Friday, 20 April 2007

‘Before They Are Hanged’ – Joe Abercrombie

An Inquisitor defends a desert city against the enemies without (and within), an ill equipped and ill prepared army prepares to face the encroaching menace from the north and a mismatched group of travelers head south to find an object of great power…
You may be forgiven for thinking you’ve read this tale before in hundreds of other fantasy books but the simple fact is that you haven’t. The second book in the ‘First Law’ series takes these tired old archetypes, mixes them all together with a dose of black humour (and strong characterization) and serves up a tale that will leave the reader surprised by the final twist and eagerly awaiting ‘The Last Argument of Kings’ (the third and final book).
Whilst the plot is as sharp as one of Inquisitor Glokta’s scalpels; it is the characterization that made this book shine for me, especially the way that Abercrombie adds a little twist to each of the characters so that they remain fresh throughout the story. The ‘obligatory fantasy wizard’ is in attendance but he is a cantankerous nasty piece of work who only appears to want to save the world as an afterthought whilst in pursuit of his own ends. There is also the barbarian ‘ultimate killer’ whose world weariness and insight into his berserker rages makes him appear more civilized than the more genteel people that he fights besides. Abercrombie doesn’t forget the lesser characters either, using the structure of his series to bring characters to the fore that will influence the tale in new and unexpected ways (look out for West and the Dogman). Inquisitor Glokta will eventually become one of fantasy’s most distinctive characters; enforced disability fuels his cynicism and rage but he is now beginning to find that he still has a heart. The only place where I felt Abercrombie slipped up slightly was in a certain character renouncing his selfishness and resolving to be a better person, it had to happen but it came too suddenly when a gradual movement would have felt more plausible.
I know it’s early to say things like this but I think this is certainly the best fantasy novel I’ve read so far this year and it could be the best overall.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

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