Friday, May 30, 2008

Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

Before They Are Hanged
Joe Abercrombie
Pyr: 2008

Before They Are Hanged is the second volume in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law sequence and follows his debut novel The Blade Itself. Abercrombie picks up the various character threads left hanging from the first book. Inquisitor Glotka has been named Superior of Dagoska and is tasked with finding what happened to the previous Superior while also protecting the city from the expected siege it is about to sustain. The Northman Logan Ninefingers travels with the First Wizard Bayaz, the preening and untested swordsman Jezal, an angry warrior woman from the South, Ferro, and a couple of others. Logan and company seek a treasure from antiquity on behalf of Bayaz, some talisman which will change the tide of history. Colonel West joins the armies fighting the incursion from the North.

As the middle book in a trilogy, Before They Are Hanged only makes sense if viewed in light of The Blade Itself. Any cursory overview of the novel’s plot will sound old and well used, but if one has read The Blade Itself and enjoyed The Blade Itself, there is a great deal of excitement to be found in what happens to the various characters of Before They Are Hanged.

What I once considered to be something called Middle Book Syndrome I now believe to be a combination of two things which affect how readers view the second book in a trilogy. The first volume is new, it is fresh. It is our first glimpse into a strange new world with (hopefully) exciting new characters. It is the first taste and it is delicious. We then wait a number of months or years to read the new volume, the second volume. The craftsmanship of the author has hopefully improved from Book 1 to Book 2, but often enough the second volume doesn’t taste quite as good even though it was better prepared. We’ve met all these characters before. It isn’t fresh. The second thing that affects this perspective of a second book is that we have not yet been given the ultimate resolution of the trilogy. Book Two should advance plotlines, further develop characters, but seldom is there that fully satisfying conclusion because that’s what we will have in Book Three. So, we get what is called Middle Book Syndrome with question of whether or not the novel was filler and could have been better told.

I think that Joe Abercrombie escapes this sense of Middle Book Syndrome with Before They Are Hanged. Yeah, some of the shiny newness has worn off the characters. We’ve met Glotka and Jezal and Logen before, and yeah, they don’t do too much we don’t see coming. Yet, character development does happen and I think it occurs in a realistic manner. We can guess how Jezal is going to change because he starts as an arrogant young pup and he is on his first adventure with men (and woman, though Ferro is almost more masculine than the guys). He has to change and he is likely to change in a particular way. Glotka and Logen are men grown and men formed, so even as there are chinks in their armor, they ultimately remain true to themselves. The success here is that Abercrombie has drawn out these fascinating characters. No matter what they are doing, we want more of Glotka, the crippled torturer. We want more of Logen Ninefingers and his berserker rage. We may not necessarily want more of Jezal, but we get that, too (but less of Jezal than we have in The Blade Itself). Abercrombie delivers when he writes such clearly defined characters. There may be a sense that these are stock characters, more archetype than wholly original, but Abercrombie writes them so damn well that I’m not sure I really care.

What happens is of importance to the story and our enjoyment of it, but it is not quite important enough to attempt to give an overview of. There is political intrigue with Sand dan Glotka taking over the city, there is questing with the motley crew searching for a stone at the Edge of the World, and there are battles and incompetence in the Colonel West storyline. Topping 500 pages Before They Are Hanged feels short, as if another 200 pages would help create a fully satisfying reading experience.

The only true negative I have for Before They Are Hanged is simply that I know the story isn’t over yet. Abercrombie provides closure on the direct storylines begun in this novel, but there is an overarching story that we know isn’t complete even while we don’t know exactly where Abercrombie is taking us.

I mentioned in my review of The Blade Itself that the novel would be judged based on the successes of the subsequent two volumes. Thus far we can count The Blade Itself a resounding success.

Before They Are Hanged improves upon the vision of the first novel, feels more tightly written (for whatever that means or is worth) and overall *feels* like a stronger novel. It lacks the freshness that can only exist in the opening novel of a series, but it measures up to the promise of the first book.

Another fine effort from Abercrombie.

Previous Reviews:
The Blade Itself


Jon Snow said...

Yes, the first time I picked up the Blade Itself, I loved it. I read it a second time just after I got the Before they are hanged. While you say they he didn't introduce new characters and yes you are right. I feel that West was "like" a new character, we got to know more of him and the way he thought and did things. The chapter when he became furious is one of my favourite from the book. I am currently reading Last Argument of Kings and am enjoying it very much, the first half of the book is full of laughs.

This is also the first time I have visited your blog (got it from FantasyBookSpot) and it's a very nice blog. Keep it up

Enchante a.k.a Jon Snow

Joe said...

Thank you very much, sir.

I liked West as the "new character", and the expansion into his viewpoint was great, but that's about all the newness we got.