“No point crying about it. You have to be realistic.” -Logen Ninefingers

I admit I read this book probably in the worst possible conditions. It’s been too many years since I finished reading “The Blade Itself” (the first in this trilogy), and too many months since I started reading this book. My impressions have suffered for this excessive stretching out and this series is best read in a compact amount of time. Too much time passed for me, but not because the first book made a bad impression on me. On the contrary, I loved that book and I still remember it fondly. The reason is that I knew what to expect in a sequel, I had a good idea of Abercrombie’s writing, and so kept delaying the rest of the trilogy in favor of books that were more mysterious and novel. In fact “The Blade Itself” marked the second or third book in my rediscovery of the fantasy genre after many years. That’s one reason why I prefer to reach out for what’s different than reading deep into a single series. And I have to admit that reading now “Before They Are Hanged” is different from a few years ago. I know much better all the different flavors the genre offers and Abercrombie for me doesn’t feel as fresh and innovative as it was at the time.

Another reason why I kept delaying the reading of this book is that it was widely acknowledged that this was a trilogy of increasing success. The consensus (that includes the author) was (is) that each book is better than the previous and now Abercrombie is not anymore the new writer fighting to find space in the market. He’s actually one of the strongest names, and has arguably surpassed both Rothfuss and Lynch, whose production was severely limited (personal choice in one case, uncontrollable events in the other). Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Lynch, the three bigger new names that, some years later, continue to monopolize the same space (well, Lynch put himself out of the picture, at least for the time being) and have not yet been replaced by anyone else (beside Sanderson, who picked a different path to success). All of this oddly diminished my interest, since there wasn’t much else to unearth. It was a safe bet. I knew the style, I knew what kind of stuff these books were made of. The group of fans was growing and it didn’t need another to repeat how cool Abercrombie was.

I said that my impression of this book changed a lot now that I have read so much more stuff than what I knew at the time, but not my overall appreciation of Abercrombie’s writing strengths. This series and this book remain for me the easiest to recommend in the genre, along with Martin. A type of work that has a wide accessibility and can be appreciated by a different, broad public. That it is generous and that repays the reader’s attention with fun and charisma, page by page. If we consider a type of work that has to be widely accessible and enjoyable, Abercrombie is probably one of the best choices (if not the best, since it’s less heavily handed, literally and figuratively, than Martin), matching that accessibility with cleverness and a modern, fresh style of writing. It’s perfectly balanced, and at the same time it’s sharp and lively. Nothing of the dullness of conformity that often comes with broad accessibility.

I also think, though, that it doesn’t reach very far when it comes to “ambition”. This is probably the one aspect where my idea of this book is different than what the majority thought of it. While my memories of the first book aren’t crystal clear, I found this sequel a bit less lively and creative. Maybe too polished, because I often felt that the characters and events were on a leash. Forbidden to stray in order to tightly lock with a predetermined plot. The story felt more like a funnel than a natural expansion of the events of the first book, and I think it was too restrained and more limited. Some of that spark of positive foolishness was kind of missing in this book compared to the first, and some characters painted too plainly as caricatures to be thought fondly of or appreciated.

Even in the first book Abercrombie’s writing was emphatic, especially in how it handled characterization. But the parody worked because it was balanced by a sharp vision. As if the superficiality was in fact superficial. While in a few occasions in this book I thought things were handled superficially and as a “best effort” that didn’t exactly shine in execution. This is even more evident for me because Abercrombie always tries to entertain in every page and every scene. Always try to add a clever spin even if describing a mundane situation, and in this case sometimes I felt as if he was trying too much, as if the effort was stronger than its efficacy. Then I think this may be also due to the fact I was reading Glen Cook at the same time, whose prose falls at the opposite of the spectrum, and so highlighting the emphatic features of Abercrombie’s writing. This emphasis can feel as somewhat fake, fabricated, but for me this was compensated by characters that are plenty of fun to read, written cleverly, but that specifically in this book suffered from some predictable development (and Glokta is Too Much Tyrion), following events that, as I already said, were more driven by hand than developing in an organic way.

So this time I’ll be the voice out of the chorus. My appreciation of Abercrombie didn’t fall after these years, what I think of his work is essentially unchanged, but I wouldn’t rate this book better than “The Blade Itself”. Too controlled, “stifled” and predictable, less creative and lively, contrasting with the promise full of possibilities of the first book. What was carved out of all that potential fell a bit shorter than the hinted picture. Too much time passed for me to compare directly the writing in that book and this one, but this time the result was for me less effective and engaging. I’ll continue to remember “The Blade Itself” fondly, and this book just a step lower. Beside these issues “Before They Are Hanged” remains a pleasure to read. The different PoVs are organized so that they walk in line, build-up matched by build-up, so that every change of scene isn’t interrupted by a lapse in the tension. The banter remains excellent, mixing the witty with the serious. I’m a bit puzzled about the point where Abercrombie decided to close this second chapter, it’s a bit off-putting even if probably intended, but as a whole I think it works and the problems in the flow of the story I perceived are probably more due to my irregular reading than the nature of it.

It would be silly to conclude these comments with hyperbole since I think specifically this book was one step lower, but at the same time I focused on what I felt was different, which in this case was all about negative aspects. Abercrombie does remain in my opinion a perfect representation of a modern take on the genre that isn’t so subversive or revolutionary, that doesn’t fight for “literary” space, but that is still plenty fun to read while keeping a high qualitative level. An excellent compromise that retains plenty of qualities, and that deserves to be recommended. Good enough to make a strong impression, and not too pretentious and demanding to be condemned to a smaller niche (and that, in my opinion, deserves exactly the success it got).

Hopefully it won’t be too long before I finish the trilogy and move to the other three books he wrote (that I already own).

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