I believe the best way to make oneself look fair-minded, adult, and emotionally big after treating someone else’s hard work, sweat and tears to an unfavourable pasting is to review one’s own work and heap praise upon it. So, without further ado, my thoughts on re-reading Before They are Hanged:
Now we’re talking. Yeah, this is a big improvement over The Blade Itself in all sorts of ways, at least from where I’m sitting assessing it as a writer. Possibly there’s a slight reverse middle-book syndrome going on for me here. As a reader the middle volume perhaps has neither the excitement of introductions nor the satisfaction of conclusions, but looked at as a writer it neither has to carry the weight of setting things up, nor put in the work of dragging the threads together (or perhaps failing to), and hence writerly screw ups of one kind or another are less likely and the book is free to just spin the wheels. Your mileage may of course vary, and indeed many mileages have, but for my mileage Before They are Hanged spins the wheels pretty damn nicely even if I do say so myself…
Beware ye of spoilers oh pitiful fools what have not read The First Law trilogy!
Writing generally is much improved, I feel, the voices have become more distinctive and assured, the descriptive stuff is a lot more arresting – partly I think that’s a result of the travelogue nature of the plotlines which means characters are frequently running across new and exciting things in a way they weren’t so much in the first book. If you’re writing in tight Point of View there’s simply no need to describe a character’s own familiar bedroom, or the street they walk down every day, and I think that gave some of the descriptive stuff in the first book a slightly unconvincing, info-dumpy quality. “Jezal ran past building X where important institution Y was based and frowned up at monuments A and B commemorating important event in history Z which may be important later and neatly illustrates point C about Union culture and Jezal’s own character…” is just not honestly the experience of having a run in your own backyard. This works a lot better, and there’s more variety in the settings as well, sweaty Dagoska alternating with the frozen North and the desolate Old Empire. Some interesting stuff in there, and reading some of this I slightly miss the fantastic in the lower magic direction I’ve taken in the standalones.
The big score is the pacing, though. There’s a definite sense I was piddling around somewhat in The Blade Itself while trying to manoeuvre the characters into position to get this book started, but having laid that groundwork things kick off here with a vengeance. There are three entirely separate plotlines – Glokta’s machinations in defence of Dagoska, the Fellowship’s quest across the Old Empire, and West and the Dogman fighting oop north, and I’d say they all have a sense of well-contained forward motion. Very little feels wasted. Glokta in particular works much better here, freed from the direct oversight of his superiors and with Licence to Act Like a Shit from on high. He’s at his best ruthlessly making idiots of the arrogant scum around him, and his thoughts have settled into a much more pointed and elegant acid cynicism. Prince Ladisla, and to a lesser extent Poulder and Kroy, are much more caricature than character, but then the approach has always been for slightly larger than life supporting players (this is fantasy after all, there’s no point in being scrupulously realistic, I don’t think) and most of the stuff in the North still works well, Threetrees and the rest of the band are always good value, and the developing relationships between Logen, Jezal and Ferro are satisfying, even if some of the necessary Expounding Upon Stuff That Happened Ye Manie Centuries Ago Around The Campfire (TM) is a bit clunksome. Above all, I felt there was a really nice rhythm to the way the three plotlines compliment each other, especially in the first half, where chapters from the quest plotline alternate with blocks of Dagoska and the North, the chapters getting shorter as things build to a crisis in each, cutting from building tension to building tension to building tension. Slick, that.
Problems? Well, the Bloody-Nine’s appearance is less memorable this time around, Bayaz’ magic has lost its impact somewhat, and indeed Bayaz generally is diminished as he is forced back into Ye Olde Mysteriouse Wizarde With Unexplained Planse role, but then we all know we’re going somewhere with that, so I think it’s forgivable. Women are starting to emerge as a bit of an issue – the lack of them, the superficiality and sexification (is that a word? My spellcheck says no but I say YES) of most of those that are there, of which more later. The action generally still strikes me as really memorable, though – the two battles in the North, the siege of Dagoska, the fight among the stones, the chase through collapsing Aulcus, all good stuff, and there are some really good speeches dotted about here and there as well, some great exchanges between Jezal and Logen, amongst the Northmen, now with added Shivers, between Glokta and pretty much everyone, especially Cosca.
Probably I shouldn’t say this, but Before They are Hanged strikes me as fucking ace, probably to the degree that your intense love for it validates you (and certainly me) as a human being. Hmm. Is it frowned on if cover quotes come from the author of the book itself, because I need to let the world know that they really ought to be reading this shit…