Too long has it been, good friends, since I girded my loins (whatever that means), unsheathed my mighty blade, bestrid my charger, and rode forth from my shining citadel to do righteous battle against the forces of evil. Well, not evil in the strictest sense, perhaps, but people who criticise me, anyway, which is the closest thing to pure evil abroad in the world today, in my book. What’s that you say? Yours too? Ah, you stand among the righteous! Let me now, then, strike a blow for noble souls everywhere by letting fall like the hammer of God my well-deserved wrath upon those who had anything but the most sycophantic praise for my middle book, Before They are Hanged.
There are, of course, many sensible, intelligent, cultured, and attractive people out there who love The Blade Itself and its sequel unreservedly as though ’twere their own flesh. There are, believe it or not, a couple of neanderthal losers who hated the first book and hence got no further, but, really, who cares what they think?
But there are also some enigmas. Some human riddles. Folks who evidently missed the point the first time round, but got it the next time. Still more bizarre, plenty who loved the first book but were less impressed with the second. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not enough to simply scream, “insanity!” and call for the brain doctors, for I’m reasonably sure that at least some of these people function in real life almost as normal individuals. We need to find out what’s going on here, for it may be possible that some among them can be saved.
An accusation often used in these somewhat disappointed-sounding reviews is that of “middle book syndrome”. What is this syndrome, and wherefore comes it? Does it turn your brain spongey, like Creutzveldt-Jakob Syndrome? Is it something terrible but that can be survived with the proper treatment, like Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome? Might it even burn a hole straight through the earth, like The China Syndrome?
My dictionary which I use to look up words that I don’t know what I may seem right cleverer than others defines a syndrome as: “any combination of signs and symptoms that are indicative of a disease or disorder.” What, then, are the observed symptoms of Middle Book Syndrome? In particular, from my point of view, what symptoms of malaise does Before They are Hanged exhibit?
I must admit I’ve always been surprised by the diagnosis, because I felt myself that Before They are Hanged was a big improvement pretty much across the board (not that the first book isn’t fantastic, of course, if you haven’t bought it you really should, it’ll change your life etc.) I feel on re-reading that I’m happier with the prose in the second book, in general, though a couple of scenes I’d tinker with now. The pace seems much faster, much more directed, I like the way the different plots inter-relate, peak at different moments or at the same time. It all feels much more fluid to me than the first book, where I was still working out a lot about the characters, the story, and just how to do it. That and simply, with a lot of the setup of characters and settings done, I felt free to get into the story more thoroughly, explore some of the relationships between the characters, broaden the scale to some bigger events, some bigger set-piece battles and adventures and so on. My Mum agrees, incidentally, and she’s always right.
I mean to say, was I not crowned most improved writer of 2007 by Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, with a soaring increase in my scores from a miserable 7.5/10 for The Blade Itself to a resplendent 7.5/10 for Before They are Hanged? Did Publisher’s Weekly not consider my first book “a muddled sword and sorcery … marred by repetitive writing and an excess of torture and pain” but my second a “grim and vivid sequel that transcends its middle volume status … suffused with a rich understanding of human darkness and light”?
Well is it better or isn’t it? Can I not get just one straight answer? Let us see…
Robert, of Fantasy Book Critic, though undoubtedly liking the series, definitely detected a whiff of the dreaded syndrome about Before They are Hanged. He still loves the characters, but he thought the plot had somewhat run out of steam:
“Unfortunately, Before They Are Hanged did not impress me as much and largely that’s a result of being a middle volume. In other words, not much happens … Thankfully the characterization was even stronger than it was last time, so even though the story was disappointing, I still had a blast … [the characters] are unquestionably the strength of the novel – and the trilogy as a whole so far – but the lackluster plot kept me from enjoying the sequel as much as I did The Blade Itself.”
So it was a lack of action, or perhaps of resolution, that was the problem? The middle book of a trilogy contains neither the excitement of new beginnings, or the satisfaction of closure, it’s … the other bit. But in this era of 7, 10, 12 volume mega-sequences, does that mean we are doomed to 5, 8, 10 sub-par linking tomes? Perhaps, perhaps it does, alac the heavy day. But what’s this? Larry of Wotmania fame, had the opposite reaction. He thought the plotting in Hanged was much improved but had problems with the characterisation:
“The choppiness of the first book has been smoothed out and the action develops nicely. There are scenes full of great dramatic tension, but ultimately the uneven characterization and the over-reliance upon cynical takes on stock characters makes for a story whose promise remains somewhat unfulfilled.”
The characters, are the problem, then? Familiarity breeds contempt, and so forth. They’ve got worse, or at least, not better, and therefore stale? John Enzinas, at SFSite, certainly detected such a ‘going off’:
“The world history is fascinating and the descriptions of both the settings and the fights are wonderful. The characters, however, are limp and listless, like vegetables left too long in the fridge. They’ve lost the crispness and freshness they had when we first saw them … It’s clearly a bridging book, meant to get the characters in position for the final act, and this it does admirably. I just wish that the author had taken a little bit more time with it and maintained the level of craft that he managed with his first book.”
Curse my lack of craft! My characters too long in the salad drawer, damn them! But then Monsters and Critics , unmoved by the first book, appear to say the exact opposite, focusing their pleasurable surprise on my wonderfully improved characterisation:
“Where many of the characters in the first book seemed stiff and contrived, here they become dynamic, well-developed personalities struggling to survive the trials of the day … If Abercrombie continues this pattern of improvement, he will undoubtedly become a major voice in the fantasy genre.”
So it’s a problem with characters, or plotting, or possibly a bit of both, or the pace is too fast, or too slow, or maybe there is no problem and I’m way better than I used to be, cos the first book was rubbish. Hmmm. Certainly the specific symptoms of the syndrome are difficult to get a handle on. I’m being unfair, of course, because who said critics have to agree with each other? But from my point of view some consensus would be interesting, perhaps even educational, and hey, i
t’s a blog, who said I have to be fair? Let us delve further, then. Siobhan Carroll at Strange Horizons very much liked the first book, but had a different take on mild disappointment with the second:
“Before They Are Hanged lacks the polish of Abercrombie’s previous novel, The Blade Itself. That book mixed the pared-down prose of hard-boiled detective fiction with the epic scope of a George R. R. Martin fantasy in a plot that steered refreshingly clear of most of the usual fantasy conventions. Now that Abercrombie is further into his trilogy, however, the familiar beats of an epic fantasy series are beginning to emerge.”
This I can kind of understand. I think a lot of readers prefer the second book because the plot in the first is, you know, kind of vague and uncertain (I’d say mysterious), and in the second becomes a bit more clear, easier to follow. Perhaps they’re worried initially that the lack of a clear plot might mean, you know, that there’s no plot at all. Perhaps at the same time this focusing, and the surface (alright, more than surface) simliarities to classic tales of epic fantasy in the second book are the very things that distance other kinds of reader, the ones that precisely liked that unfamiliar, amorphous quality in the first. Is it all a question of taste, then, like every bloody other thing in reading/writing? Or is there more to this middle book syndrome? I think Ken at Neth Space might have come closest to the heart of the problem:
“Abercrombie plays with common fantasy tropes (all-knowing wizard, barbarian from the north, stuck-up nobleman, etc.) – he uses many of them, yet does so with a biting, satirical edge and seems to revel in taking the story in unexpected directions. Before They Are Hanged does all this (and more), but since this is the second book of the trilogy, the novelty of the approach has worn off. With the novelty gone, things almost become tiresome in places … my impression at the moment is that Before They Are Hanged suffers a bit from the middle book syndrome.”
That thing that every author has, no matter how derivative their work, that individuality of style, of approach, of concerns or ideas, the thing that makes them new and interesting (hopefully), that novelty, well, that, alas, will almost always wear off to a degree. We might still love it, but it will never hit us quite the same as it did the first time. I guess that’s the reason why I still love Game of Thrones more than the rest of Martin’s series, despite admitting there’s bigger, better, bolder stuff in the later books. When he does the things he’s so good at doing, I’m never going to be as shocked, as moved, as impressed as I was the first time.
Perhaps that’s the difficulty at the heart of middle book syndrome. An author’s books may get better, but they may well not get better enough…?