Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (2007) 614 p.
The second novel in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, but I’m afraid this one was a bit of a step down. The Blade Itself had its flaws, but I was willing to overlook them because it seemed like it was going somewhere interesting. It ended with several of the main characters united into a single group, about to set off on a quest – a vague and unspecified quest, but a quest nevertheless.
Before They Are Hanged follows them across hundreds and hundreds of pages of windswept grassland with not much happening. In another story thread, Superior Glokta is sent to an Arabic-flavoured city to defend it against the incursions of a rival empire; in another, Major West struggles through the Union’s war in the North. Both of these threads were more interesting than the main quest, but neither seemed particularly relevant to the series’ outcome either. I’m not entirely sure where Abercrombie is going with it all.
The thing that mostly bothered me about Before They Are Hanged is the same thing that bugged me about the first book. (Not the Tom Swifties – he’s eased up on those.) It’s hard to articulate, but it’s just a general lack of lustre. It never drew me in. His writing isn’t bad, but neither is it particularly good. He spends less time on things that might be interesting – the world, the quest, the stakes – and more on amateurish arcs of telegraphed character development, and hammering home the same few points over and over again. Take, for example, Abercrombie’s apparent revelation that battles are brutal and bloody and that the life of an adventurer is not all it’s cracked up to be. This observation might have held more weight if he’d written these books in the 1970s or 1980s; I know George R.R. Martin covered it in the 1990s and since I’m not well-acquainted with the fantasy genre I’d be surprised if he was the first. And there’s nothing wrong with this, per se, except that Abercrombie bangs on and on and on about it. Sometimes I feel like the entire series is an excuse for him to have grizzled old veterans lecture young, inexperienced dandies about the realities of combat. This is particularly egregious in the war in the North, where Logen’s war-hardened old comrades, who drift through the book with a sort of resigned stoicism, are exasperated at every turn by the Union’s incompetent and underequipped armies, led by a foolish Crown Prince who thinks of battle as nothing more than a path to glory. It makes no sense whatsoever that an empire which controls a significant size of this fantasy world is hopeless at war. There are too many straw men in this book. (Ask yourself how many stupid leaders there are in A Song of Ice and Fire, and the answer, of course, is none – there are leaders who are arrogant or reckless or cruel or stubborn, but never stupid.)
I’m continuing to read this series largely because I don’t like to leave things unfinished, and because my girlfriend already owns all the books. The third and final volume is Last Argument of Kings, and if Abercrombie can pull something interesting out of the hat and actually wrap this series up in an unexpected or entertaining way, then I’ll forgive the glacial pace and clumsy development of the first two books.