The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Last Argument of Kings: “The Fourth Day” and “The Perfect Couple”

As you may have noticed, the reread went on a brief two week hiatus. Apologies! Things got a little crazy for me professionally and I simply couldn’t keep up. The good news is that we’re back now, and hopefully won’ t be rudely interrupted again as we race to the finish like in Last Argument of Kings and the entire First Law Trilogy.

Some long awaited events happen in today’s chapters. Well, one happens and the other almost happens, promising that it surely will in the coming days. For the former, Jezal gets married. For the second, Logen feels the Bloody Nine creeping up behind him. As it turns out, Jezal should dread the coming of his wife as much as Logen dreads the overpowering need to kill. Comforting, right?

“The Fourth Day”

Summary: Logen struggles on the battlements with an Easterner. It was like looking in a mirror. As close as lovers they struggle to kill one another, which Logen succeeds at when he punches a hole in his opponents gut with a knife. Not moments after he comes to grips with being alive, Logen spies one of Shivers’ men in need and rescues him. The pair set off to find more of Bethod’s men to send to the mud.

Dogman stands with the archers, defending the gate against Bethod’s men who would spend their lives to break it open. With the rain mucking up their strings and fletchings, it’s a miracle they can stave off the inevitable. But the wall is another matter, and it’s Logen and Dow and Shivers who will hold it. The Dogman can only control what he can control.

Back at the wall Logen continues to fend off the assault. As he dispatches the enemies in his face, he spies Shivers fending off three assailants at once, with little hope of success. Pausing but a moment to consider whether he would be better off with Shivers dear, Logen races his to his aid. They fight back to back, losing ground and gaining ground in equal parts. Bethod’s men begin to get the best of Logen and Shivers and Logen feels his body go cold. He knows what’s coming and fears it. Just as the Bloody-Nine is about to surface, Crummock joins the fight and ends the fight. Logen fights down his alter-ego with great effort.

In camp that night, the wall successfully defended for a fourth day, Logen and Dogman can’t help but wonder what’s become of the Union. Shivers approaches them. Dogman leaves the two alone but not without subtle warnings that violence won’t be tolerated. Once they’re alone, Shivers thanks Logen for saving him. He would not have done the same and wonders why Logen did. Logen admits he did it because he’s trying to be a better man. Shivers boggles at how hard life can be when there’s no such thing as good and evil.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

Devils, in a cold, wet, bloody hell. Four days of it, now, and it felt as if he’d been there forever. As if he’d never left. Perhaps he never had.

An interesting use of the word hell. Not the ‘Other Side’ where devils come from, but rather a seemingly out of place reference to something in our culture, not necessarily in Logen’s. A case of mistaken word choice or a hint at something else?

That cold feeling spread out, up through Logen’s face, tugging his mouth into a bloody smile.

The mechanism of Logen’s transformation really interests me. Here we see him fight it off. He’s aware of the transition taking place and can ’win’ over it. This seems very unusual to me for someone with a mental health condition. I think this lends further evidence to my ’external force’ theory.

Analysis: If there’s a theme to the First Law Trilogy, it is rarely ever discussed more overtly than it is here between Logen and Shivers. We know that Logen murdered Shivers’ brother in single combat at some point in the past, on Bethod’s orders. We know that Logen has prepared himself for a knife in the back ever since Shivers showed up. We know that this is the way of life in the North. It comes as some surprise then when not only does Logen save Shivers’ life, but does it because it’s the right thing to do. What’s even more surprising, maybe, is Shivers’ reaction, which is essentially, “wtf?”

As Shivers and Logen interact, we get this classic back and forth. Shivers asks why. Logen says because he’s trying to be a better man. Shivers responds that its quite hard to get through life when there’s not such thing as good or bad. Logen agrees. There, right there, is Abercrombie’s theme and principal criticism of the epic fantasy as the means to represent human interactions. Evil is a perspective.

Logen is represented to us, the readers, as a man of integrity who kills only when has to. But we come to realize pretty quickly this is not the Logen the rest of the world sees. They see a butcher. Someone who murders for its own sake. They have not the time nor inclination to forget his past for the man he’s trying to become. And can we blame them? We like Logen and sympathize with him because of the information that Abercrombie controls.

Doesn’t that puts Shivers in an interesting light? If there’s anyone here who is genuinely the ’good man’, isn’t it him? He’s able to overcome all of this prejudice against the evil version of Logen and recognize that maybe he’s changed. And further, he recognizes that a world which puts people in boxes of good and evil is inherently silly. And isn’t that the entire point of the First Law Trilogy?

It is, at the very least, a signifcant part of it.

 

“The Perfect Couple”

Summary: Jezal stands around like a piece of furniture as his footmen dress him. Bayaz fusses with Jezal’s buttons, angering the overmatched king who is suffering from a not insignificant amount of nerves about his imminent marriage. He’s coming to learn that as King he has even less power than he did as a lay about noble military man.

As Jezal prepares, so do Glokta and Ardee who will attend the wedding together—the cripple and the drunk. Glokta tries to convince her not to go, but Ardee insists. She seems to have a strong desire to torture herself.

Jezal stands on the pier watching Grand Duke Orso’s flagship deliver his daughter. Clearly a ship of war, it carries only Princess Terez and her entourage. When the King lays eyes on his bride he sees the most beautiful creature he has ever seen. He his nervous as she approaches and the pair of them adjourn to a carriage together. As they ride through the city, Jezal attempts to make small talk, which Terez rebuffs kindly. She suggests he wave.

In the Lord’s Round, Glokta and Ardee prepare to watch the marriage of the Union’s King. The pair exchange hurtful, but somehow flirtatious barbs, before Glokta realizes that the hands that torture men have no place touching a woman.

Below them, the King is married and the banquet begins. At the table, Jezal attempt to engage his bride in conversation, but fails utterly. Finally they dance together, where for the first time he feels her thawing. She dances beautifully, aggressively, even to the point that Jezal finds himself warming to the evening.

After, back in the King’s rooms, Jezal approaches Terez to consummate their marriage. Rather than welcome him to her bed, she knees him in the fruits and stomps off. It seems whatever sense of duty the Princess of Talins felt toward Jezal and the Union ends once they leave the public eye.

Important Characters Introduced: Terez (we’ve seen her before, but this is really when she gets a character)

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

He was gradually starting to realise that the more powerful a man he became, the fewer choices he really had.

This is sort of a common trope, right? The powerful man realizes his life is no longer really his own and he actually has less choices than those beneath him. Woe is me! Pity my wealth! Meh.

There’s nothing like the company of someone even more wretched than yourself to make you feel better. Trouble is, take their misery away and your own presses in twice as cold and dreary behind it.

Isn’t that concept basically the entirety of how Glokta and Ardee interact with the world? Harsh.

Analysis: Carrying on the idea that this week’s chapters are speaking to some larger theme that Abercrombie has developed throughout the series, I would argue “The Perfect Couple” does as well. Where “The Fourth Day” was talking about notions of good and evil, this one is about the concept of justice, or destiny, or karma. In epic fantasy there’s is something inherently unmeritocratic. The pig farmer becomes King because he is destined for it, not because he is the best candidate. Ideas of true love abound.

In “The Perfect Couple” we see our characters get none of these things. In fact, they get exactly what they deserve. Where in most epic fantasy everyone gets what they want, almost no one gets what they deserve. Jezal has done nothing to warrant being king. Why should he be rewarded with a good, loving marriage? Glokta is full of vainglory and tortures for a living. Ardee is a drunk and full of anger. What do these people deserve? Well, they probably deserve to be quite unhappy. Abercrombie is delighted to oblige.

As for the actually happenings in the chapter, does anyone else find Terez’s willingness to disregard Jezal strange? Surely her father knew her feelings and sent her regardless. Is she here on some mission beyond sealing an alliance? Or is she merely acting out? She seems far too capable to me to be doing anything impulsively. I feel like there’s a plan at work to undermine Jezal. Of course, for all we know, it’s all part of Bayaz’s long game.

 

Next Week: We skip ahead three days in the North, while Glokta gets summoned by Valint and Balk.


Justin Landon used to run Staffer’s Book Review. Now he kinda blogs at justlandon.com. 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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