Before They Are Hanged

A lot has been said about Joe Abercrombie's debut, The Blade Itself. Contrary to those who found its characters lame, its dialogues trite, and its plotlines uninteresting, I enjoyed The Blade Itself. To me, it felt like a throwback book, a work which was reminiscent of what used to dominate the fantasy genre during the 80s. Okay, so it's a far cry from Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen, George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, or Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. So what? That doesn't mean that a "lighter" work cannot be a fun reading experience.

If you expect to see a masterpiece like Schindler's List every time you go to the movies, you might as well stay home and not bother. Likewise, when you sit down to read a novel, well not everything can be a GRRM read. Today's SFF market is diversified enough to allow disparate authors to have their own niche.

Let's get one thing straight: If you didn't like The Blade Itself, don't expect Before They Are Hanged to win you over. On the other hand, if you enjoyed Abercrombie's debut, I daresay you will love the sequel.

Before They Are Hanged is comprised of all the aspects which made its predecessor a good read, yet it is also a marked improvement in every department. The author moves the story forward with more aplomb, all the while maintaining the "gallows humor" which has become his hallmark.The worldbuilding plays a larger role in this one, especially in the story arc that shows Bayaz, Logen, Ferro, Jezal and the others travel to the island at the edge of the World. The imagery is more colorful and arresting than in The Blade Itself. The absence of a map is particularly confusing in this sequel, however. There is a lot of traveling around in each story arc, and the reader clearly has no idea where everything's supposed to be. Lou Anders, if you're reading this, put a damn map in the US edition!

As another character-driven tale, the characterizations remain the most important facet of Before They Are Hanged. Abercrombie also shows much improvement in this aspect. Although a number of clichéd characters remain, the author did a very good job in fleshing out the cast. And while Glokta and Logen are still fan favorites, Abercrombie has given more depth to Ferro, Jezal and many others. As for me, I must say that I absolutely loved every chapter that showcased the Northmen posse of Dogman, Threetrees, Black Dow, Harding Grim and Tul Duru Thunderhead!

In my opinion, Joe Abercrombie possesses all the qualities that made David Eddings such a powerhouse during the 80s and 90s. Even better, he steers clear (so far, anyway) of the frivolities which proved to be Eddings' downfall in the end. Funny, entertaining and accessible, there's a lot to love about Abercrombie's style. I know that many of you are put off by such a claim, but remember that Eddings sold more than 18 million books worldwide. I have a feeling Joe could live with that. Just a hunch, but I think both Gollanz and Pyr could live with that as well. Joe Abercrombie will never be the second coming of Stephen R. Donaldson, Guy Gavriel Kay, or Kim Stanley Robinson. Regardless, the author's style will nevertheless attract and please a vast number of fantasy fans.

Before They Are Hanged is a satisfying sequel which should establish Joe Abercrombie as one of the bright new voices of the genre. To the haters, it appears that Abercrombie is here to stay. . .

The final verdict: 7.5/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

3 commentaires:

Robert said...

Pat, yet another great review. Because of your coverage of "The Blade Itself" I had to go out and buy the book immediately, even though it cost me a little extra ;) I haven't had the chance to read it yet, but being a fan of David Eddings earlier stuff, I'll probably order the sequel as well...

Ed S. said...

Ditto. I went out and bought a copy of Blade based on reviews here. It's worth noting for Canadians that the Gollancz UK hardcover is in stock and available from Chapters online for C$ 25.04. And it's a first printing.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, Abercrombie's books are fascinating precisely because they are not presented as grand epics of high fantasy.
Please don't misunderstand me, I enjoy a good "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" or "Wheel of Time" as much as the next man (and probably rather more), but diversity within any genre is a thing to be welcomed.
"The Blade Itself" and "Before They Are Hanged" are both highly character-driven, and whilst some geography doubtless exists, it acts more as a theatrical backdrop than a travel guide. I have UK editions of each book, bought, read and shelved in the UK (so I can reach them easily, Englishman that I am) and neither of them have maps in. I get the idea that it doesn't really matter, though: Angland is England, the Northlands are Scandanavia glued on, the Union is pretty much the European Union, and Gurkhul is anything directly South of that, which may once have been part of the Ottoman Empire.
Beyond that, we know that there are mountains, seas, the occasional river etc., etc. in any direction, but a general idea of which parts of the story are occurring at which point of the compass generally suffices to keep things orderly as you read.
Even the most picaresque and far-wandering episodes of "Before They Are Hanged", break days or weeks of travel into a couple of distinct action scenes, so it hardly seems worth worrying about exactly which routes were travelled (especially in a land where maps may be inaccurate, at best, and travelling is a case of plodding in the general direction of the intended destination, by the route of least resistance).
The strength of these books is their willingness to engage with the human condition, and the dark side of it more often than not. I realise that dark cynicism and negative self-examination does not appeal to everyone, but they do help to showcase the difference between a character's public and private personas, or to demonstrate their own views of their own actions. We've all said things that we don't mean in order to 'play nice', so it's important that a character-driven story recognises, and caters for,the duplicitous nature of real people. And the fact that Inquisitors, for example, may not say what they mean in order to 'play nasty', of course. Abercrombie manages this very well and sets a superbly dangerous, treacherous atmosphere in which the reader is made to consider each character's likely motives and actions from an all-too-often-inadequate first (or even second or third) impression. I really do think that these books deserve greater consideration than to be dismissed as 'light' - they are about people, first and foremost - people who are where they have to be, or who have gone where they have been sent, and don't have the luxury of freely wandering across the elf-lit realms of poesy. They are real people who are going to bruise and scar and are going to try to give as good as they get, even if none of it's good in the end. Again, I realise that I'm potentially sounding negative about traditional fantasy, and this is not my intention - believe me, I'd rather join Frodo on the Quest of the Ring than receive the personal attentions of Practicals Frost and Severard, but let's just consider that we can read about both and enjoy (the reading at least) in equal measure.
As scant, haphazard and whisky-fuelled a book review as this may be, I feel that it is as honest a one as I can produce at the moment .
However, in order to show my goodwill, I will pass you on a genuine recommendation...
If you liked Joe Abercrombie's books, then you should also seriously consider "The Lies of Locke Lamora" by Scott Lynch. Part 1 of "The Gentleman Bastards" cycle, this is a novel for those who relish thieves and the underworld. You will be committing yourself to yet another trilogy (at least), but this is nothing new for fantasy fans and this example looks to be well worth it. The con tricks are intricate and brilliant, the characetrisation is superb and the moment at which everything turns from high-spirited fun to deadly earnest is as sudden and shocking as anyone could wish. Getting out of the other side alive becomes immediately paramount, so criminality and violence are both pushed to adventurous new extremes. Really, jusy buy it...