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Friday, March 28, 2008

"Before They Are Hanged" by Joe Abercrombie

Official Joe Abercrombie Website
Order “Before They Are HangedHERE
Read An Extract HERE
Read Reviews of “Before They Are Hanged” via A Dribble of Ink, Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review, OF Blog of the Fallen, Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist + SFFWorld
Read Interviews with Joe Abercrombie via Fantasy Book Critic + A Dribble of Ink

When I started Fantasy Book Critic in 2007, one of my main goals for the website was to show my appreciation for authors that I already knew and loved, but the blog was also an opportunity to discover new writers. One of my favorite discoveries last year was Joe Abercrombie whose debut novel “The Blade Itself” (Reviewed HERE) was one of the best books I read. And because the sequel has been out in the UK (Gollancz) since last March, all I’ve been hearing for over a year now is how much betterBefore They Are Hanged” is than its predecessor. Needless to say I couldn’t wait to get started on the second book in The First Law trilogy…

First, for those readers unfamiliar with the series, a brief recap: The First Law trilogy is Joe Abercrombie’s attempt at writing fantasy that both embraces conventional trappings…and skewers them. So in “The Blade Itself”, many characters are introduced that seem like walking clich├ęs—the powerful wizard (Bayaz), a barbaric warrior (Logen), the privileged swordsman who thinks only of himself (Jezal), the lower-class soldier who rises above his station (West), et cetera—but are actually much more than meets the eye such as Logen possessing unexpected intelligence—and a dark power, Major Collem West harboring a deadly rage, and the ruthless Inquisitor Glokta discovering a compassionate side. The plot meanwhile may establish such tired contrivances as a quest to retrieve a magical artifact and a civilized nation facing war from primitives to the north and an evil prophet from the south, but once again there are undercurrents, subtle as they may be, that diverges from the trodden path. Factor in Joe’s ability for writing clever and sardonic humor; the book’s unflinching portrayal of sex, violence and coarse language; and surprisingly perceptive insights on human nature, and is it any wonder that I loved “The Blade Itself” as much as I did :)

Unfortunately, “Before They Are Hanged” did not impress me as much and largely that’s a result of being a middle volume. In other words, not much happens in “Before They Are Hanged”. I mean the sequel follows three main storylines that pick up from the end of “The Blade Itself”—one finds Glokta reporting to Dagoska to root out a traitor and prevent the city from falling into the hands of the Gurkish despite limited finances, no reinforcements and little hope; another centers on Bayaz and his chosen comrades as they fully embark on their quest to the Edge of the World in search of the Seed; and the last deals with Collem West, now a Colonel, as he gets to babysit Prince Ladisla and five primitives (Dogman and company) as Midderland engages in war with the Northmen—but aside from a lot of character development, warfare, torture and other action, the book is mainly just setup. Glokta’s narrative is largely about the political power struggle that is taking place in Adua and the wide reach of the Valint & Balk bank; the war with Northland is establishing how unpredictable and dangerous an enemy Bethod is; and the quest gives new meaning to the phrase, “It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey.” :) In short, it just seems like all of the good stuff has been reserved for the final book in the trilogy. Sure, a major character dies, there are a few jaw-dropping moments, and what the heroes find at the end of their quest gave me quite a chuckle, but Bethod, Khalul the Prophet and his first apprentice Mamun have yet to show their faces; the Feared only makes a brief appearance as does the Bloody Nine and the unholy Eaters; the Practicals have a much smaller role this time around; and answers are few & far between.

Thankfully the characterization was even stronger than it was last time, so even though the story was disappointing, I still had a blast reading “Before They Are Hanged” and it all starts with Inquisitor Glokta. My personal favorite, Glokta once again steals the show and is just a fun character to read, partly because he’s such an interesting anti-hero and partly because of the way Joe writes the Inquisitor, specifically his amusing internal dialogue :) Not far behind in terms of entertainment was the interaction between Logen Ninefingers, Captain Jezal Luthar, Ferris Maljinn, the First of the Magi Bayaz, his apprentice Malacus Quai, and the Navigator Brother Longfoot, six completely different individuals who just don’t get along. In fact, their quest is not so much about finding the Seed as it is about character growth, particularly Jezal learning a lesson in humility, Logen trying to gain the trust & friendship of his comrades, and Ferris just learning to trust period…and maybe even getting a little romance on the side ;) Of the others, it was nice to learn more about Collem West—and to see his unexpected evolution—Dogman, and the aforementioned Ferris, but many of the supporting players like Quai, the Practicals, and most notably the villains, are still nothing more than caricatures. Aside from this little qualm however, Joe characterization has improved in nearly every area—the alternating point-of-views are better handled and show more balance, the individual voices are further distinguished, and the insights are even more profound.

As far as the rest of the book, worldbuilding is again understated, but that was done purposefully and not really an issue regardless. Writing-wise, the construction of the plot and the prose is definitely more competent than it was in “The Blade Itself”, and if anything, the humor and violence have been taken up a notch, but I felt the pacing was a bit relaxed at times. Other than that, “Before They Are Hanged” really comes down to two things: 1) characters and 2) the story. Of the former, Glokta, Logen Ninefingers and company are unquestionably the strength of the novel—and the trilogy as a whole so far—but the lackluster plot kept me from enjoying the sequel as much as I did “The Blade Itself”. Nevertheless, Joe Abercrombie is easily one of the more exciting new writers in fantasy today and with everything that was established in the first two volumes of The First Law trilogy, I have extremely high expectations for the “Last Argument of Kings”…


SQT said...

I haven't finished this yet and I think it's for some of the reasons you mentioned. It does have some middle-book syndrome. I feel like I am always waiting for Glotka's story to pick back up too.

There have been some interesting twists with Jezal though, and I think I like where that's going. I've gotta finish it to find out.

Robert said...

I thought both Jezal and West evolved in unexpected ways and it will be interesting to see what Joe does with them in the final book. Can't wait to see your review of "Before They Are Hanged" :)

Blue Gargantua said...

Me and my friends have been reading this. We thought the second book was generally better. Mainly because people finally *went* somewhere. Also, we all agreeded that as soon as [that character] gets hit with a mace, they improve 100%.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Very good review. I struggled a bit with Bloodheir for middle book syndrome, but I managed it the other day,and just got in a rare Friday review! :)

I keep meaning to get this book, but somehow, never do. Tsk.

Unknown said...

I'm at the library now and am going to get the first book. Based on your recommendation.

Also, will be getting The Edge of Darkness.

No pressure, Robert!

Hope you are well! chrisd/aspiemom

Kimberly Swan said...

Great gave me lots to consider. I haven't read this or the first in the trilogy, but I'd like to at some point. Maybe now I'll wait until the third is released and be able to read them one after the other. :)

Anonymous said...

I finished book 3 on Thursday and then gone on to reread the whole trilogy and appreciate the little details here and there that presage the big events of the last book.

Get The Last Argument of the Kings - it's not that expensive with free shipping at Book Depository - and enjoy...


Jebus said...

I loved the second even more than the first! I've ordered the third and am waiting, waiting, waiting for it... Hanged managed to push the story much further than Blade and I especially loved the ending.

I think I can safely call myself a major fan of his now and he'll be added to the list of authors whose books I buy straight away and almost always in hardcover.

ThRiNiDiR said...

Pretty thoughtfull review! But plot-wise we see things from different perspective (I can say that now, since I've managed to finish Last Argument of Kings yesterday which busts with plethora of activities)...what I want to say is; Before They Are Hanged manages to put more impact in everything that happens, if only because so little does indeed happen...Last Argument is filled with happening,and its not always as fleshed out as I would have liked.

Robert said...

Blue Gargantua, thanks for sharing and I agree with you about that one character and the incident with the mace!

Book Swede, it's definitely worth getting around to :)

Chris, I hope you enjoy both "On the Edge of Darkness" and "The Blade Itself". Just remember that they are two vastly different books ;)

Kimberly, that's a good plan :) The trilogy might come across better read as a whole...

Jebus, most people seem to like the second better so I'm not surprised. Feel free to let me know what you think of "Last Argument of Kings" though! I won't be reviewing it for a while...

Thrinidir, that's a very interesting viewpoint and something I'll have to keep in mind when I do finally read the last one...

Anonymous said...

Got "The Blade Itself" from the library.

I am really, really enjoying the character of Glotka. He's so multidimensional--terrific.

I'm concerned about the second one, after your review, but I think I'll get it. I'm kinda hooked now.

Good work as always, Robert.


Robert said...

Chris, I'm really glad you enjoyed "The Blade Itself" :) I wouldn't be concerned about the second book. Most readers--myself excluded--thought it was much better than the first one so that might be the case for you as well. And yes, Glokta is an amazing character!


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