Before They Are Hanged

Before They Are Hanged

Joe Abercrombie

Middle books are always a challenge to review. I shouldn’t complain – I can only imagine how hard they are to write. Having wrapped up the second installment of Joe Abercrombie’s trope-bending First Law Trilogy, it’s time to put down a few thoughts. Unfortunately, as it’s hard to pin down exactly where Abercrombie is headed, both because this is the middle book and because he’s being coy, my reaction is going to be more of a series of opinions and bullet points. Much as I would love to dig deep into the profound literary themes as work here, pithy summation is probably the way to go.

– This book is not for everyone. Abercrombie is called Lord Grimdark for reasons, so some readers just aren’t going to enjoy the disembowelments, maces to faces, and shoulder-to-crotch cleavings. Those who aren’t put off by pulped heads and repeated taking of the Lord’s name in vain might enjoy a certain black hilarity; I’m pretty sure Abercrombie laughed while driving things so completely over the top. Witty banter gets a few chuckles, but it’s more the bleak absurdity of the overall story arc that kept me amused.

The First Law Trilogy gets this year’s Steven Erikson Memorial Award for secondary world with the shortest human lifespan. I’m pretty sure that I would last about three weeks as a character in these books, either mowed down by raiders, pulverized in a city sacking, victim of an out of control wizard battle, or just taken by run of the mill, peasant-class dysentery. The common folk must breed like rabbits to maintain the population base in the face of rampant predation.

– Characters Abercrombie from lesser grimdarkians, but I’m ambivalent about some of them suddenly becoming better people partway through the book. It’s fine for Captain West to be a solid guy, because that’s his role, but Logen Ninefingers or Inquisitor Glokta are more fun when complete jerks. I’m not sure that flashes of humanity suit them. Abercrombie might just be setting me up for a fall though, so I am keeping everyone at a distance. Also, I’m not sure what this preference says about me, and don’t want to think too deeply about it.

– I am just waiting for Bayaz to strip off his good-guy cloak and say, “Lookout suckas! There’s a new sheriff in town! BOW TO YOUR SENSEI!!” If we’re taking the anti-Gandalf path here, I’m going to laugh long and hard. (Don’t spoil this for me if we are!)

– Abercrombie is clearly having fun while he picks apart fantasy cliché. Characters are the obvious starting point, but he toys with plots, settings, and histories as well. I must admit that I have no idea how this will end. Convention dictates that the characters succeed in their every quest, evil is vanquished, and the Union survive because … well, there’s no particular reason why the Union should survive, beyond being whiter than half of their enemies, and more capitalist than the other. I’m sure the author has something entertaining in mind.

I’ll get to the third volume here sometime in the next nine months or so, at which point probing analysis will make an appearance. Until then, maybe some spoiler-free chatter? Anything I should have caught this time around?

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