Friday, October 04, 2013

Review: "Before They are Hanged" by Joe Abercrombie

I read Joe Abercrombie’s “The Blade Itself” some time back, and though I enjoyed it, I didn’t feel compelled to continue the series. Recently, I picked up the second book, “Before They are Hanged” ($17, Pyr) on a whim and discovered a couple of things. First, I remembered that I really liked Abercrombie’s characters despite their roughness and flaws. Second, I discovered that, much like book one, book two still feels like a big setup.

In a story that picks up pretty much right after the first, we are quickly thrown back into the action. Don’t think you can pick this book up without knowing something of the first. There’s not a whole lot of recap to be found. In fact, the entire trilogy feels more like a single book that was split up for convenience than three separate stories.

We revisit our unlikely group of companions – the barbarian Logen Ninefingers, the exotic warrior Ferro Maljinn, the dandy Jezal dan Luthar and their wordy navigator Brother Longfoot – all brought together by Bayaz, the first of the Magi. They’re on a quest to the edge of the world to retrieve a powerful artifact that Bayaz believes will destroy the Gurkish people, led by an old acquaintance, and their dark practices. So, I know what you’re thinking – unlikely group of companions, quest, item of power, eyerolls to follow. But don’t let that put you off. Though not the most interesting storyline of the book, it’s far better than the standard D&D fare it sounds like. There again, are the interestingly flawed and rough around the edges characters, and along the way we pick up some vital information about Bayaz and exactly what is going on.

Meanwhile on the borders of Angland, Collem West, a commoner raised to high rank by his heroics in battle, has been assigned to babysit a spoiled prince who has, against all reason, been given charge of an army to defend the country against Bethod and the savage invading Northmen. Surrounded by squabbling generals who have a hard time working together and know-it-all courtiers who think battle is nice and clean and full of glory and notoriety, he struggles to hold the defenses together.

That brings us to the final storyline, and my favorite character from the series – Sand dan Glokta, a former war hero scarred and ruined by years in a Gurkish prison camp, who has become a torturer himself in service of the Inquisition. Glokta has been named Superior of the city of Dagoska with explicit powers to investigate the mysterious disappearance of their previous Superior. While he’s there, he finds himself embroiled in a much tougher fight as the Gurkish are bearing down on the city, and he is ordered to see to its defense with few resources.

As I said in my review of “The Blade Itself,” Glokta reminds me a great deal of George R.R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister. He’s reviled, but quite resourceful. He is in no way, shape or form a hero, or even a nice person, yet you can’t help but like and respect him. And his dark and twisted reasoning makes him, by far, the most interesting character in the book from the standpoint of an inner monologue.

Abercrombie has a very rough style to his work, which at first takes some time to get used to. It’s a fitting style for a very rough story, though. I settled into it by the end of “The Blade Itself,” and felt right at home in “Before They are Hanged.” As you can see from the description, he plays a lot with some basic archetypes of the fantasy genre, but they never feel stale or boring in his hands.

This story, though, is transitional in the way that the second book of a trilogy tends to be, but at the same time, it still feels like the setup for the main story to come. While I had a little trouble deciding how I felt about the first book, I was intrigued and fully immersed in the story by the end of this one, and I have now moved on to the final book, “Last Argument of Kings,” hoping that I get the payoff that I’m expecting in that volume. I guess we’ll see in a few days.

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