Ye Olde Middle Booke Syndrome

April 24th, 2008

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…?

Posted in opinion, reviews by Joe Abercrombie on April 24th, 2008. Tags: ,

15 comments so far

  • Anonymous says:

    Didn’t see anything wrong with it myself, but I don’t claim the incisive, penetrative, analytical insights (ha!) of the book critter bunch.

    They’ve got to find something to say and a critique of a middle book is a good opportunity for a bit of prodding along the lines of ‘could do better’. It gives them a nice, warm feeling of being constructive – sort of.

    What you need (if another trilogy looms) is a cunning plan. Distract them. Put a map in the second volume only. They’ll wet their knickers with excitement and scores of 10 will rain down like confetti.

  • Wow.

    I guess this goes to show that you shouldn’t listen to the critics because they’re stupid.

    Personally I loved the characterization of West and Jezal, both of whom became favorite characters of mine as the book went on, but I did enjoy book 1 more, sorry to tell you. But then again, book 3 was my fave….


  • Anonymous says:

    Isn’t the problem simply that the publishers tend to insist upon a three book deal when they sign up new authors?

    Instead, why not do a Karen Miller and go for a duology (“Kingmaker, Kingbreaker” in her case)? No middle book syndrome there.

    Incidently, why is BTAH the most difficult volume of the three to find in hard cover?

  • Swainson says:

    Hi Joe,
    Back fighting the good fight again I see.
    Some observations on the critiques

    Lack of plot

    If all the books are one story, ie a triology, then how can it have a different plot or a plot that is not as exciting?

    Bridging volume

    by definition, it’s the middle book if it didn’t bridge the first and last it wouldn’t be a triology.

    I know it’s semantics but I would be more inclined to listen to critics if they thought a little more about what they were writing and what it actually means.

    Anyway I assume they don’t pay for the books they review. Listen to us, your dear readers, who pay money towards your swimming pool shaped like a sword.

    Your mum was right,(they always are) the middle book was the best written.

    So relax, kick back with a feeling of satisfaction for having writen hugely enjoyable books and think to yourself “It’s POETS day and beer o’clock is only 8 hours away”

  • jdp says:

    I’m just finishing the last volume of the trilogy. For me, the books got consistently better as they went along; I reckon LAOK is a vast improvement on both the others, and a fantastic finalé (I’m just a few scant chapters from the end – don’t blow it now, Joe, not now! I’m begging you!).

    I must admit that I wasn’t completely sold on TBI at first, but as a series, the First Law is a really great read.

  • Jared says:

    Spoiler alert. Wait, do we need to do that any more? Anyway…

    The second book introduced very classical fantasy elements – the whole ‘trek across the world to find the ancient hoodad of thingummy’ thing.

    Then, at the very end, you pulled the rug out from under it. You turned the Sword of Shannara into a MacGuffin! Why, this wasn’t a legendary tale of prophecy fulfillment at ALL! You made it about character development! How… dare you…

    Anyway, some reviewers seem to have gotten it. Some certainly didn’t. Their loss, really.

  • Anonymous,
    Well, there may be a map in the next book, in a manner of speaking. Not quite the usual way, though…

    Anthony Drake Mocony,
    To be fair (which I hate doing), most of these folks liked the book to some degree, they just didn’t like it as much as the first. So they probably more or less agree with you…

    Anonymous 2,
    By the time BTAH was printed there were still a couple of hundred TBI hardcovers unsold, so they did a slightly shorter print run for the second (800-1000, I think?) The series took off a lot more around this time, though, all the excess TBIs sold out pretty quickly and BTAHs have hence become hard to get. The hardcover run of LAoK was a fair bit longer, I think.

    One can’t just listen to the people who love you, much though one might like to. Obviously you can’t take any single bit of criticism too seriously either.

    And every o’clock is beer o’clock.

    Glad you’ve liked them, and their undeniably steady improvement.

    Well, if everyone got it, what would make US special?

  • First off, let me say that I read A LOT of books. Amazing books and horrible books. Fat books, Skinny books, Books that climb on rocks… well you get the point. Anyway, I’ve loved your series so far, and plan on ordering it from the Amazon UK even though my pitiful American dollars gets raped by your strapping British Pound.

    I breezed through both books in about 5 days and have added them to my list of all time favorites right up there with Tolkien/Martin/Jordan etc… Now that you’ve been validated by some jerk in Cincinnati, Ohio USA I’m sure you can go about your life feeling much the better.

    RE: Critics, you really can’t pay any attention to them. My photography work (boring stuff really, whatever you do don’t click on the provided link) has garnered a bit of world-wide attention and no two people ever say the same nice, or mean for that matter, thing. You already know this though. Anyway, keep up the great work, you’ve got a fan in me blah blah. 🙂 Thanks for reading.

  • Alex says:

    The one problem with writing/publishing books so quickly after one another (and I do mean the one and only problem) is that it makes re-reading the first one before reading the second a little tricky. I think I found myself in the position of remembering the first book a little too well to read it again, though not well enough to be able to compare it to the second. So, well, I didn’t. I can only say that I’m fairly sure that I enjoyed both immensely.

    But what puzzles me in these reviews is the insistence on talking about the plot (and the extent to which so many reviews seem to be little more than synopsis + very brief opinion of whether the critic liked it – if the plot is fundamental to enjoying the book, then any kind of synopsis takes away some of that enjoyment, and if it isn’t, why bother mentioning it?). To me, the plot is one of the least important things in a book. If the writing’s good enough, I’d even be perfectly happy without any plot at all, in the conventional sense of the word…

  • m.q.zed says:

    Well, although I did love both books, I did tell my husband once I finished Before They Are Hanged that it was just as good but it had that middle book ending that makes you feel as if the book had ended in the middle of a sentence and didn’t have a proper conclusion. But you have said that The First Law is one book divided in three so it is to be expected.

    Plus I was sulking because I still don’t have the third book, but it’s in the mail, and that keeps me going.

  • daft sod says:

    Middle book syndrome my codpiece. It was definitely better than TBI. I agree with alex when it comes to plot. I mean how many different plots can you have anyway. The trilogy has a fresh approach to the fantasy genre, good characterization and absobloodylutely well-handled dialogue. Not to mention the sense of humour of Master Abercromie.

    I noticed that “A Song of Ice and Fire” is often mentioned in connection with “The First Law”, either by critics or by Joe himself. I also think that A Game of Thrones was the best book by Martin (its also a terrific board game by fantasy flight games). But i must say that Martin got stuck on his “epic scope” in his later books like Sticky the stick insect on a very sticky bun.

    Before I finish I have to mention the book critcs, though. In the dictionary I use critic is defined as: A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody
    tries to please him.

  • Susanne says:

    Fie unto them. I thought BTAH was VASTLY better than TBI. Character development, plot pacing, the lot.

    And the middle book syndrome thing… I actually enjoyed the ending of BTAH much more than the one in TBI. I felt a bit let down after the first book; after all the excitement I thought it left off with no ending whatsoever (childish, I know) – but BTAH ended on such an “Excelsior!!! OMG what’s next?!1!” that it was very difficult to wait for LAOK. (Which, in this fangirl’s opinion, is the best out of the three…)

    I want to say “Don’t read those heathens” but I actually think it’s quite cool that you do. Beware too much coffee, and handle the fiery sword with care. 😉

  • JM,
    You can’t take the critics too seriously, but you can’t stop yourself looking either…

    Alex, daft sod,
    I know exactly what you mean about the plot, and never understand why some reviewers spend 75% of their time summarising it. A plot summary either tells you nothing (bad), or spoilers you (worse). Even stranger I find are the people I occasionally run across who dismiss books purely on the basis of some arbitrary plot element. “I’ve read a book with a wizard in it, I don’t need to read another.” Or “I hate dragon books.” As you say, what makes a book good, for me, is all about the detail of character, dialogue, texture, and nothing much to do with the events it covers.

    mq zed,
    I think somewhere back in the mists of time I did a post about writing series as one big book split up (a la Lord of the Rings) as opposed to individual books linked together (a la Lies of Locke Lamora, say). The bottom line was that the former approach pays off big at the end (we hope).

    Ah, I may not enjoy reading the negative reviews much, but I certainly prefer discussing them…

  • Larry says:


    Just a head’s up. The Strange Horizons review of LAoK will appear sometime next week, as I just finished the final round of revisions and it’s good to go. But I’ll go ahead and whet your appetite for having fun with my critique there:

    As I went through the abnormally long read/re-read/write/revise cycle, certain issues I had with the characters and the pacing got a bit amplified. The end result was that I didn’t enjoy LAoK as much as I did BTAH. But I did at least try to elaborate on all of this, so I guess others will just have to take it as they may, even if they might call me a “poopyhead” in return 😛

  • cryonic says:

    Being a mostly character driven trilogy it looks to me like most critics are failing to catch the point of your approach to epic fantasy and indeed to heroism.

    The first law on reading was obviously less about the ‘dark war against evil’ than it was about’ what makes a hero’.

    As such i actually enjoyed the middle book best of all three. Its the one most obviously thumbing its nose at the establishment.

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