Whatever it was that Mr A withheld in the second part of his dark heroic fantasy trilogy, he brings it back with tripled texterity. The magic is back! I was left a bit puzzled at the end of book 2, Before They Are Hanged, wondering if I had misjudged book 1, The First Law – was it really that good?
Yes, it was! Logen is spectacular. What Mr A achieves here is worth emulating – he makes me care about this barbarian despite the awkward fact that even Logen can’t deny – he is a killer. I don’t like killers. Nobody does. But we really care about this guy. How does he do that? It seems that part of the art is withholding the truth about Logen’s past, giving us glimpses that worsen through the tale, but never enough to overbalance the empathy that develops as we endure hardships with Logen. The crux of it is that Logen is trying to be better than he was. It’s enlightening to learn how much one can forgive a man when is honestly trying. This only makes the horror of what he is and does more intense.
The humour is back: “Jezal sat in a haze of awkwardness, in a dreamlike silence, startling from time to time like a sick rabbit as a powdered footman blindsided him with vegetables.” I giggled myself to tears. My fellow commuters looked on like sheep eyeing a naked farmer. He’s gone mad – is he dangerous?
The characters all develop and (finally) assert their will: West comes into his power, Jezal too, despite the clear sense that all the lead characters are being carried along in events greater than themselves, they also begin to take command of their little patch, which is greatly satisfying to read. And this goes some way to explaining what was going on in terms of character development in book 2 – nothing.
The launch into the story world was expertly planned, and the conclusion was dazzling with a hell of a lot happening. The middle seemed, by comparison, to go nowhere. I was beginning to think that it may be better to take a story in a surprising direction in book 2 or simply eliminate the book altogether – if the plot goes up up and away and comes down with a crunch, we probably don’t need much of the bit in between. But there seems to be a lesson for the characters and this reader in the rambling arc of the middle book – nothing seems to work out the way we want it to. We’re all left feeling disappointed, which sets us up for the finale. I might have set the series aside, but I’m very glad I didn’t.
Bayaz is the best wizard I have ever read of. In the Last Argument of Kings Mr A passes on a revelation about what the wizard was actually doing and the book suddenly came alive! Bayaz is cunning, terrifying, manipulative and untrustworthy, arrogant, too wise, inhumanly inspired, and his magic is more in politics than in spells, yet he doesn’t shy away from destroying someone if he needs to. He is masterfully crafted, and this series is worth studying just for Bayaz alone. He is to be feared.
As the real battle begins in the North, Logen is in his element and the tension around him is incredible. The way the hard men fear and hate him, yet respect him gives you a hint of what he is capable of, yet you aren’t shown the truth of it until you really need Logen to reveal his dark nature, and then there’s this complicated resolution to events where Logen doesn’t ever really save the day (but we want him to).
To write like this is a great achievement, in my opinion. Such despicable people, yet we care about their fortunes and want them to do right, in the end. It would be so easy to slip up in the telling, to lose the reader in a moment of revulsion and never regain the interest in the character. Mr A comes very close sometimes, so expect a bloody tale. But then the barbarian gets philosophical, and I’m speechless with respect for Logen (and his creator, back there in the shadows):
“You can have enemies you never really meet, Logen had plenty. You can kill men you don’t know, he’d done it often. But you can’t truly hate a man without loving him first, and there’s always a trace of that love left over.”
Five stars. Now sneak over to Joe Abercrombie’s website and watch what he’s up to. I know I’m going to. I just hope Bayaz doesn’t (ever) notice me.