Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Review: Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie


Building on his acclaimed debut, Joe Abercrombie’s sophomore effort, Before They Are Hanged, continues The First Law trilogy. Abercrombie utilizes the same tricks of The Blade Itself (review) by dancing a fine line between sticking to genre conventions and sticking it to genre clichés.

Before They Are Hanged follows the three primary story arcs that emerge from The Blade Itself. Inquisitor Glokta manages the siege of Dagoska and beyond through his sardonic internal dialogue. Colonel West and a small band of Northman struggle to survive the escalating war in the north. First Magi Bayaz leads his motley crew to the end of the world in search of a power to repel the rising menace of his age-old rival and the eaters of flesh that follow him.

As I indicated above, Abercrombie gives us more of the same with Before They Are Hanged – if you enjoyed The Blade Itself, then chances are high that you’ll enjoy Before They Are Hanged, if you didn’t enjoy The Blade Itself…well, you get the picture. I loved The Blade Itself and the often subtle (and often not) ways that Abercrombie plays with common fantasy tropes (all-knowing wizard, barbarian from the north, stuck-up nobleman, etc.) – he uses many of them, yet does so with a biting, satirical edge and seems to revel in taking the story in unexpected directions. Before They Are Hanged does all this (and more), but since this is the second book of the trilogy, the novelty of the approach has worn off. With the novelty gone, things almost become tiresome in places.

Characterization is where Abercrombie gets the loudest praise and deservedly so. We follow each of the story arcs through multiple points of view that give real insight into characters who feel authentic. Logen Ninefingers, the infamous barbarian from the north, expresses a soft side at odds with his appearance. Then in the next scene we see him in an insane, berserker rage, overtopping even the most stereotypical of northern barbarians. Glokta, the crippled torturer with internal dialogue to challenge Tyrion’s gold-standard of fantasy characters, actually grows a small heart that shows character growth both fitting and unexpected. These are but two of the best examples of Abercrombie’s gift with characters. Of course he can’t get it right all the time – Colonel West still seems unrealized and unconvincing in spite of Abercrombie’s effort to the contrary and I really hope that he has kept Ardee around for some reason, because I’m not buying it so far.

Plot is where Abercrombie usually earns his dings, and I have to agree again. We have a siege, a war in the north, and quest across a decayed empire. These plots are about as plain as I’ve described them (though events in the quest almost make up for the shortcomings). Without Abercrombie’s superior characterization and sardonic wit the plot would drag these books into obscurity instead of serving an adequate vehicle for what he’s really about.

The First Law trilogy is a single story told in three parts. Therefore it’s a bit unfair to attempt to judge Before They Are Hanged as a single book, rather than the middle section of a single story. I haven’t read Last Argument of Kings yet, but my impression at the moment is that Before They Are Hanged suffers a bit from the middle book syndrome. Still, the book is enjoyable and Abercrombie makes another assertion that he is an author to take notice of with Last Argument of Kings topping my list of anticipated reads. 7-7.5/10

Related Posts: The Blade Itself review, Review of Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie Answers Questions Five, Review of The First Law Trilogy, Review of Best Served Cold

10 comments:

Ed S. said...

This second book in the series is better than the first and certainly better than your lackluster review indicates. A very enjoyable read and a great accomplishment considering this is only the author's second book. It's not surprising that this book is making a lot of top ten lists for 2007 and at the very least it deserves a solid 8/10. The US paperback will be out end of March.

waterfowl said...

Neth, could you please refrain from giving YOUR opinion on YOUR blog? You're upsetting ed.

Larry said...

The review touches upon some of my concerns after my initial read of TBI, so it sounds as though my suspicions about Abercrombie's weaknesses may be correct. Thanks for elaborating on this, Ken.

Neth said...

-waterfowl, you say it so well, I don't think I need to add anything for ed. But I think I should mention that I've seen elsewhere that that the US publication of Before They Are Hanged is already shipping from Amazon (so it might be in stores already as well).

Larry, as I've said elsewhere, I'm looking forward to seeing your thoughts on these books.

waterfowl said...

I've also read that it is currently shipping. Amazon shows it in stock, or did yesterday. After reading your review, however, I think I'm going to delay getting it for now. I did enjoy the first book, but I can wait.

Last year saw a lot of praise heaped upon Abercrombie and Brian Ruckley for their debuts. I enjoyed both of their novels, but thought much of that praise would have been better given to Stephen Hunt's Court of the Air. (Which I suppose was not actually a debut, but I loved every minute of it.)

Neth said...

hmmm...I may look into Hunt's novel, which I'm not familiar with. It looks like Tor's releasing it in the US later this year.

waterfowl said...

I had forgotten I ordered that through Amazon Canada. If you're interested in reading it now, I can post it to you via media mail.

Drop me a note at waterfowl04 at gmail dot com if you're interested. I'd love to see the book get some positive pub stateside and do well when it is released. I know Hunt is working on a sequel, which I can't wait for.

Neth said...

I just requested an ARC from Tor, so I'll likely get a copy through another source. Thanks for the offer though - I'll keep it in mind if things don't work out.

waterfowl said...

Cheers. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. I'll look forward to a review.

Robert said...

"The Court of the Air" was close to being my favorite book released in 2007. As already pointed out, it's making its US debut this year, while the follow-up--which is more of a standalone novel set in the same universe rather than a direct sequel--is scheduled for publication on May 6, 2008 in the UK via Voyager. It's called "The Kingdom Beyond the Waves".

As far as "Before They Are Hanged", I'll be reading it sometime in March :)

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