Friday, April 4, 2008

Joe Abercrombie - Before They Are Hanged (Book Review)


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---If the first novel of The First Law trilogy plummeted into the fantasy genre as a delightfully refreshing and innovative subversion of (epic) fantasy tropes, “Before They Are Hanged” delivers a heightened style into the mix, it also triples the action and multiplies the humor. Simply put– Abecrombie managed to write a rock-hard sophomore effort; and the best of it is that he managed to keep the plot interesting and simple at the same time - skillfully avoiding the danger of making it too dense or convoluted and therefore detract the attention from the biggest strength of the first two books in the trilogy – c h a r a c t e r i z a t i o n.
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---Although it did not take him long to put out the sequel of “The Blade Itself”, Abercrombie matured as a writer somewhere in-between the books, learning from the experience of writing “The Blade Itself” and its shortcomings. In the first instalemnt, he acted unsure at some parts of the novel, relying heavily on his (otherwise cracking) sense of humor and at times the story just felt a bit confusing. The humor is as dark and as present as in the first book but even subtler this time around, with Glokta clearly stealing the show displaying his bitter irony and world-weariness. The plot itself evolved somewhat from a light-fantasy fare interwoven with humor and occasional gritty scenes, to a more realistic setting where webs within webs of conspiracies, backstabbing politics, raging battles and endless lust for power flourish. At the same time however, “Before They Are Hanged” still manages to retain the lighter elements of its predecessor. Characters remain realistic and quite unusual, although sometimes a bit stereotypical (prevalently the gentry) – but still a good distance from the typical fantasy geezers I’d say.
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---It might come as a surprise, but Abercrombie doesn’t pay heavy attention to detailed world-building; or at least that’s how it appears at first. The narrative in “Before They Are Hanged” does not baffle the reader with the depictions of land or people, but regardless to that Abercrombie stands triumphant, because the reader easily conjures up in his mind the fictional world of the book down to its grittiest details. The catch is that Joe inserts many simple, but shrewd observations into his characters’ dialogue and uses the occurring events themselves to build up stones, paths, trees, houses and walls and the rest of the surroundings. The final result is a more or less completed image of the world, acquired without having to read through boring descriptions of the world and (sometimes) tedious info-dumps.
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The one flaw - if you could call it that, of his subtle world-building is that the reader can easily lose track of time. Joe jumps from one scene to another in order to keep the action unabated and manages not to flounder in the hellish tempo of all the activities that are going on. That, unfortunately, costs him a bit when it comes to the perception of the passing of time; the voyage to the end of the world, which takes months, seems to last only about weeks or so. Mind you, I didn’t find this very off-putting, since I read the book in one reading, devouring it in one afternoon – what I want to say is that Abercrombie keeps only the interesting parts and skips the potentially boring ones but it might bother some of you, who enjoy and prefer the process of telling of a story in favor of relatively bare and goal-driven plot.
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Another fallacy that still plagues Abercrombie's writing is predictability (but that changes with the third book, I can tell you that now :) and unusually so if you consider the unpredictability of a couple of protagonists.
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*minor spoilers ahead*
---For example, Jezal - a high-brow noble with a slight but undeniable potential to become a bearable, if not worthy companion in the first book - now, unsurprisingly, grows into a skilled fighter with a rational touch to everything he does, thus being a bit easier to cope with and maybe being even slightly likable. The situation with Glokta is somewhat similar. He expects to be killed (in one way or another) throughout the book and is so sure of his inevitable demise that he says (monologue) his goodbyes at every possible occasion. If the reader is not completely naïve or a beginner, he doesn’t actually believe in Glokta’s imminent demise It therefore comes as no surprise when Glokta manages to stay alive and ‘well’. But that is actually ok, since he is one of my favorite characters, if not the favorite.
*end of spoilers*
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Before They Are Hanged” will not be remembered for its arguably pedestrian plot, neither can it boast with great epic battles or vivid world-building, but it nevertheless holds your unwavering attention up to the end. The book is strong on humor and sharp dialogue, not to mention how it manages to render (rather than avoid) many clichés. It is true that it sometimes feels a bit predictable, but that doesn’t spoil the reading experience at all. Quite on the contrary, “Before They Are Hanged” is one of the more enjoyable fantasy books I’ve read - not to mention the fact that I can hardly remember the last time I laughed so hard and so often while reading a work of fiction. Strongly recommended.
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~ Trin ~

6 Comments:

MadMax-imillian said...

I enjoyed your review Trin. The First Law is waiting for me on the shelf but I have too much school-work at the moment, so I don't have time to read :(

Trin said...

tnx :) I understand about the schoolwork - I'm not buried in it yet, but in another two weeks I'll have the same problem as you ... :(

John (Grasping for the Wind) said...

You beat me too it! I was going to post my review of this one today. Ah well C'est la vie.

Great Review Btw. Loving the mascot too.

Trin said...

The funny thing is that this review was lying around for weeks until Thrinidir urged me to 'edit and post it already!'. Glad you like it, though ... and the mascot too :)

thebohemianqueen said...

i've heard so much good things about mr.abercrombies work. i have to try it out sooner than later. the blade itself is the first book,yes?

Trin said...

The First Law trilogy's great, so I'm glad you decided to give it a try. (And yes, The Blade Itself is the first book.)

 

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