Reading a novel often throws up half-random symmetries between the reader’s mind and the text of the novel – echoes, intuitions, memories, premonitions. The reader has a thought, and lo and behold the same thought is suddenly seen in the text itself. Sometimes this is pleasing – proof that the writer is thinking along the same lines, and to the same depth, as the reader, and hence that the investment of thought on the part of the reader is not in vain. Other times it is frustrating – a sign that the writer is following a path too obvious, too familiar.
In the case of Before They Are Hanged, it is… odd.
Halfway through, you see, I realised something: if you wanted to read this trilogy, you could pretty much skip the first volume, The Blade Itself. It’s not a short novel, but effectively nothing happens in it that is of any significant relevance to this sequel. Characters were introduced, but because they were so superficial and devoid of detail or depth, and because the sequel moves them all entirely out of the environments where we met them, the first book is no better an introduction than a few pages of explanation at the beginning of the second would be. Likewise, because the ongoing ‘plot’ for the trilogy was only introduced at the very end of the first installment, and remains highly vague well into the second, you’re not really missing anything if you haven’t read it. If you just picked up Before They Are Hanged, I’m not sure you’d be very much worse off, in terms of understanding the characters, the setting and the events, than if you’d dutifully toiled through that first volume. Certainly, any required backstory could easily have been added to this novel with a bit more fleshing out of the early chapters and perhaps a prologue or the like. How odd, I thought, to write a three-book story and have the first book be basically pointless!
And here’s where the symmetry enters in. Because Before They Are Hanged is effectively three books in one: three plots that, other than a line here or there reminding us that this is all on the same planet, have no practical ties to one another, and only the most tangential of theoretical connexions (and that, of course, are all only loosely connected (by shared characters) to anything that happened in the first book). Which of these plot, we might wonder, is the ‘real’ plot, the plot that actually matters?
Surprise! None of them do! Halfway through the novel, I realised in my own head that the first novel had been a massive block of filler that contributed almost nothing to the plot; and by the end of the novel the author has pretty much put down in print that exactly the same is true of the second volume too. Presumably some passing reference will be made in the third volume to some things that happened here – we have at least established a theoretical threat that perhaps could be dealt with (or perhaps not – there’s little impression of urgency) – but for now, all three plots have come to “fuck you for reading!” dead ends, and almost everything that has happened in the books so far is, at least on the face of it (though I can see a few obvious loopholes) pointless.
It’s a bold move, that. It’s kind of like offering to shake hands with someone, and then pulling your hand away, slapping them in the face, and posing for the crowd to tell you how Rebellious and Cool and Convention-Breaking you’re being. I kind of get the theory. It’s the old ‘middle novel’ thing, letting your heroes lose for a while. It’s The Empire Strikes Back. If, you know, it turned out Yoda had been a con-man after all, Darth Vader had invaded the wrong cloud city, and when he did finally get to set up a video-conference with Luke he had delivered the immortal words: “Luke… I am… unaware of who your father is. …But who cares anyway? …Look, a pony! I’m going to go look at the pony now. Who are are you again?”
Oh sure, that would be funny in the moment. But it would also leave you at the end of the film wondering why you bothered sitting through a rather boring film in which little happened, if it turns out none of what happened mattered anyway? Because we’re not talking a cunning, ironic deconstruction of the tropes in which the characters and the audience learn something about themselves. We’re talking straightforward, by-the-book pulp fiction, only with a ‘the princess is in another castle!’ thrown in at the end.
Then again, I can see why the author might have felt the need to stretch for the big box marked “complete lack of subtlety” when he felt the time had come for his Big Twist. Because the rest of the book has its contents seemingly assembled out of a bargain bin of 1980s cheese.
… “now come on, old chap, don’t be so bally unkind!” you may be thinking. Or perhaps would have been, if, like my subconscious, you watched too many episodes of Jeeves and Wooster at a formative young age. “It’s not that bad, is it?”
No, no it’s not.
To recap here, I actually didn’t hate the first book (hence my reading the second…). The Blade Itself was, by the standards of cheap pulp fantasy, pretty solid, and decently promising. It was, to be sure “intensely conventional”, and distinctly badly-written in parts, but it was ambitious in its apparent scope and had some good moments. I hoped that the second book would continue the trajectory of improvement that the first book seemed to show.
And on that score, I’m not entirely disappointed. On the one hand, there’s been no radical change here: as expected, the tone, style and content of the book is broadly similar to that of its predecessor. It remains within what we might call an Eddings-Gemmell-Salvatore triangle of 80’s pulp; indeed, the closeness with which details of the plot track those of Edding’s sagas seems to be beyond the point of mere coincidence. It reads almost like an homage, it’s so familiar – the only real novelty is that people say ‘fuck’, rather than the author telling us that they swore.
On the other hand, if it’s doing the same thing, it’s at least doing the same thing better. Most obviously, the writing is manifestly better – there are far fewer moments of cringe-inducingly-bad prose and dialogue than before; much of the time, it’s almost passable. For one thing, the hypercaffeinated plague of exclamation marks in the first novel seems to have been held at bay this time, at least temporarily…
Improvement beyond that wasn’t clear at first: the structure of the novel is head-scratching, since despite having three plots it couldn’t find anything interesting with which to fill the first half of the book. Dull travelogue punctuated by scenes of people talking predictably. But things did take a turn halfway through, with a couple of genuinely interesting scenes that shifted away, if only temporarily, from the expected. It would make for a great lesson for prospective readers: see how dramatically a story can be improved when you let characters actually have meaningful conversations. For a book and a half, Abercrombie leant too heavily on mysteriousness to drive engagement; halfway through this volume, he and his characters seem to surrender and start talking about their backstories and the world, and it’s a remarkable leap forward. The most effective thing here is the same as the most effective thing in the Belgariad: the sense of deep time, of long histories, of complex feelings (it’s no surprise that when Eddings returned to the world of the Belgariad and the Mallorean, he did so with not one but two fan-pleasing millennia-long backstories; likewise, I can’t help but feel that “Bayaz the Sorceror” would be a much more interesting book than the one we were actually given).
Another change is that Abercrombie finally lives up to his own mystique and stops being so prudish about sex and violence. In the first book, they were superficially flaunted, but the camera shied away and the narrator got all coy and giggly whenever things really got real; here, we do actually have a couple of sex scenes and some unpleasant war wounds. That’s not a virtue in itself – it’s a matter of style – but it does at least diminish the sense of punk-poseur pretentiousness I couldn’t escape in the first book. If you’re going to act all rough and crude and telling-it-like-it-is, you have to back that up when the crunch comes. It’s also effective in this book as a note of… sincerity? In such a conventional book, in which people talk and act often more like cartoon characters than like real people, being able to pierce through that unreal haze with the occasional agony and blood and fornication is a real help in keeping the book feeling sincere and human.
Although, on the other hand, it does mean putting up with the worst sex-dialogue ever. Dude, “Urrr” is not something that needs to be painstakingly transcribed ten times in a paragraph. The “urrrs” go without saying…
That ostentatious awfulness of dialogue, unfortunately, feels like just one of a long series of Abercrombie’s poseur moments. It feels at times, particularly early in the novel, as though the author has just discovered books and wants to show off what he’s learnt. We get a lot of in-your-face-obvious “tricks”, the sort of thing a wise author does once or twice in their career, and the schoolchild does in every paragraph. Tricks like… having dialogue scenes in which one character gives long paragraphs of serious infodump, and the other character lampshades the fact it’s infodump by interrupting with “hmm”, “errr”, “yes” and other one-word replies, because if you do that in a sitcom it’s funny because it’s awkward, and ironic, get it? Except that here it’s used in what’s meant to be an actually serious scene. Or tricks like… wouldn’t it be cool to have a scene end with a word or phrase, ideally in dialogue, and then you could open the next scene with the same word or phrase, but with a different meaning? Because when they do that on TV, that’s cool, right? Cartoons do that all the time, it’s funny, it’s clever…
This book is often funny and clever. You know that famous moment, a once or twice every episode, just before a scene cut, in CSI: Miami, where David Carruso says most of something, pauses meaningfully, then puts on his sunglasses (or takes them off, depending) and says the last word of the sentence and OH MY GOD ITS A PUN WOW THAT’S SO FUNNY AND CLEVER!!!… ? Yeah, Abercrombie is funny and clever like that.
Seriously, you can almost hear the the pause for applause while he waits for you to say “mind. blown. dude.” each time. [And CSI:Miami fans who are also fans of fantasy will probably love this book.]
My mind was not blown. I’ve read all those flamboyant moments before, done better, and even when they do work, they’re used here to distract from what is otherwise (until the ‘fuck you’ twists) a completely conventional plot.
The characterisation, though, is probably the novel’s biggest problem. The writing of the core cast of characters has improved somewhat since The Blade Itself, but we’re still basicaly dealing with recycled archetypes, who are given little opportunity for meaningful development or even exposition – those opportunities, when they do come, are the best bits of the book, but they left me wishing we could have skipped some of the travelogue and the repetitive ‘witty’ conversations (another reason I was thinking of Eddings throughout…) to focus more on those moments of sincerity and importance. But no, the problem isn’t the protagonists. It’s everyone else.
I think I commented in my last review that one of the big reasons I couldn’t shake the echo of Eddings was the fact that virtually everyone who was not a protagonist was transparantly and ostentatiously moronic, a parade of blustering buffoons who would have looked two-dimensional and absurd in the context of a children’s cartoon, let alone an actual novel, and who exist only for our protagonists to sneer at, prove themselves better than (with laughable ease) and occasionally murder with little regret. In Before They Are Hanged, a few tendrils of substance do sneak into one or two of the supporting cast, but by and large the problem remains unaddressed – and the fact that we’re often now dealing with different total idiots than in the first novel only exacerbates the inescapability of this narrative crutch. If our protagonist is defeating an enemy who equally easily could be defeated by three leaves of wet cabbage and a wordsearch, it entirely undermines any sense of accomplishment that might result. If our protagonist is in conceptual disagreement with an opponant who would not be able to pick out a mongoose from a mushroom salad, there is no sense of tension or uncertainty or moral unease. It is no surprise that the only effective antagonists in the novel spend most of the time hundreds or thousands of miles from any viewpoint character, and never appear on the page. And if the author insists on treating 99% of the human race with utter, worm-torturing contempt, reserving any hint of empathy or understanding only for his chosen band of ultraviolent ubermenschen, it makes it extremely difficult to like him. And yes, of course, that needn’t matter. But a novel has to keep its readers positively engaged – they must not grow too bored, too disgusted, or above all too inclined to mockery – and the goodwill of the reader is often essential in accomplishing that. Successful authors usually are so because they have the reader rooting for them – the reader hopes the writer succeeds in overcoming the reader’s own suspicion. Without that support, it is hard for even the greatest work to really land with the audience – which is why, after all, even great classics are widely hated when we’re forced against our will to read them at school. Abercrombie certainly is not odious as an author – I was not actively willing him to fail – but his air of superiority (over his characters and seemingly us) was offputting and undermined the goodwill I might otherwise have felt for him and his work.
On which note, let’s just say: the issues with women and ethnic minorities in the first novel have not gone away here. Women in particular continue to be pigeonholed into dismissive stereotypes and made use of by the plot in disrespectful and distasteful ways – and no, having a badass female character does not balance that out when she’s (a cliché) badass because she’s a rape victim and she’s constantly being lectured by men who know better than her. That does not help. Nor does having one protagonist be slightly less appallingly racist toward black people really deal with the fact that the underlying conflict is between the ‘good’ white Europeans and the armies of black-skinned, literally-demonic fantasy-Islam. I’m a reasonable person, and I’m certainly no ‘social justice warrior’ or the like – I often find these complaints overblown and uncharitable – and there’s nothing here that I find inherently unforgivable by itself. But the fact that he does all these things with seemingly no nuance (other than that the ‘good’ guys are mildly unpleasant themselves, in an un-condemned way), or awareness, or human empathy, really leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
If the novel does have a particular strength, it’s in its combat scenes. Combat in The Blade Itself was a mixed bag – hamstrung by the primary-school-level prose, and often confused, but nonetheless dramatic. Before They Are Hanged takes that drama – founded on a combination of compelling TV images and very sound pacing decisions – and elevates it further, improving the prose and burnishing the clarity. Some scenes work better than others – I found Abercrombie’s take on the hoary old “city beseiged by hopeless odds” trope (a la Dros Delnoch, a la Armengar, a la Minas Tirith) frankly rather weak* – but in general he is able to craft compelling action sequences that make the second half of the novel as kinetic as the first half is slow.
*and showing an unsure grasp of mathematics and tactics. While we’re assured that the Sultan has effectively an infinite supply of troops, so the situation will become hopeless eventually one way or another, the actual troop numbers we’re given at first, which terrify the defenders, ought not so much as raise a sweat, given how impregnable the defences appear – strong fortifications need truly overwhelming odds to subdue! Similarly, the repeated discussions of how many days or weeks the defenders might hold out seems bafflingly ignorant of how sieges actually worked. Consider Vienna, for example. Suleiman attempted to storm Vienna for weeks, with 10-to-1 odds, before logistics forced him to retreat without having had the slightest success. A century later, Mehmed’s army under Mustafa Pasha struggled to overwhelm the city by any means possible for two months, succeeding only in breaking through some outer defences, before a united European relief army saved the day – again, Mustafa had around 10-1 odds. Corvinus himself, a century before Suleiman, did succeed in taking the city – but he too had a 10-1 advantage in troops, and it took him six months. And Vienna wasn’t even particularly defensible. Abercrombie’s city is tantamount to impregnable in design, and clearly based upon Tyre**: in real life, the civilians of Tyre, having revolted, held out against the massed might of the Fatimid Empire for two entire years. A couple of centuries later, the civilians again held out, this time against a Venetian army equipped with a huge fleet, for six months before negotiating a non-violent surrender. I don’t get the sense at any point that Abercrombie really understands the structures and forces he’s discussing, not just in the sense of not being a war studies graduate (or a politics graduate, or a history graduate, or a sociology…) but even in the sense of the sort of background level of understanding of fauxdiaeval Europe that you’d expect from an epic fantasy fan. Instead, it often feels as though he’s invoking tropes without really comprehending their import, and that’s perhaps most obvious in the military scenes, which, as effective as they are on the level of the individual characters, rarely seem to make much geographical or tactical sense overall.
And really, what more do we really want? Much of my criticism here comes from the point of view of having heard for a decade now how brilliant, how revolutionary, Abercrombie’s contribution to the fantasy genre was. Now that I’m finally reading him, I’m disappointed to find him so conventional, so predictable, so meek, and frankly so unaccomplished in his technique. I expected to find these books aesthetically challenging – given the loud words on both sides spoken about the gulf between “traditional” fantasy and “grimdark” – and yet instead I’m disheartened to find this as challenging as a waffle. If this is the salvation of fantasy – if this is what can get pulses racing as exceptional and seminal – then fantasy is in a poor state indeed.
But is that a fair way to come to a book? Well, yes, in part. Every book holds the hope of excellence – it’s a part of why we put up with a lot of trash. It’s fair to observe when excellence is not delivered – particularly when the marketing around an author is so loud and encomious. Yet at the same time, it’s important not to overlook the simple pleasures of adequate literature: sometimes, we don’t need excellence, or originality, but just a moderately compelling read. And, at least in the second half, Before They Are Hanged delivers.
Nonetheless, I’m left in an odd position here, when it comes to comparing this volume to the earlier The Blade Itself. On the one hand, this is unambiguously a better book: the prose has taken a big step forward, and about halfway through the book there are further big steps up in both characterisation and action.
At the same time, however, it’s perhaps a more disheartening book, seen in its larger context. The Blade Itself was a striking debut into the genre, a distinctive authorial voice, that may have suffered from a multitude of faults – difficulties with prose and dialogue, a lack of originality, and a rather static and disjointed narrative – but that nonetheless seemed potentially to be pointing to an interesting trilogy as the author got his act together and worked out what he was doing. [And, in fairness, I’d note that both A Game of Thrones and Assassin’s Apprentice, the opening installments of probably the two most accomplished fantasy epic cycles of recent decades, have their own teething issues with tone and prose and and so on – and Martin and Hobb were far, far more experienced writers at the time of those novels than Abercrombie was at the time of his.] Yes, The Blade Itself felt a little like the author clearing his throat, but it ended with him drawing breath, and I wanted to find out what he wanted to say.
Unfortunately, in Before They Are Hanged, the author’s voice may be steadier, but he still doesn’t seem to know his lines. We’re left now, heading into the concluding volume, at a place that most trilogies have reached by at least the end of the first book, if not actually the end of the first book’s prologue. It’s almost inconceivable that a satisfying story could be concluded in the one (short!) remaining volume: I don’t doubt, given the ramped-up pace of the end of this one, that Last Argument of Kings will be an eventful read full of momentarily engaging narrative busy-work, but how can it possibly work as the conclusion of a trilogy that’s barely even begun?
So while Before They Are Hanged is a significant improvement in quality as a novel, it’s also a disheartening stagnation as part of a larger tale.
Where am I left, then? Well, I’ll finish the trilogy, undoubtedly, though not immediately. Will I carry on and read more Abercrombie? I don’t know. I thought, partway through this book, that I wouldn’t. But Before They Are Hanged does end strongly (in quality if not in decision-making), and I think now that I wouldn’t rule out a return to the author. It’s passable stuff, and, let’s be honest here, epic fantasy isn’t brimming over with works of genius. It’s technically better, if less memorable, than most of the 1980s pulp it’s so closely emulating. And who knows, maybe the finale will actually live up to its billing?
Adrenaline: 3/5. A split decision here. The second half of the book was genuinely compelling, if not thrilling, buoyed by some strong action sequences; the first half, on the other hand, was, while not utterly dire, certainly a little dull, centred on plodding travelogues and busywork. So, on average…
Emotion: 2/5. I think perhaps my biggest problem with the novel is the relative lack of emotional engagement. The characters for the most part hit the tetrafecta of alienation: they are not admirable, nor capable, nor funny, nor complex. If a character is all four, the audience has a good chance of adoring them and caring deeply about them. If a character is three out of four, they can still be a fan favourite and an engaging protagonist. If a character is two out of four, they can be a solid viewpoint character. If they are at least one of those four things, the reader can find the silver lining, struggle through and engage with them despite the limitations of the book; but if a character isn’t any of those four, it’s really difficult to viscerally care what happens to them. I didn’t care about any of the characters here (though, to be fair, Logen is a little more engaging this time than in the first volume). It also doesn’t help that I’ve not been given any reason to care about the world as a whole or any aspect of the plot (a downside of stressing how awful everything is is that it stops seeming so important whether one awful person defeats another awful person or vice versa…).
Thought: 3/5. There’s a decent, but unremarkable, amount of cogitation called for here – much of it due to how much of the plot and the setting is kept off the page and left to the reader to work out for themselves. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s enough to stop my brain freezing over with boredom.
Beauty: 3/5. Meh.
Craft: 3/5. This was a demerit for the first volume, and to be fair to the author I think he’s improved his technical side considerably, in almost every way. Nonetheless, I would still not be able to say that this was above average in craftsmanship. It’s become… acceptable. [which I guess is maybe above average for a lot of fantasy, but…]
Endearingness: 2/5. There were times when I thought this would go up a notch, as the author introduced moments of pathos and sympathy – and, in the action scenes, a little bit of fun. But no. Again, the unappealing characters are a problem here, as are the tone-deafness on sensitive issues and the blatent manipulativeness of some sections.
Originality: 3/5. On the micro level, the DNA of conventional old-school fantasy still runs through every cell of the novel – it’s laden with hoary old tropes. But with the plot having expanded since the first volume, Before They Are Hanged does display somewhat more originality on the macro level – everything here was in another book first, but perhaps not previously all in the same book… and in the same order.
Overall: 4/7. NOT BAD. Before They Are Hanged is a noticeable improvement over The Blade Itself, largely on account of its broader scope and more confident technique – no surprise for a second novel. That improvement takes it to the level of… OK-ness. It’s the level that a lot of fantasy novels, even very popular ones, reside at. If you like this sort of thing, it’s an OK example of this sort of thing. If you don’t normally like this sort of thing, there’s nothing here to change your mind. The series continues to be a decent entry-level outing into fantasy for the young.
In the moment, it feels a little like a wasted opportunity – after all, I rated Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice and Martin’s A Game of Thrones as merely ‘not bad’ too, just like The Blade Itself, but those series quickly took greater steps toward improvement, and to me Before They Are Hanged just feels like more of the same but a little better written than last time. Then again, I must admit that taste is an issue here: if I hadn’t gelled with Fitz early on, perhaps I wouldn’t have read on long enough to see Hobb’s novels get great. And let’s re-iterate here that ‘not bad’… isn’t bad. Particularly for genre work. This novel is no worse than a lot of other popular but ultimately mediocre fantasy novels. [although personally, if I wanted to read mediocre fantasy, I’d prefer to read one that was at least likeable…]
**Ironically, reality is more badass than fantasy: the reason Tyre had its famous causeway was that when Alexander found he could not conquer the city, which at that time was an island, he decided it would no longer be an island, and so had his soldiers construct the causeway into the Mediterranean (while under constant missile attack), which still stands today. If the sea gets in the way of Alexander, Alexander moves the sea. However, even then it was impossible to subdue Tyre. He eventually won only when he and his allies had assembled a fleet of over 200 ships. Cranes mounted on his ships help move away the rocks around the sea walls, and his ships then battered the walls with rams until they forced a breach; an all-out assault eventually forced troops through the breach, at which point the battle turned into a massacre – there had only been around 6,000 troops defending the city (for over seven months). Storming a defensible city is in real life very, very, hard.