The Darkness That Comes After

Believe in me and I will give you eternal Salvation, said the Lord. “Can I have Might or Kings instead?” asked the tank.

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Review – Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Posted by senseichow on March 16, 2007

The bottom line – another well crafted fantasy adventure. Well worth the read.

Its refreshing to see a writer actually putting out novels on a regular basis – instead of making us wait what seems like several decades between each one (cough… Robert Jordan… cough). Before They Are Hanged comes out about a year after the release of the first novel, which seems about right for epic fantasy. The third, and I think, final in the series, Last Argument of Kings, is roughly scheduled for this time next year. Let’s hope Abercrombie can keep to that schedule.

This book carries on from its prequel. Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading his party to the edge of the world, to hunt for the legendary Seed which will give him the power to destroy the Dark Prophet Khalul and his evil Eaters. Meanwhile, Inquisitor Glokta is down south in the city of Dagoska, trying to solve two problems; first, who killed the previous Superior of Dagoska, and second, how to defend a city divided from within against the Gurkish army? And to make matters worse, the Northmen are invading, from, where else, the North. Colonel West has the unenviable task of trying to repel the invasion whilst dealing with the world’s biggest jackass in the form of Crown Prince Ladisla.

You may be forgiven for thinking that summary sounds just like a thousand other fantasy cliches – but it’d be a mistake to pass this book by based on a summary alone. As with its predecessor the enjoyment comes from actually reading the work, and when you do, you begin to realize the subtle details that make these books stand out from the crowd. The same dry humor found in The Blade Itself is here too, and the same touches of darkness. The writing is solid, the world is well fleshed out without going into excessive detail, and the action sequences, while not on par with Gemmell or Richard Morgan, are well done.

Most intriguingly perhaps, are the hints that while a standard good vs bad conflict is going on in the foreground, there are wider conspiracies at work in the all important background. At times the book reads almost like a mystery/conspiracy novel. Who are the mysterious bankers who keep propping up in Glokta’s path? Just who, or what, is the Feared? How did Bethod arrange the alliance between his forces and an old enemy from the prequel? And who is the hidden killer inside the capital city of the Union?

It almost seems like there are too many plot threads left for just one book to clear up – but that particular judgment will have to wait till the release of Last Argument of Kings. In the meantime, Before They Are Hanged is an excellent sequel to an excellent first novel, and is well worth reading for any fantasy fan.

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Review – The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Posted by senseichow on March 12, 2007

The good – Well written, multiple plots interweaving fantasy, in the vein of Martin, Erikson and Bakker. A few novel characters and good twists on the old archetypes.

The bad – …. in the vein of Erikson, Martin and Bakker. But doesn’t quite manage to reach their level.

I have to say I enjoyed this book a good deal more than I expected to. I read it together with Brian Ruckley’s Winterbirth, both in a single weekend, and while I thought Winterbirth was going to be the better of the two, turns out I was wrong.

Go figure.

The story starts out simple enough, a barbarian warrior and his loyal party are ambushed and the warrior left for dead. From there things quickly move on to the heart of The Union, the kingdom/empire where most of the action in this first novel takes place. We are introduced to Inquisitor Glokta, a man once destined for great things until two years in a torturer’s dungeon changed it all. Now he’s a torturer too, punishing treason and corruption in the name of his King.

The story continues at a brisk pace and we meet a host of other characters; Captain Jezal dan Luthar, the traditional young hero swordsman; Bayaz, First of the Magi, the typical wize wizard; Major West, the experienced military man.

Together these characters move to deal with various threats to the Union, from within and without. Its a well written story which uses the first volume to set the stage – but it avoids the, “first book to introduce everything, second book is where the action is,” cliche of most fantasy epics. There’s plenty of action in this book, and the combat scenes are well written and realistic. The heroes aren’t gonna be walking away without any scars from these fights.

And as far as the characters go, we’ve seen them all before (well, maybe not Glokta), in numerous different guises in numerous other fantasy works, but Joe Abercrombie infuses his characters with a certain cynicism and world weariness. You won’t find the darkness of Glen Cook’s heroes here, but you will find a moral ambiguity similar to Steven Erikson. You won’t find the outright comedy of Pratchett, but you will find the occasional touch of perfectly placed humor. You won’t find the worldbuilding of Martin or Jordan, but you will see plenty to suggest a rich, complex world whose surface has only just been scratched in this first volume.

In short, The Blade Itself is a good strong start to a series and one I’d recommend for fantasy fans everywhere.

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