The Joe Abercrombie First Law Trilogy Reread

Rereading Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy, Last Argument of Kings: “Leadership” and “A Rock and a Hard Place”

It looks like I grossly misread something in last week’s chapters. I find this as hard to believe as you do, but it appears it’s true. In “Greater Good”, I believed that Farrad, a dentist from Kanta, was the man who removed Glokta’s teeth during his Gurkish torture. This is incorrect. The text, although not as clearly as it might have, indicates that Farrad consulted on Glokta’s dental issues after returning to Adua. It changes the scene somewhat, I think. Credit to “Hogsta” who pointed out my error in the comments last week.

Now that I’m done admitting fallibility, on to this week’s reread.

“Leadership”

Summary: Jezal and Bayaz are led to the wall by Marshal Varuz. The Gurkish have arrived and the king must see it for himself. Varuz reports that the enemy is halfway to encircling the city and deploying their catapults that proved to devastating in Dagoska.

Near the gate, where Jezal once entered the city in triumph, is gathered a group of armed men and women, interspersed with some of the King’s Own and the city watch. All of them turn their eyes to Jezal. He tries to live up to it, sweeping his cape and acting the fool… er… king.

Atop the wall, the king sees what he’s up against, ten legions at least. Moving away from the main body is a small group, carrying a flag of parley. Among the negotiators is General Malzagurt, the man Varuz defeated in the last war. Next to him is Mamun, first apprentice to Khalul, who quarrels with Bayaz about conflicts long dead.

Jezal, sick of the magi arguing, demands terms from the General. Khalul demands they surrendederthe city to Adua to the Emperor. He will allow Jezal to retain the throne and his citizens to live in relative freedom. However, Bayaz must be turned over to Khalul. To refuse, is to bring down the wrath of the Empire on Midderland.

The king takes a moment to consider the request, but rejects it outright in anger over being manipulated once again by another man. He sends the Gurkish scurrying back to their lines, then addresses his people. During the speech, which he stumbles over from time to time, Bayaz sends practicals into the crowd to suppress dissenters. By the end, the crowd is cheering. Jezal has his support.

Into the silence, the Gurkish launch the first fireball into the Adua’s midst.

Important Characters Introduced: Mamun (a name we’ve heard before, but never seen)

Minor Characters Introduced: General Malzagurt

Quotes to Remember:

‘Some among my brothers thought that you would run, but I knew better. Khalul always said your pride would be the end of you, and here is the proof. It seems strange to me now, that I once thought you a great man. You look old, Bayaz. You have dwindled.’

‘…I have seen no sign in all my long life that God is the forgiving kind.’

Seeing Mamun, I find myself liking him more than Bayaz. What was your reaction? He seems reasonable and not impulsive. He seems calm and accepting. He is God fearing, something we typically associate with goodness. It’s all, generally, an interesting juxtaposition to the often angry and petulant Bayaz.

Fearlessness, as Logen Ninefingers had once observed, is a fool’s boast.

Isn’t it cute to see Jezal referring to Logen like we normally see Logen refer to his father? You have to be realistic, my daddy always said.

Analysis: Ok, so the Gurkish are all around, right? Where’s Nicomo Cosca? He’d certainly give us more comic relief atop the wall than grumbling Bayaz and grouchy Jezal. Speaking of Bayaz and Jezal, remember my theory about how Jezal is under some mental influence? I can’t help but observe it here again. The terms offered by the Gurkish are, in fact, very generous. Jezal gets to be king. His people are left alone. All he has to do is surrender Bayaz. But, he doesn’t. He makes a very strange mental leap, reacting negatively to this idea that everyone is trying to push and pull him in their direction.

How logical is this? There’s no question Jezal is egomaniacal. There’s no question he’s in over his head. But, he’s not stupid. This is a deal that a man who “fears”, as the last sentence of the chapter indicates Jezal does, should take. Nowhere in his rationalization of the refusal is the idea that the Gurkish won’t be true to their word. I find his reaction further evidence that Bayaz has some measure of mental influence on the king. He clouds his judgement. It’s either that or Jezal is a serious piece of shit.

What do we make of all this unspoken conflict between Khalul and Bayaz? We know some of it. Khalul broke the second law. Bayaz is pretty pissed about it. But, the root of the conflict is surely over the death of Juvens and the role Bayaz played, or didn’t play, in it. There is talk of betrayal in this chapter and old jealousies. Is the war that tears apart the Circle of the World really about two old men trying to seek redress for wrongs a thousand years old?

It sure seems to be.

 

“A Rock and a Hard Place”

Summary: Superior Glokta shakes with laughter as he reads a note from Valint and Balk, ordering him to step up his efforts to discover the nature of Arch Lector Sult’s plans. Glokta finds this so terribly funny given the fact that the Gurkish are likely to make them all dead before the month is out. They cannot even stop the infighting long enough to survive imminent war.

Outside, the smell of the burning city is palpable. When another flaming missile is launched, the citizens pause and look up in fear. Glokta is quite used to it already, reminded as he is of his time in Dagoska. Soon, he reaches his destination—the offices of High Justice Marovia. It is time to find his third suitor.

Marovia is surprised to see Glokta, particularly when he learns the Inquisitor is not here for the Arch Lector, but for himself. Glokta is here to ask for help. To explain, he tells the High Justice all the secrets he’s been hoarding, about his discoveries in the Guild of Mercers, about the aid he accepted in Dagoska, about the collar Valint and Balk placed around his neck, and, finally, about Sult’s desire to remove the King and Bayaz from power. He also admits that Valint and Balk won’t let Glokta carry out the Arch Lector’s orders, and, in fact, countermand them quite severely.

The High Justice considers Glokta’s position and finds it quite hopeless. He offers his aid only if Glokta can secure proof of Sult’s betrayal. Easy enough. Glokta laughs some more.

Important Characters Introduced: None.

Minor Characters Introduced: None.

Quotes to Remember:

Strange. However much pain we experience, we never become used to it. We always scramble to escape it. We never become resigned to more.

Doesn’t this quote feel a little bit like one of those lines Abercrombie had floating around in his head for years before he wrote this series? It feels like one of those ideas you can build an entire thematic thrust around.

‘It is my regrettable experience that powerful men can afford no friends.’

Such a stupid line. Should read: It is my condescending opinion that megalomaniac men can attract no friends because they are dickheads.

Analysis: I find the meeting between Glokta and Marovia to be very anti-climactic. The torturer has spent a huge part of the book dancing between these secrets, juggling them, trying to keep them from falling or being discovered. And here, in “A Rock and a Hard Place” he spills them all. Not only that, but the outcome of spilling those secrets is “meh, go find proof.” Glokta has made no progress in solving his problem here. He learned nothing new from Marovia, about his situation or Valint and Balk.

I feel like there’s a real pacing problem in here relative to Glokta’s detectiving. There are many questions to answer, but the answering of them is feeling a lot more like we’re waiting for Abercrombie to tell us, rather than watching Glokta discover them. It isn’t working for me. The only reason I don’t find Glokta’s chapters dreadfully boring is that he’s my favorite character. He’s clever and funny and dark, all of which give his scenes the leeway to sit in neutral.

As a side note, I absolutely adore the the in between scene in the chapter where Glokta is walking through the streets of Adua and finds himself knocked aside by a troop of soldiers. War has made the city far more fearful of the Gurkish than the Inquisition. It’s a delightful little moment that tells the reader so much about the situation. Deft scene setting by Abercrombie in my opinion.

 

Next Week: Jezal is, once again, emotionally eviscerated by his wife. Ferro returns to the action.

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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