April 29, 2008
Book Review: Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
* Genre: Epic fantasy
* ISBN: 1591026415
* ISBN-13: 9781591026419
* Format: Paperback, 448pp
* Publisher: PYR
* Pub. Date: March 2008
* Series: First Law Trilogy
Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he writes good fiction. Joe Abercrombie’s second novel in the First Law trilogy, Before They Are Hanged, continues the black humor and sardonic wit of his debut novel The Blade Itself.
In this second novel, the reader continues the stories of Glokta, Logen, Luthar, Ferro, West and Bayaz. Glokta has been sent to the far edges of empire to try and save a remote but important colony from being overrun by the Gurkish, a competing empire. Logen, Luthar, Bayaz, Ferro and several others are searching for the mythical Seed, a portion of the spirit world made real and solid in their own. West has been sent to the front lines in Angland to try and prevent its conquest by Bethod’s barbarian tribes.
These three stories move along apace, each separate from the other, but in some way connected that the author understands, but the reader has yet to. Before They Are Hanged will provide no answers, only more questions. Some of the events surprised me as a reader they would go one way when I expected quite another. Since this is a middle book in a planned trilogy, a few questions are answered (particularly about Bayaz’s history) although many more are created, and the final scene defied tradition by not wrapping up the narrative into a neat bundle for the next book. It leaves us still at loose ends, craving the next volume.
Say another thing for Joe Abercrombie, say he is funny. His twists on traditional fantasy tropes continue to entertain. Glokta continues to be my favorite character. His self deprecation and black humor (his personal thoughts are side splittingly funny) make his portion of the narrative Abercrombie’s strongest and finest. Logen is funny too. In his realistic and pragmatic view of the world, he is becoming less and less the traditional barbarian hero and more and more the world weary hero, desiring only to fight no more. By plumbing the depths of the characters, Abercrombie finds opposing aspects to our traditional understanding of the evil or good characters and brings them into the light in a humorous way.
The narrative surrounding Logen Ninefingers, Ferro, Bayaz and Luthar was perhaps the dullest. The companions are traveling across the world to seek the stone, and while Abercrombie does not dwell on their travel, most of the action sequences seem to be thrown in just to hold the reader’s interest, rather than being necessary to the plot. As well, what seems to be an interesting plot development between Ferro and Logen fizzles out by the end of the book, and what first appeared to be an attempt by Abercrombie to create strife between the companions turns out to do nothing other than allow an explicit sex scene.
West’s story is quite surprising. West is slowly transforming from the prim and proper soldier into a true hero, and the transformation takes a few unexpected turns. He develops relationships with the barbarians who are fighting against Bethod, and his discovery of nobility in them changes him profoundly from a good soldier to a great leader.
Say one more thing for Joe Abercrombie; say he is a master of character development. All of his characters change a lot over the course of the story. Although by the end of the novel, the characters seem to be back were they started at the beginning of the book in terms of action and sequence, their psyches have been developed, and significant changes have occurred in their reactions to events. The characters are never at a standstill, even if this book doesn’t seem to move the plot forward very much.
Although I know that Abercrombie continues to seek that all elusive ten of ten from reviewers, I have a couple of reasons not to give it to him for this novel. The first and most obvious is that I don’t use such a rating system for my reviews, so to do so know would really have little meaning. Secondly, Before They Are Hanged is a middle book by a debut author, and for this reviewer, if a writer cannot conclude his trilogy or series well, all that comes before might be fun to read, but will be forgotten by the reader. It is the epic conclusion that makes a series, and it will take a reading of Last Argument of Kings before such a determination can truly be made.
If you enjoyed Abercrombie’s first novel, then you will want to read this one. I don’t think Before They Are Hanged was quite as good as The Blade Itself although it still an entertaining read. Readers will need to read the first book in the series, as this is one of those trilogies that make no sense unless begun from the beginning. If you have been waiting to pick up this series, I recommend you don’t wait. Abercrombie’s debut trilogy (so far) is better than the work of many seasoned authors, and anyone widely read in the fantasy genre will enjoy his twisting of fantasy tropes. I continue to highly recommend The First Law Trilogy to all readers of fantasy, and many more readers besides. Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie; say his writing is worth the reading.