Nearly one year ago I reviewed the second book in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, Before They Are Hanged, calling the writing misogynist. I more or less expected no one to pay attention to my blatherings on the internet, but Mr. Abercrombie wrote up a response. If he hadn’t, I doubt anyone would have noticed. I’ve just now finished the last book in the First Law trilogy, and my feelings about Abercrombie’s writing are just that much more solidified. He’s a talented, engrossing writer, who really pisses me off in how his writing treats women.
For those who don’t like being spoiled, run away now. I may liberally spoil this book and will start revealing plot details of the previous books in the series next paragraph.
At the end of the previous book, a mismatched band of questers returned to Adua, the capital of the Union, having failed to retrieve the Seed at the far end of the world. In the north the Union battles with Bethod, King of the Northmen. And in the south the Gurkish empire prepares to invade. The King is old and frail and has no heirs.
There are essentially three major plots in this book. The war against Bethod in the north is the first. Thought dead by the Northmen since near the beginning of the first book, Logen Ninefingers returns from the quest to join the fight. The plan is to head up a narrow valley to a fortress in the hills, luring Bethod behind them. Then, after a period the Union forces will follow Bethod and squeeze him between the two. The plan goes awry though when Lord Marshal Burr (head of the Union army) dies, and the two generals in charge let their rivalry prevent them from finishing Burr’s plan.
Plot two is a whole bunch of smaller plots. It’s all the politicking and backstabbing going on in the capital leading up to the death (by old age possibly) of the King. The Inquisition led by Arch Lector Sult is opposed by High Justice Marovia. The various lords contend with each other. The Magus Bayaz has his fingers in everything. Most of this plotting goes on around Superior Sand dan Glokta, who I thought was the most interesting character. He’s part of the Inquisition, the institution that investigates threats against the King and the empire. It’s just what you might think it is. Torture. Confessions. Witchhunts. Etc. The point is not really to find the truth, but rather to keep an iron hand on the empire’s subjects when necessary.
In the middle, the King dies and the Bayaz’ machinations put Jezal dan Luthar into the throne. He’s the fop who went on the quest with Bayaz, along with Ferro Maljinn, Logen Ninefingers, and a couple others. In other words, he’s now a puppet king for Bayaz.
The last major plot is the conflict between Bayaz and … the bad wizard of the south whose name I forget which I’m not going to bother to try to find. See, Mr. Bad Wizard has engineered the Gurkish empire to invade the Union so his Hundred Words (minions who have broken the First Law and so can’t be killed) can get their hands on Bayaz.
To spoil it all, Collem West (the intrepid Colonel from the previous books) becomes Lord Marshal just in time to save the Northmen from Bethod. Then they all head back to Adua to fight the invading Gurkish. Glokta is torn between allegiance to Sult (who wants Jezal out of the king’s throne) and bankers to whom he owes money (who want Jezal as king for stability) but decides to go against Sult in the end. Jezal isn’t much of a king at first, but starts to assert his authority against Bayaz and others. The army returns just in time to route the Gurkish, Bayaz stumbles on the Seed and uses it to destroy the Hundred Words, and the Union is preserved.
And then there’s 90+ pages of wrap-up. Which is where I got well and truly pissed off. Throughout the book, again there are only three female characters who get much print. Ferro Maljinn plays mostly a bit part this time around. Ardee West by now is a drunk and bitter woman who carries on an affair with the soon to be king Jezal. And lastly we meet Queen Terez about halfway through, an arranged marriage to cement an alliance between Jezal and the subject kingdom Styria. She doesn’t much like Jezal, but she’s a dutiful daughter. After the wedding though, she can barely stand to be in the same room with her husband.
What pissed me off is the plot in the wrap-up where Glokta engineers the rape of the Queen. Glokta is at this point now the Arch Lector of the Inquisition. No heir means succession problems, so Glokta throws Terez’ lesbian lover into the prison to get Terez to fuck her husband and produce an heir.
Oh, it fits with the story all right. No one escapes unscathed from Abercrombie’s story. Glokta is a heartless bastard. The point was already driven home many many times to the point it was almost monotonous.
I’m in pain. I’m a cripple. I don’t give a shit what happens to others cause of what happened to me! Over and over and over again Glokta does truly despicable things. Topping it off with rape. I fail to see what that added on top of everything else. It seemed particularly gratuitous. Particularly with the following paragraph:
Glokta found that he was almost smiling as he watched the ugly scene. I may be crippled, and hideous, and in constant pain, but the humiliation of beautiful women is one pleasure I can still enjoy. I do it now with threats and violence, instead of with soft words and entreaties, but still. Almost as much fun as it ever was.
Glokta isn’t portrayed as a hero. But he is portrayed as necessary for the preservation of order. I get that Abercrombie is trying to create a ruthless world of grey, where no one is good, where everyone has huge character faults. He took it one step too far for me.
Which is a shame, because Abercrombie is a really good writer. His characters are different. He got me to understand the characters’ motivations like few writers have been able to. Less unique perhaps, but no less talented for it, is his ability to put together an extremely complex plot where everything makes sense. I hope his skill isn’t tied only to worlds of extreme violence and, I’ll put to electrons again, misogyny. Because I won’t be reading any more of his books set in this world, nor any where he uses the same schtick. The writing may be good, but it goes against my morals. No Best Served Cold for me.
A few other blogged reviews:
Title: Last Argument of Kings
Author: Joe Abercrombie
Series: The First Law; 3
Imprint / publisher: Pyr / Prometheus
Length: 636 p.
Publication date: August 2008