Monday, May 30, 2011

Before They Are Hanged - Joe Abercrombie

Before They Are Hanged (The First Law: Book Two)

From Joe Abercrombie's website:

Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It’s enough to make a torturer want to run – if he could even walk without a stick.
Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem – he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world.
And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, but a deadly one. They might even stand a chance of saving mankind from the Eaters. If they didn’t hate each other quite so much.
Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven – but not before they are hanged.
Well, Joe, you did it to me again. Left me wanting more.

This time, however, I'm not mad about it. I expected it - which gave me a chance to value the story for the telling. Still a page turner.

If you read The Blade Itself, then you're going to want to read this. Some folks might say that it suffers from "middle book syndrome", that of a lot of arcs and webs woven from beginning to end.

I wouldn't say that here. What we have here is character development. We spent a lot of time with the cast in book one, and by the end of book two, we know them a bit better. Much better. If you sniff really hard, you can see some foreshadowing for bigger troubles in Last Argument of Kings [The First Law: Book Three], the next and final installment in the series.

"We're a lot different, you and me. Different in all kind of ways. I see you don't have much respect for my kind, or for me in particular, and I don't much blame you. The dead know I got my shortcomings, and I ain't entirely ignorant of 'em. You may think you're a clever man, and I'm a stupid one, and I daresay you're right. There's sure to be a very many things that you know more about than I do. But when it comes to fighting, I'm sorry to say, there's few men with a wider experience than me. No offence, but we both know you're not one of 'em. No one made me the leader, but this is the task that needs doing." He stepped closer still, his great paw gripping Jezal's shoulder with a fatherly firmness, halfway between reassurance and threat. "Is that a worry?"

Jezal thought about it for a moment. He was out of his depth, and the events of the past few minutes had demonstrated beyond question just how far. He looked down at the man that Ninefingers had killed only a moment before, and the cleft in the back of his head yawned wide. Perhaps for the moment, it would be best if he simply did as he was told.

"No worry," he said.
- pg 173

It's hard to discuss the story without spoiling. Joe is true to his characters. He peels away the layers and sticks to their core truths, the hints of which were only evident in The Blade Itself. And ends the same way. There are surprises along the way, and they're either reasonable or cruel, depending on how sadistic you are.

Seems to me that Abercrombie's voice and writing style improves heavily in the second book. His descriptions are lush and stirring, capturing and foretelling moments through the physical manifestations of the scene's setting. Even more notable is that the prose matches the character's perspective as POV's shift throughout the story - something that I've only ever seen G.R.R.M. pull off well - Abercrombie nails it.

Within the shifting perspectives and ideas of a huge cast of characters, we see just how dark Joe can go - and I suspect he will go darker yet. Love and loss and sacrifice. Blood and death and murder and rape. The events that shape a character, change them. The reader suffers - or rejoices - right along with the characters throughout. Even when the outcome is most likely to be grim or unexpected, the reader still gets to experience that, connect with the character. In short, despite much of the tale leading up to even more dramatic events, yet to be revealed, this is damn good storytelling.

I do wonder if this series is too grim and bloody for the average fantasy reader. Yes, there's humor interspersed within, and intrigue, and clever complications, and even ... sex. Mostly though, a growing black cloud grows over the entire arc and all the characters as they work their way into ... running out of excuses to not confront their issues straight on, as they will have to in the next book.

Truly, I have to give Abercrombie credit where it's due. He beats the hell out of his characters, and shows them no mercy... no mercy at all. This series isn't for the faint of heart... which is why I'm liking it so damn much.

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