Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (2008)

For somebody who writes in such a terse and unambiguous style, Joe Abercrombie sure leaves me feeling conflicted. Now that I'm through the second book (of three) in his First Law series, I am still torn over how to feel about the series.

First of all, let me get this out of the way: there is still no map in this book, and after doing a little research, I found this, which is essentially Abercrombie's disavowment of maps (at least as far as his series is concerned). There are some good points brought up there, but I think on the whole Abercrombie is quite wrong about the way his books are read, and a quick dive into some SF/fantasy forums seems to confirm this. My point is this: the geography of Abercrombie's world is very discrete and confusing, and expecting readers to remember place names and locations in a 500+ page book is simply unreasonable. The main thrust of Abercrombie's anti-map argument is that the inclusion of maps and other graphics railroads the reader's imagination and takes them out of the story. But the fact is, when I have no idea what the hell is going on because I'm confused about the geography, that's hardly an immersive experience either.

That's enough about that, however. I can respect the man feeling strongly about the way his creation is published. On the basis of its contents, however, I am still not 100% sure how I feel about this book, just as I was unsure how to place its predecessor. The books were written one right after the other (more on that later), so they are consistent with one another in the extreme, for better or worse. I still found the Glokta character fascinating, but with irritating mannerisms, for example. There are still a few too many characters that are too similar to one another. There is still no sense that any of the main characters are ever in real danger.

However, this is a two-sided coin and the aspects of Blade Itself that I found excellent are still very much present in Before They Are Hanged. The story picks up right where The Blade Itself leaves off, and the book as a whole is similarly fast-paced. I read the majority of this book yesterday (probably about 400 pages or so), and I must say it flashed right by. Abercrombie has a gift for building tension and keeping a long story engaging, but it never feels cheap or manipulative. He doesn't resort to constant cliffhangers like George R.R. Martin, for instance. Which is commendable, since Before They Are Hanged juggles three or four groups of characters, depending on the point in the story, in a variety of locations. The rotation through these groups isn't a fixed 1-2-3-4-repeat cycle either; sometimes a chapter will end with one group and then the next will start up again with that very same group. I was very grateful for that, and pleased to see that Abercrombie has enough confidence in his skill as a narrator to avoid the urge to insert artificial tension with chapter breaks.

Most of the praise Abercrombie has gotten over the series has centered mainly on his unconventional approach to character archetypes. For example, the wise old fantasy wizard is here, and he is both wise and old, but he is also cranky and manipulative and self-serving. Here is my concern: it's all well and good to defy the standard fantasy character models, but is it a valuable undertaking when done for its own sake? Abercrombie certainly likes to shake things up, but when all the pieces have settled does it make for a better story? I'm not sure. George Lucas tapped into a vast collective cultural subconsciousness with Star Wars, by studying ancient storytelling archetypes and reworking them into a pulp sci-fi setting. Abercrombie does almost exactly the opposite, and while the results are interesting, I'm not totally convinced it has a purpose beyond simply being different.

Having said all that, I do like the characters and their interplay. This book pays off much of the characterization Abercrombie labored over in Blade Itself, since we can now see all these strikingly disparate personalities bouncing off one another. A few of the character arcs, such as they are, are quite pleasing as well. There is a very arrogant character who is humbled over the course of the novel, and although that was almost impossibly predictable, it still proved to be satisfying, and the predictability of it actually blended nicely with a very unlikely romance that develops between two other characters.

Even though most of the other characters have come into their own in this, the pivotal volume, Inquisitor Glokta is still the main attraction, so to speak. I enjoyed his playfully sardonic letters to his superiors sent from the remote city he has been given the impossible task of defending. His italicized "inner voice", as I have mentioned before, still grates on me for some reason though. However, this is still a gift of a character, and the subtle changes bubbling to the surface within Glokta may be the most redemptive and rewarding quality of the novel, period.

On the whole, Abercrombie has a gift for characterization, and slipping in and out of the voices of the POV characters. It has a very sitting-around-the-campfire storytelling feel to it, and I imagine that's what he was going for. He has a good feel for natural-sounding dialogue, though maybe not quite as good as he thinks. His fights are well-choreographed, and while that might not be a good reason on its own to recommend these books, it is ultimately very important because there is quite a bit of fighting done.

There is one more thing I feel I should mention. Abercrombie released this trilogy at a pace of one book a year, and frankly that's fucking remarkable, especially considering the length of the books (over 500 pages each). That's well over a full page a day, and that doesn't even take publishing lead time, rewrites, editing, etc into account. In an era where the more popular fantasy writers have the luxury of extremely relaxed deadlines, it's so refreshing to see a big name with a strong work ethic. We live in a digital age and fans can now instantly contact their favorite authors on their blogs or through email, but if anything I feel that has allowed writers a much more convenient medium through which to post excuses. I am not just referring to George R.R. Martin, although that motherfucker is undoubtedly the worst. My point is, hats off to Joe Abercrombie for keeping that nose to the grindstone.

I've just decided that I'm likely overthinking the First Law series. These books are probably best read as enjoyable, if ultimately rather disposable, fiction. There are no particular profound human truths revealed in the pages of these novels, but they are first-rate adventure stories, and the pages whiz by in a blur. I suppose the real mark of how I feel about this series thus far is that I have already ordered the final installment, and I can say unreservedly that I'm looking forward to reading it.

1 comment:

  1. Finish the series already so we can talk about this for real.

    But yeah I reacted very similarly to this series in regards to the "subversion" of character archetypes. The book is still very enjoyable and moves very quickly. I feel that part of the reason for that is because the main source of conflict in the novels are the characters themselves (not to say that there aren't plot conflicts) but this conflict in the characters is what readers are invested in. And the general dischordant tone that this conflict sets, begs a resolution. I think that really contributes to the flow and speed of the book in that it pushes you a long faster since it's really about how the characters respond and not as much about what happens (in the greater narrative of the country).

    Also, this comment login shit sucks.