BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED by Joe Abercrombie
Pyr (539 pages) $15.00
The second installment of The First Law trilogy finds its protagonists–drawn together in the first volume by chance, fate, and the beginnings of a perilous quest–going their separate ways. Spoiled and arrogant swordsman Jezal, battle-weary warrior Logen Ninefingers, and feral ex-slave Ferro have joined the irascible wizard Bayaz and his inept student Malacus Quai on a perilous mission to recover a deadly magical object called the Seed, which Bayaz intends to use to defeat an ancient, newly awakened evil. Superior Sand dan Glotka–cripple, torturer, and possibly the only honest man in the Union–has been dispatched to the besieged city of Dagoska, ordered to hold it at all costs. Colonel West, a lowborn officer in the Union Army who is far more competent than the aristocrats who outrank him, is sent north to help fend off attack by Bethod, self-styled King of the Northmen.
But Bethod, enlisting the help of a terrifying enemy, outwits the complacent Union forces, stranding West and his accidental allies, a gang of renegade Northmen once loyal to Logen Ninefingers, behind enemy lines. In Dagoska, Glotka’s bloody struggle to fulfill his impossible task uncovers ugly conspiracies, including one that may threaten the Union itself. Meanwhile, Bayaz and his companions push deep into the desolate West, past the mysterious ruins of the Old Empire. As Bayaz reveals its half-forgotten history, along with some of the darker secrets of his own past, the companions begin to realize that much of what they thought was legend is actually fact–and to wonder whether Bayaz’s motives are quite as straightforward as he wants them to believe.
There’s no way to give a capsule description of this novel without making it sound generic. Indeed, many of the plot elements are familiar from any number of other epic fantasies, and the battle scenes and fast-paced action sequences and abundance of political intrigue, while well-crafted, are pretty much fantasy standard. Anything but standard, however, is the pitch-black cynicism with which it’s all presented. Abercrombie creates a world in which every official is corrupt, every motive suspect, and virtue’s only reward is death and degradation. Even characters who grow and change get no credit–the obnoxious Jezal learns the folly of his arrogance, but that doesn’t make him any less of a fool. All this darkness is saved from monotony by frequent flashes of black humor, often popping up when least expected. Abercrombie has a knack for creating memorable characters, especially the repulsive yet compelling Glotka, whose sardonic inner dialogue provides a sometimes hilarious counterpoint to grim scenes of torture and slaughter; the curmudgeonly Bayaz, with his subtly unreliable tales of the past; and the war-weary Logen, who like an aging gunslinger has come to understand the futility of fighting, but can’t quite escape his own bloodlust. Only Ardee, Colonel West’s sister, doesn’t quite come off, with her sullen, prickly personality too conventionally sourced in a history of abuse. It’s unfortunate that she is one of only two major female characters in the series (so far).
Abercrombie subverts conventional fantasy expectations in other ways as well, such as the relative absence of magic as a plot device (of the major characters, only Bayaz is magically gifted, and most events turn on ordinary human actions, decisions, and mistakes)—and, notably, in the surprising conclusion of Bayaz’s quest, which also subverts any expectations as to the direction of the final volume. Entertaining, intelligent, and deviously original, this is a series to watch.—ISBN 978-1-59102-641-9