The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Last Argument of Kings: “Greater Good” and “Skarling’s Chair”

Hi. Remember me? It’s been two months since my last post. There’s reasons for that, most of which I won’t go into except to say two straight years of writing about Joe Abercrombie every week is harder than it looks. Not that there’s any shortage of things to say, of course, but two years of writing on a subject is the equivalent of running a marathon. I needed to take a knee for a few weeks to replenish my batteries. Apologies to my (er… Abercrombie’s?) fans.

During my hibernation, there’s been some significant Abercrombie news. First, his new book Half a War came out. I reviewed it. Let me tell you something, there’s nothing “not Abercrombie” about this new series. It’s just as dynamic and gut wrenching and authentic as any of his previous work. Combine that with a slightly different aesthetic and you’ve got one of the finest epic fantasy series I’ve read. Again. Check it out.

Second, the First Law Trilogy, on which this entire reread is based, will be released in the United States under a new publisher on September 8. That’s right, Orbit Books, who has been publishing Abercrombie’s standalone Circle of the World novels, now owns the rights to his debut trilogy as well. The news covers are swell and should fit nicely next to the trade paperback editions of Orbit’s other Abercrombie books.

Third, Abercrombie has filed a restraining order against me. OK, not really. Yet. It could still happen.

On to this week’s reread!


“Greater Good”

Summary: Sand dan Glokta sits in his torture room, eliciting confessions from Gurkish sympathizers. His latest victim, out of sheer coincidence, is Farrad, the man who pulled Glokta’s teeth in a Gurkish prison. Now a dentist in Adua, he’s been named by other self-confessed Kantic prisoners as conspiring with the Union’s enemies. Farrad is incredulous. He hates the Gurkish as much as anyone for forcing him to do the things he did to Glokta and others.

Farrad is asked to confess and name three others. He refuses. Glokta forces his mouth open and threatens to pull his teeth. After some maneuvering, but not violence, Glokta manages to extract a confession. As Farrad leaves the room, his eminince Arch Lector Sult takes his place. He has questions of his own for the torturer.

With Practical Frost dismissed, Sult gets into Glokta regarding High Justice Marovia’s pawns—the so-called first of the Magi and the so-called King. Under orders from Valint and Balk to discotinue his line of questioning, Glokta has little to report. Sult is not well pleased.

After, Glokta finds himself at the home of Ardee West. He wants her to leave the city before the Gurkish arrive. Ardee isn’t going to leave. She has nowhere to go. Glokta relents, and instead asks her how she would manage two rich and powerful suitors. She argues a strategy of finding a third man, still more powerful and rich to destroy the other two.

Glokta quite likes the idea.

Important Characters Introduced: Let’s be honest, there probably aren’t going to be a lot of entries in this section from here on out.

Minor Characters Introduced: Or really here, for that matter.

Quotes to Remember:

‘After what they did to me, how could I do anything else?’

It’s true. It reminds me of how we handle criminal justice in the United States: Someone who is a convicted felon is functionally ostracized from society. It’s one of the reasons our recidivism rate is so high. What other place could Glokta make for himself after having his body and mind and emotional well being destroyed in a torture chamber?

‘I applaud your cleanliness. It’s a rare privilege to question a man who appreciate the importance of washing the mouth out. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a better set of teeth.’

I just found this funny. I think my moral compass is becoming misaligned thanks to Abercrombie.

Analysis: I’m starting to come around to the idea that many of Glokta’s chapters function almost as “breathers.” He’s acerbic. He has this distinctive voice. There’s lots of talking and dialogue with characters who aren’t actually plot movers. The entire first half of this chapter is a set-piece, in which Glokta confronts one of his torturers and then toys with him. It has little to do with the plot, if at all, but it’s a delightful little piece of self-indulgence by Abercrombie that cements Sand dan Glokta as this iconic character. He is the Tyrion or Mat Cauthon, who we would read about going to the grocery store because they’re so much fun to read, even when they’re doing awful things. Isn’t it strange that the most likable character in the series in a torturer? Love it.

Once we get to the meat of the chapter, where Sult confronts Glokta about his unsuccessful inquiries into Bayaz, things start to become clear. It seems to me that Sult isn’t just fishing; he’s getting information somewhere. Is it just Goyle feeding him misinformation? Or is Sult hearing from Valint and Balk directly? Or has Carlot dan Eider started singing like a canary in exchange for her life? I wonder.

What really gets to me, though, is that we have no idea what Sult is up to the university. What is he chasing? He acts so convinced that Bayaz isn’t real, that magic isn’t real. What else could he be searching for in the university but some kind of relic of the past? Or is he merely looking for proof of Bayaz’s lies?  It’s easy to assume that Sult is a bumbling idiot, since we only see him through Glokta’s point of view, but is that the case? Or is he playing a game that we’ve just not been privy to?

We’ll find out soon. There simply isn’t that much left in the First Law Trilogy.

As for the Ardee West section. Eh. It’s reminiscent of what we’ve seen between these two already. They are of a feather, and they’re starting to flock together. They have a devious connection, despite the fact that there’s little sense of attraction between them. Wouldn’t it be nice for someone to find a little happiness when this is all said and done?


“Skarling’s Chair”

Summary: Logen laments that soon he will leave the North again to honor his promise to Marshal West. He will make war with the Gurkish because he gave his word. Inside Bethod’s throne room, Logen looks at Skarling’s Chair, the last man to draw the North together before Bethod. Dow walks into the throne room and asks Logen if he’ll sit the throne. Although Logen has named himself King of the North, he’s no Bethod. Dow wonders.

With Logen frowning, Crummock enters, with Dogman and Grim at his shoulder. They ask what’s next. Logen says south, but recognizes they need to go after Bethod’s sons who are sure to stir up trouble untended. Dow volunteers to hunt them. Dogmam wonders which of the men will go south with Logen. He offers up Bethod’s treasury, a full share for each man who helps Logen keep his word.

Logen asks Crummock if he’s coming south. The big man says no; he has his own affairs to tend to. He embraces Logen and whispers in his ear: He knows Logen killed his son and he’ll let it go, he has others, but if Logen comes into the High Places again, he won’t leave alive.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

‘What else can you do, but try and do better?’

This quote seems somewhat prescient with regard to today’s Internet environment. It’s just a great life lesson. Instead of trying to justify why you did something wrong, make a effort to improve next time. If only everyone lived their life that way. After all, when you’re wondering how to react to something, just ask, What would Logen do? WWLD!

‘You killed my son, that’s true, but I’ve got plenty more. You have to weed the weak ones out, don’t you know? The weak and the unlucky. You don’t put a wolf amongst your sheep then cry when you find one eaten, do you?

This pretty much encapsulates the crapsack nature of the Circle of the World, doesn’t it? Although, there’s something excessively sentimental about crazy Crummock actually telling Logen that what he did wasn’t OK even if it may have been necessary. Or, again, this book is totally screwing with my moral compass. I’m open to that.

Analysis: I spent pretty much this entire chapter doing the Darth Vader “Noooooooooooo!” Don’t leave Black Dow behind, Logen! Don’t do it! He’s evil! But, what can we do, huh? There’s been a substantial amount of subtle foreshadowing for quite some time here, I think. Black Dow isn’t interested in being part of Logen’s crew anymore, either because Logen isn’t black enough or Dow knows that his ticket will get punched sooner or later, just as Tul Duru’s did, by the Bloody-Nine. Regardless, letting Dow get out of his sight is a terrible, terrible idea.

While I find the Dow stuff interesting, the more fascinating aspect to this chapter happens in just a few lines between the Dogman and Logen. Dogman asks Logen, “What now?” Logen responds, “South, I reckon.” After some back-and-forth, Dogman asks, “Why?” Logen can only say, because he gave his word. And the Dogman’s only response is to lock gazes and find out what’s changed in Logen that would have him keep his word now when for so long he hasn’t. I quote Logen’s response above, but not the Dogman’s own reaction, which is to agree to follow Logen, but to do so while holding his eyes. There’s either a challenge in that, accepting Logen’s leadership even though Dogman believes it the wrong choice, or a recognition that Logen is a changed man, someone Dogman is proud to follow.

Either way, Dogman and Grim accept the choice without dissent. There’s some subtext buried here. When we get Abercrombie here for the Q&A, asking Dogman’s state of mind here is at the top of my list.


Next Week: Jezal goes to war. Glokta gets squeezed.

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