Before They Are Hanged: Book Two Of The First Law (Gollancz SF S.)
by Joe Abercrombie
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0575077883
Date: 15 March, 2007 List Price £9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The superb sequel to the superb debut novel The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie - a young British fantasy writer who is set to have a long and celebrated career. Dark, deeply ironic and full of character gems that will appeal to your cynical side, Before They Are Hanged is as brilliant as its predecessor. Highly recommended and reviewed this issue. The Blade Itself , the first book in Joe Abercrombie's sequence of The First Law, was a first novel that made works by more seasoned and experienced fantasy novelists seem toothless and dated. Abercrombie impressed me (and many other reviewers) no end with his unashamedly cynical and biting approach to his characters. Here a bunch of people, who like many (but not all!) of us, live in a very real world – it may be a world of magic and legend and warring factions (i.e. the kind of world we like to visit in our fiction), but to them it's a grim reality and they have to manage their every day lives just like the rest of us. That they generally do so with utter disillusionment and dissatisfaction only serves to heighten the appeal!
This angle of approach has not changed for Abercrombie's follow up, Before They Are Hanged – in fact it picks up directly where the previous title left off and typical of the author's emerging 'no concessions' style, the reader is expected to catch up with the story without the benefit of being guided back gently into this world - which seems fair, given that there is nothing at all gentle around here. I admit to finding this a little tough though – I have read goodness knows how many novels and stories since The Blade Itself and for a while found myself scrabbling to remember exactly what on earth was going on here. This was compounded by the sheer stage presence of Abercrombie's characters – for their personalities have a far greater impact than their actions.
Nevertheless, Before They Are Hanged has three plot strands striding boldly further into the story of The First Law, and, contrary to the potential pitfalls of 'second novel blues', Abercrombie cranks up the pace and the sense of brittle irony to an almost impossible degree. There is a tremendous clarity to Abercrombie's writing, a very real sense of the now, of the inner thoughts of his crystal clear characters cutting right into one's mind without interference or dissipation. It's an extraordinary quality to find in prose - the kind of thing many writers aspire to, but few achieve even half as well. This effect works best with Superior Glokta, the once-brilliant, dashing war hero and swordsman, now reduced to a dribbling, scornful cripple who tortures others for a living. Glokta was undoubtedly the star of the show in The Blade Itself – he is less so in this second book, though not because he is diminished in any way but rather due to the other characters now being rendered very nearly as brilliantly.
Glokta has been sent to defend a far away city from invasion – his odds of success are virtually nil and he's well aware of this fact. Before the siege begins he must uncover a conspiracy that led to the disappearance of the man who previously held his post. His position is all but impossible, but how fascinating it is to witness this superb creation at work – Abercrombie displays consummate skill in his depiction of this man – his words are picked out with great care and his message invariably finely focussed and direct as a bullet. Glokta knee deep in politics and squirming under the associated pressure is a fine sight indeed. He is an arch schemer and brutal diplomat, unable to rest and always in fear of his life. His self loathing is only eclipsed by his loathing for those around him. Trying to conceive of a more unlikeable hero is a tough task – the very contradiction of us warming to this utterly irredeemable and ruthless man means we cannot help but delight in Glokta, and even when he displays an uncharacteristic sense of mercy or desire, he remains pitiless and pithy. Were awards are given for singular character creation, Abercrombie would win hands down with this one.
The presence of such a strong lead though in no way lessens the impact of the other plot threads in Before They Are Hanged. The irascible and secretive Magi Bayaz leads his rag-tag and apparently randomly assembled group on a quest to the other side of the world. Abercrombie again shows his characterisation skills with this very unmerry band of brothers, a group whose constant bickering and uneasy dynamic is both hugely entertaining and very exciting for the reader. As they cross a bleak and windswept landscape, the author fills their mouths with sharp and clever dialogue worthy of any great dramatist. Their statements bite hard, their sullen silences even harder and throughout, Abercrombie has them dispense pearls of wisdom way beyond his own years.
The third main thread concerns a band of hard-nosed mercenaries, each one filthy and foul-mouthed and superb with their chosen weapon. They're wily too – sensible enough to have survived their brutal world for so long. This group is contrasted with the army that they fall in with – a reasonably disciplined force certainly, but that's more than can be said for the petty and peevish commanding officers – a class more concerned with their own egos or with romantic notions of warfare than with the welfare of their men and the grim reality of battle. Into this mix, Abercrombie thrusts Colonel West, the low-born but highly talented officer we met in the first novel. Here we see him struggle with the political peculiarities of his rank as he is charged with babysitting the idiot Prince who has foolishly been given a command, and when, inevitably, everything goes straight to hell in the battle scenes, Abercrombie renders them with a horrible clarity that more than shows off his talents for handling set-pieces as well as any other top-drawer fantasy author.
The promise shown by this young British author in his first novel, The Blade Itself has been delivered in spades in this follow up work. Abercrombie has created the kind of book that, should it - undeservedly - fail to be much of a commercial success, will remain a recommended word of mouth favourite of fans for years to come. I firmly believe both things will come to pass and heartily recommended you do your part to make this so - go out and buy a copy without delay!
Before They Are Hanged will be published in trade paperback by Gollancz on March 15. A hard cover edition is also being issued. The Blade Itself will be issued in mass market paperback the preceding week.