The middle section of a trilogy series generally suffers from the "middle child" syndrome. Such books are expected to maintain the momentum of the opening section, to expand and explore more what was revealed in that volume, to ratchet up the intrigue, conflicts, and character development, while all the time doing this without a defined beginning and end. A great many middle volumes suffer under the weight of such reader expectations, often justified by the author devoting too much time towards one course of action at the expense of another.
In many ways, Joe Abercrombie's Before They Are Hanged is a standard middle volume. The events of The Blade Itself are explored in more depth, while the action expands to an even larger scale from the first volume. But unlike many other writers of multivolume epic fantasies, Abercrombie's focus is more on the characters than on the scenery. As with many other character-driven stories, one's enjoyment of the book (and the series) will ultimately depend upon how much one can empathize with his characters.
Before They Are Hanged begins very soon after the events of The Blade Itself. The Union is further pressed by the Gurkish Empire and the cannibalistic outlaws, the Eaters, led by one of twelve former apprentices to one of the greatest Mages of all time. The crippled, cynical Inquisitor, Superior Glokta, has been charged to solve the disappearance of his predecessor while the capital is threatened by enemy forces both within and outside the city walls. The mysterious and rather self-important mage Bayaz, another of the twelve former apprentices of Euz, has begun a quest to find a mysterious but deadly artifact from the old days before the First Law was declared and all contact with the Other World is forbidden. Bayaz's motley band of companions, from the feared Logen Ninefingers (often better known by his moniker of the Bloody Nine) to the surly and somewhat mysterious Ferro Maljinn to the effete nobleman Jezal dan Luthar, based on their plot situations would seem to be drawn from Epic Fantasy Casting Central. However, Abercrombie is not satisfied with following the tried-and-true formula for writing an epic fantasy quest, instead aiming to turn some of its conventions on its head. Whether or not he succeeds in this is up to the reader; for myself, a re-read this past week left me with mixed feelings regarding the execution.
As in the first book, Glokta is the most nuanced and intriguing character. Here, we learn more about how he went from being an acclaimed war hero to a tortured prisoner to the Inquisitor Superior of the present story. In a key passage early in the book, Glokta is conversing with Kahdia, one of Dagoska's councilors. The talk is of the impending Gurkish invasion, but Glokta's rather cynical appraisal of the similarities between the two groups sparks a heated response:
Glokta claims here to be anything but interested in doing what is "good," however his actions immediately following this and towards the end of the book belie those disclaimers. His character is done quite well, especially in this scene, however there were times in his chapters that too much emphasis is placed on telling what is transpiring, stating what these characters are, rather than relying upon the inherent tension between a knowledgeable epic fantasy reader's expectations for such a stock character's purpose and actions and what Abercrombie actually has this character and others accomplish. While this is not something that kills any enjoyment that may be derived from the book, I found myself wishing more and more as the story progressed that Abercrombie would have kept the hints of "hey, this stock character is not going to react in stock character type but instead in more cynical and 'real' ways!" to a minimum, as I felt it impeded the flow of the story.
"To an outsider, the two of you seem to have much in common."
"To an ignorant outsider, we do. We both have dark skin, and we both pray to God, but that is the full extent of the similarity. We Dagoskans have never been a warlike people. We remained here on our peninsula, confident in the strength of our defences, while the Gurkish Empire spread like a cancer across the Kantic continent. We thought their conquests were none of our concern. That was our folly. Emissaries came to our gates, demanding that we kneel before the Gurkish Emperor, and acknowledge that the prophet Khalul speaks with the voice of God. We would do neither, and Khalul swore to destroy us. Now, it seems, he will finally succeed. All of the South will be his dominion." And the Arch Lector will not be in the least amused.
"Who knows? Perhaps God will come to your aid."
"God favors those who solve their own problems."
"Perhaps we can solve some problems between us."
"I have no interest in helping you."
"Even if you help yourself as well? I have it in mind to issue a decree. The gates of the Upper City will be opened, your people will be allowed to come and go in their own city as they please. The Spicers will be turned out of the Great Temple, and it shall once again be your sacred ground. The Dagoskans will be permitted to carry arms; indeed, we will provide you with weapons from our own armories. The natives will be treated like full citizens of the Union. They deserve nothing less."
"So. So." Kahdia clasped his hands together and sat back in his creaking chair. "Now, with the Gurkish knocking at the gates, you come to Dagoska, flaunting your little scroll as though it was the word of God, and you choose to do the right thing. You are not like all the others. You are a good man, a fair man, a just man. You expect me to believe this?"
"Honestly? I don't care a shit what you believe, and I care about doing the right thing even less - that's all a matter of who you ask. As for being a good man," and Glokta curled his lip, "that ship sailed long ago, and I wasn't even there to wave it off. I'm interested in holding Dagoska. That and nothing else." (pp. 89-90 Pyr ARC edition)
This tendency becomes more pronounced in the Quest segment involving Bayaz and crew. While Abercrombie does not have magically easy lust/love spring up between sparring partners, the situation that does arise depends too much at times upon reader expectations of such events for there to be anything really meaningful occurring between the characters. Ferro and Logan's later interactions appear to be played up more for giggles in places than for any real establishment of a complex and rich character interaction. The same goes for Bayaz and his erstwhile apprentice, Quai; the amount of sniping and snide remarks ends up feeling as though Abercrombie laid it on too thick, making for characters that feel restrained too much by the plot demands from becoming true three-dimensional characters that are "alive" and which "breathe" outside of the plot demands.
As a plotted story, Before They Are Hanged reads well on a first read. The choppiness of the first book has been smoothed out and the action develops nicely. There are scenes full of great dramatic tension, but ultimately the uneven characterization and the over-reliance upon cynical takes on stock characters makes for a story whose promise remains somewhat unfulfilled. Before They Are Hanged is far from a bad story; it really is quite good in places. It just fails in those "little things" from rising to become an excellent middle volume. Recommended, with some reservations regarding re-readability.
Publication Date: March 2007 (UK), hardcover and tradeback; March 2008 (US), tradeback.
Publishers: Gollancz (UK); Pyr (US)