that smell—Shanka!

Threetrees commands the troupe behind the tree trunk, but not before a Shanka arrow finds its mark. Cathil falls to the ground, a shaft in her side. Dogman drags her to safety, but cannot stay. He gives what comfort he can and rejoins Threetrees at the line where the Shanka swarm by the hundreds. Battle is joined. Then the Shanka are falling back and the Carls cheer.

Scrambling back to Cathil, Dogman and Threetrees try to patch her up. When pulling the arrow out is unsuccessful, they try to push it through. With it finally removed, Cathil’s blood covering the snowy ground, Dogman patches her up. But it is for naught. Threetrees declares her dead.

Back at the command post, Burr and West curse Poulder’s failure to engage. Kroy’s men are hard pressed now. Burr dispatches a runner to Poulder with orders to discover what’s delaying him. He must begin his attack immediately! If Poulder doesn’t appear soon West will have to commit the cavalry. Before the Marshal can continue he jerks forward and sprays black vomit over the table top, spattering the maps. West catches him and drags him into his tent.

With Janelhorm’s help, he maneuvers the commander into his bed. West prevents Janelhorm from going to help. If the army knows Burr is incapacitated Kroy and Poulder will tear it apart competing for command. The only thing they can do is hide the truth and keep things together as best they can. Janelhorm is reluctant, but West convinces him. Outside the tent West commits the reserves to Kroy’s position.

With no time to grieve for Cathil, Dogman waits for the inevitable return of the Shanka. Three times they had come up the hill, and three times they were repelled. The defense is thinning. Peering over the tree, Dogman sees the Shanka waiting. Shanka never wait. Of course, Tul wonders when they learned to fight for Bethod. Things change.

Dogman frowns as a new smell touches his nose. Mist rises and Shivers begins to panic. From the mist emerges a man, too large to fathom, dwarfing Tul. The giant carries no weapon and wears armor only on one side, the other half of his body covered in blue runes. The Feared, Shivers names him.

Taking the name to heart, Dogman’s heart clenches. Only Threetrees seems to keep his wits. He rallies the men to him, ordering a charge on the count of three. Even Dogman doubts whether he’ll go or not, but on three he launches himself toward the Feared and the waiting Shanka. Cutting through the Flatheads, Dogman finds himself facing the Feared alone.

Swatted aside like a bug, Dogman waits for death when Threetrees comes from nowhere, his shield slamming into the giant before he crushes the fallen scout. The old warrior gives it his best, but the Feared crunches him to the turf. Then Dow, Shivers, and Tul attack at once, slicing and stabbing into the Feared’s massive flesh, leaving no wound behind and only drops of blood where there should be arterial spray and rents in flesh. Faced with more foes than seems sensible, the Feared flees, leaving behind him a devastated crew, its leader dead. Rudd Threetrees has gone back to the mud.

Back at the Union camp the battle is over. Kroy returns, victorious. But barely. Having taken heavy losses, Kroy has seemingly succeeded in forcing Bethod’s troops to retreat, as has Poulder on the flank. The two generals bicker over whose failure endangered the battle. Both demand to see Burr, who West cannot produce. Just as things are about to dissolve, Burr staggers out of his tent, his shirt stained with blood. As Poulder and Kroy begin to argue again for Burr’s favor, West interrupts with applause for the army’s commander. Forced to join in or appear disloyal, Poulder and Kroy compete to applaud the loudest, the dissension put aside. For the moment.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

Strange, how the gap dwindled down to nothing at night. They understood each other well enough in the dark. Maybe they’d work it out, in time, or maybe they wouldn’t, and that’d be that. Still, he was glad she was there. Made him feel like a proper human man again, instead of just an animal slinking in the woods, trying to scratch his way from one mess to another.

Sad to know they never had the time to make it work. It seems like both Dogman and Cathil have genuine feelings for one another, or at least the desire to have genuine feelings. It’s a great example of Abercrombie’s work being dark, but not without a sense of hope that things will get better. Even if they fail to accomplish it.

‘It’s a devil!’ one of the Carls screeched. ‘A devil from hell!’

In previous readings of the novel I never really theorized too hard about the Feared and his origins. I just assumed he was some magical creation of Bethod’s pet Eater (on loan from Khalul?). However, this sentence makes me wonder. Is it possible the Feared is like Ferro? Some descendent of the devils that retain some level of… er… devilness? Is it possible that the Feared is like the Bloody-Nine only more permanently attached to the Other Side than Logen? Just follow me down this rabbit hole friendly reader!

Analysis: Thank God! Burr finally puked blood! I don’t think I’ve ever thrown a Tiger Wood fist pump before over a “good guy” dying, but Christ we’ve been waiting for months for this guy to finally burp something up. And it was black vomit no less! What a pay off. I need a medical doctor to diagnose this thing. Are we thinking stomach cancer? Ulcer? A blockage? In the words of Inigo Montoya, ’I must know!’

Our ol’ boy Collem West proved himself didn’t he? He kept a level head and did what had to be done to save the battle. He committed the reserves, he kept Janelhorm from ruining the chain of command, and kept Kroy and Poulder off his ass long enough to win. And he didn’t get huffy about Cathil for a whole chapter. Victory!

But, the real fun parts of the chapter are, in my opinion, over in the thick of the battle with Dogman and crew. First, Dogman and Cathil’s interactions are heart breaking. Am I weird to think that their relationship is the healthiest relationship in the series so far? They seem genuinely in-tune with another, and in it for the right reasons, and authentic about trying to make it something meaningful. She dies making eggs for crying out loud. Gut punch. No one can be happy in this world, but damned if they don’t try.

Once the Feared shows up we know more bad shit is going to happen and, of course, Rudd Threetrees bites it. Threetrees is like the anti-Black Dow. He’s all that’s good about the North. He’s loyal and hard and jovial and genuinely invested in his men. Who will rule the band now? The Dogman’s sensibility or Black Dow’s viciousness? I have my hunch.

Next Week: We’re down to only three chapters left in Before They Are Hanged my friends! Are you ready?


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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