Review: Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Before They Are Hanged Abercrombie, Joe. Before They Are Hanged (The First Law: Book 2). Pyr. 2008.

Having found The Blade Itself an immensely enjoyable read I was elated when Before They Are Hanged arrived in the library early (with no note about SOS date!).  Was it worth the wait?  Yes…and no.

The major complain with the first book, its seeming lack of an overarching plot, is somewhat lessened here.  Abercrombie lulls you into complacency with his traditional quest structure (at least in one of the narrative threads) only to defy convention at almost every turn and leave you dangling in the end (again).  As in the previous book it’s the characters that cary the story.  Setting and plot take a back seat to the sad, tortured, humorous creatures that populate the book.

Old favorites return.  Glotka is perhaps one of the strangest “heroes” I’ve ever read in fantasy.  Wolfe’s Severian was a torturer yes, but he still followed a rather traditional fantasy trope (young obscure man raised to greatness; a simplification) .  Glotka is a tortured wreck of a human being, a walking contradiction who can find mercy for criminals but at the same time doesn’t blink at forcing an innocent man’s confession, a man who helps out “friends” but does so through hot pokers and the rack.  He’s honest enough, in his own way, yet if you met him in street you would run the other way.  But, I like him.  I root for him.  You want him to “win” even when I squirm at how he does it.

If there is one thing that Abercrombie does well it is the characters.  Logen/the Bloody Nine, Jezal, Dogman, Threetrees, Byaz, et al. are all interesting characters.  I would be counted among the detractors regarding Abercrombie’s scant attention to setting but, as I thought about it, I’ve decided that his lack of attention to setting (except where necessary) is completely intentional.  In many ways, to go with an extreme analogy, Abercrombie’s scant worldbuilding functions in many ways as the set from Our Town.  Abercrombie sketches out bare details and populates a scene with what, at first appearance, are obvious archetypes but on closer examination stray much further from the fantasy norm.  It is, as I said, an extreme analogy.  There is one key thing to note, setting is mostly non-extant except for the major action set-pieces.  Its an abrupt slide from black and white to full color but one that serves to enhance the action and leave a lingering image with the reader.  As a result Abercrombie’s richly textured and vividly imagined characters stand out all the stronger.  It becomes about the people and their, often strange, relationships to one another.

I doubt any of the above discussion on setting would occasion comment outside the fantasy genre.   But in a fiction medium used to the setting playing an integral part in its definition and where “world-building” has been somewhat of a hot-button topic the absence of lengthy development of both world and setting feels somewhat odd.

The focus on character and action, the cliffhanger elements, all play into the pulp feel of the book.  It may sit as sort of an odd duck out in the realm of fantasy fiction, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The novel is a fun read from start to finish but ends up feeling like a meal cut short, my hunger unsated, by the end.  However, the merits far outweigh the faults and in all honesty I’m more upset I have to wait for the next one to come out, if the dollar weren’t in the shitter I’d be ordering it from the UK (3/20, release date).  A solid A, highly recommended for fantasy fans looking for something a bit outside the box.

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