Tuesday, May 20, 2008

[Lisa’s Take] Before They Are Hanged: First Law Book 2 (Joe Abercrombie)

My review of The Blade Itself, the first book in this trilogy, was one of the more vicious reviews I’ve written. I really picked the book apart, and probably dog-eared 20 pages with things that irked me so I’d have solid ammunition.

I felt a little bad, ripping something apart like that, especially after a few people whose opinions I usually trust in books said I was being too harsh. So as penance I picked up the second book, Before They Are Hanged, as soon as it hit the shelves. Last week I was out of work with a fairly nasty cold, so I holed up on the couch and ready it pretty much straight through in 2 days. I thought it would be fun to go back through my first review and see how Mr. Abercrombie has progressed in his second stab at the fantasy genre.

Gripe #1 – Mishmashy, undefined plot
After TBI, I complained that the plot was not well defined, that it didn’t go anywhere, that it was predictable, and that it was all set up with no money shot. This problem was absolutely remedied in BTAH. There are three major plot lines, and each one has a good introduction, build up and climax. I think it helped this time around that the distinct groups were well separated from each other, so the author didn’t have worry about them overlapping and muddling each other up. In book 2 you’ve got 3 groups: the unwitting heroes searching for a mystical artifact, the men manning the front of the war in the north, and the Inquisition investigating drama in the south. Each plot line was equally well developed, had good screen time, and (most importantly) was engaging, interesting, and less predictable. I had some vague guesses as to what would happen when and where, but it was much more rare that I’d think “and now X is going to happen!” then turn the page and be proven correct.

Gripe #2 – Crossing the proverbial streams
In TBI the author had a lot of trouble keeping his POV characters separated and straight. This was much less of an issue in BTAH. There were still 3 or 4 times in the book that I got a little turned around, but whether because I had a better handle on the characters or because I was expecting it, I never had to re-read to figure out what was going on. I don’t know if Joe got himself a better editor, or if he’s done with some of the New Writer Blunders – but let’s hope it’s both. He also did a much better time distributing his POV time in book 2... there were no “primary” and “secondary” POV characters – they all got even screen time and actually made contributions to the plot.

I did experience one slightly jarring moment during the book’s end game: throughout the story the author had established a fairly smooth cycle of rotation through his characters and groups of characters – he rarely dwelled on one group for many chapters in a row. Then, during the climax of the book, he got stuck on the group of treasure hunters and stuck 3 or 4 chapters of theirs all together. I understand that it was a necessity, and that he just had extra chapters for them, but... it just broke up the flow of the book again, after such a nice cycling had been established. Tiny gripe.

Gripe #3 – Character Clichés
Boy, I was pretty vicious about the character clichés when I reviewed book 1. Man. I feel a little bad... but then I was pretty displeased after the first book. In book 2 Mr. Abercrombie makes significant improvements in his characters. They are all more solid and (largely) less prone to crazy out-of-character episodes. Bayaz still has some moments that don’t quite seem to follow, but he’s the only one I can complain about. Book 2 also spends a lot of time deepening and expanding upon the characters, so they’re less stereotyped, I think. Contributing to this is the point I mentioned above about the author giving more even face time to everyone, so we get more than just an initial impression.

That said, I did still have one new character gripe in this installment: I felt like some of the characters “reset” at the start of the book. It was as though they had started to develop a little in the first book, then when the second book started they went right back into the rut. Jezal, especially, suffered from this, as did Ferro. Luckily it mostly worked itself out after a couple of chapters from each POV.

I lied: two character gripes. The other problem I had is that Mr. Abercrombie isn’t very adept at making immediately memorable secondary characters yet. I’m a little spoiled – when GRRM creates a secondary character he does so in such a vivid way that the next time the character is mentioned the light bulb immediately goes off. In BTAH there are a few secondary characters that you meet in the beginning of the book, then don’t see on screen again until the end, and in some cases the re-introduction didn’t go smoothly. He got there eventually in all cases, so maybe by book 3 he’ll have it down.

Gripe #4 – Guttural Utterances
I complained in the first book that I was sick of Abercrombie’s characters saying their guttural utterances. Either he got a little better about it in this book, or I just didn’t seize upon it as something annoying. It did bother me how often people replied to questions with “Uh.” as a statement. “Uh” to me is a sound of uncertainty, rather than a reply – I really would rather he went with “Mm.” or “Hn.” or something. At least this time when I’m writing this paragraph I’m chuckling, rather than seething.

Well. I think revisiting all those points serves pretty well for a review. If it’s not obvious by now, I enjoyed the second book much more than the first – almost all of the issues that kept me from getting into the first book were resolved. I enjoyed the characters, the plot, the humor, and the surprising twists. I’ll certainly be picking up the 3rd book – and if you don’t mind having to bull your way though some of the first book’s issues, I’ll revoke my “don’t waste your time” judgment on the series as a whole.

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