The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Before They Are Hanged: “The Abode of Stones” and “Back to the Mud”

Happy holidays! I managed to stuff my face excessively over Thanksgiving. I even managed to get some kind of virulent plague from my daughter simultaneously. I’m such a lucky devil. Er… not that kind of devil, I say as Ferro finally gets her hands on the ‘Seed’.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, has anyone noticed that Abercrombie covers about every possible vice except gluttony? Chamberlain Hoff is the closest thing, but he’s also just an idiot and not a very central character. I challenge Lord Grimdark himself, in his next novel, to really embrace utter corpulence in one of his point of view characters. Do it for me, Joe! Validate my holiday over eating!

Now that we’re in the holiday spirit, I hope you’re ready for the most buzz kill chapters in the history of epic fantasy! All these hundreds of pages we’ve been building toward a climax, right? Some big reveal! Some big event! Well…. sorry about that.

“The Abode of Stones”

Summary: The boat crunches into the desolate beach of rocky Shabulyan, the island at the edge of the World. Bayaz, Logen, Jezal, Longfoot, Ferro, and Quai disembark, while Cawneil’s oarsmen stay put in fear of the island’s reputation. Indifferent to their discomfort, Bayaz drags the crew into the island’s interior relishing the brilliance in hiding a stone among a million stones just like it.

With the wind blowing and cold seeping in, Logen and Longfoot aspire to find a shelter. A cave at the base of the cliffs suits their needs and Logen, with help from Ferro, kindles a blaze. Huddled around the meager warmth, Bayaz brings out the Maker’s box. Bayaz hands Logen a flask of liquor to offer to the spirits. A mist of the liquid into the flame and a burst of heat later, the spirit is present, offering Ferro a stone from its stomach, a relic of the task Juvens set to it centuries ago.

Its duty done, the spirit fades away, leaving a simple stone in Ferro’s hands. Bayaz investigates the stone and flies into a rage. This is not the Seed, he rages, but a trick of Kanedias to keep the power for himself. Quai seems shaken by the news. Ferro is angry for her lost vengeance. Logen is resigned to life’s vagaries. Jezal is confused. Bayaz declares the journey a failure and stomps back to the boat, pulling the rest of them in his gravity.

Back aboard the boat Logen and Ferro confront their future. Will they depart together or go their separate ways? Neither is capable of making the first move and rather than take what pleasure they can in one another, they turn to bitterness and drive each other away. Hope is for the weak.

Important Characters Introduced: None. Although I feel like the spirit holding the Seed should be important. But there’s no evidence to suggest who it might be.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

The sad fact was, she was about the best thing he’d had in his life for a long time. He puffed his cheeks out and scratched his head. That didn’t say much for his life, now he thought about it.

Logen’s honesty is the highlight of this book. He’s so damn self-aware. From a writing technique standpoint it’s a brilliant device to make a traditionally unlikeable character type incredibly compelling and sympathetic.

‘I’ll go where you go,’ she could have said, and who would have been worse off? No one. Certainly not her. But Ferro did not have it in her to put herself in his power like that. Now it came to the test there was an invisible wall between them. One that there was no crossing… The Gurkish had killed that part of her, far away, and long ago, and left her dead inside.

I really like the line ‘did not have it in her to put herself in his power’. Why? Because it’s the kind of line you never see in old school epic fantasy. Women have always been objects of conquest for male heroes or motivations for their heroism.

Ferro is neither of those things. Abercrombie recognizes the power dynamics between Logen and Ferro and acknowledges her unwillingness to participate in them. Abercrombie doesn’t get everything (or even a lot of things) right when it comes to this stuff, but that line seems to me to be one of his better ones.

Analysis: ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!? I had complete forgotten how absolutely anti-climactic and soul sucking this chapter is. A quest to the ends of the earth! This buildup of Logen’s spirit talking and Ferro’s devil blood and Bayaz’ holy war against Khalul and his bastard Eaters! And this is the result? Ferro is holding an inert rock with no powers. The entire quest accomplished nothing, but establishing the fact that Logen and Ferro have fucked up relationship skills, Quai is a little crazy, Bayaz is really not a benevolent dude, and Jezal is growing up before our eyes. I’m not saying those things aren’t significant, but couldn’t we have gotten there with, I don’t know, an actual resolution of some kind?

I know this is a middle book. I know it’s all about turning expectations on their head. But, this is a bridge too far. This chapter basically says to the reader, “HAHA!” It’s like Joe Abercrombie just became Nelson from the Simpsons taking away Bart’s skateboard. God damn it Lord Grimdark, I want my skateboard! But, let’s not belabor the point.

Otherwise, in this chapter, the biggest reveal is that Bayaz can’t get the seed without both Logen and Ferro. He has the staff, which is the key to unlocking the spirit’s orders, but given his inability to commune with the spirit or hold the Seed should be a big huge glowing neon sign tip-off that this dude has no business actually obtaining the most powerful relic the world has ever seen. Right? Regardless of whether he was Juvens’ best man or not, it’s clear to me Juvens never intended him to have access to this power. Why is no one else in the story noticing this?

And, oh God, Logen. Ferro. I can’t even. If I were Mark Oshiro this post would just be one long wet hard cry. I want Logen and Ferro to make it work so badly. Don’t you? THEY DESERVE TO LOVE. WHY CAN’T THEY JUST BE HAPPY, JOE! You’re evil. Evil.

Also, the only bright side to this entire part of the novel (meaning the quest) is that Jezal is a whole lot more interesting now. Maybe all that training Bayaz gave him about being a leader will come in handy. We’re a bit short on leadership as it were.


“Back to the Mud”

Summary: Dogman and Dow, Tul and Grim, West and Pike, stand around the graves of Cathil and Threetrees. For the Dogman the graves represent two failures: one for the future and one from the past. Cathil was a hope for happiness, and Threetrees the hope he could be a better man.

Through the trees Shivers and his Carls mourn their dead too, twelve in the earth already and three wounded and likely to die.

With Pike unwilling to speak the words for Cathil, Dogman remembers her as a girl none of them knew well, but who was tough and strong and someone he wished he had the chance to know better. Overcome with emotion, Dogman cannot speak for Threetrees. Nor can Tul or Dow who seem lessened with their chief’s death. To the surprise of all, Grimm steps forward to speak the words.

With the funerals complete, Shivers approaches the group and asks for a new chief. Dow’s anger rises again, but Shivers forestalls him. They need a leader. Dogman looks to Tul and Dow, two big men, hard names, both leaders. He’d follow either. Tul glares at Dow and says, ‘I can’t follow him and he won’t follow me.’ Dow agrees and declares that Dogman will be chief. His name is as big as any. Grim agrees and Shivers seems pleased.

Only Dogman seems stunned. He waits for the laughter to start. Stupidest idea he’d ever heard. None comes. Sure Dogman isn’t the hardest killer, but he’s smart and the best scout alive. Dogman kneels down and touches the graves beneath him. He wishes them farewell and promises to do the best he can.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

It was a bad day for men, all in all, and a good one for the ground. Always the way, after a battle. Only the ground wins.

All of Dogman’s chapters have this weariness to them about war. And yet, he can’t escape it either. Maybe when he was following Logen, to whom he owed his life, it made sense. Maybe when Rudd Threetrees, a man he idolized, led him, it made sense. But, now? Well, I guess it’ll be because men are depending on him to lead them. That’ll make you melancholy.

‘Rudd Threetrees,’ he said, looking round at ’em one by one. ‘Rock of Uffrith, they called him. No bigger name in all the North. Great fighter. Great leader. Great friend. Lifetime o’ battles. Stood face to face with the Bloody-Nine, then shoulder to shoulder with him. Never took an easy path, if he thought it was the wrong one. Never stepped back from a fight, if he thought it had to be done. I stood with him, walked with him, fought with him, ten years, all over the North.’ His face broke out in a smile. ‘I’ve no complaints.’


Analysis: What is there to talk about here that the quote above about Threetrees doesn’t already say? Threetrees was one of the few people of actual honest to goodness integrity in the book and now he’s gone. Dogman replaces him, but can he be the same kind of leader? Is he strong and honest and willing to sacrifice himself to do what he believes is right? I’m skeptical and so is the Dogman. Nevertheless, who else could it be? Oddly, watching Shivers interact with the hard names of Logen’s old crew, I can’t help but think he might be the best suited to lead them.

For those of us who have read the entirety of Abercrombie’s catalog we know that there is a great deal of potential in him. How might things have changed if he embraced a leadership role here? Would Dow and Tul have followed him? Could he have continued to lead his own Carls separate for Dogman? Knowing the path he takes, I weep for lost opportunities.

This is one of my favorite chapters for Dow. We know Black Dow is the blackest soul there is, but he is genuinely hurt by Threetrees passing in a way that he wasn’t with Logen’s. I suspect it’s because Dow and Logen share a lot of commonality. They both have a thing inside them that makes them thirst for blood and violence and chaos. Threetrees was all that was good in Dow’s eyes. He wasn’t someone Dow feared, but someone he respected.

I think he chooses Dogman to lead, in part, because he hopes he can find that same respect in the Dogman. And yet, we’ve seen little from Dogman to suggest that he’s got the chutzpah to stand toe to toe with Dow and compel his obedience. Threetrees could. Logen could. That lack will be telling, I believe.

Next Week: So concludes the second book of the First Law Trilogy. Now we begin The Last Argument of Kings, in which, hopefully, things don’t end with ‘it was all for nothing!’

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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