Review: Before They Are Hanged (Joe Abercrombie)

I’ll be completely honest, I went into Before They Are Hanged with pretty mixed expectations (I believe I actually gave a long-suffering sigh when I took it from my bookshelf). If you’ve read my review of book one in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, you’ll know how often I almost gave up on this series. If I hadn’t made it to those final 150-odd pages of book one, I’d never have picked up the second book in this trilogy.

I was wary, sure, I’d been burned with book one, and this was a longer book (although not by much), and my resolve to finish all books I start meant this could become tediously frustrating.

Before they are hanged

Spoilers ahead, so read on at your own risk…

So, Before They Are Hanged…? Now this was a story I could sink my teeth into. Where book one had been a chore, I down-right enjoyed this story. With trilogies, I’ve often found that the second book is where the story falls down, flails, if you will; where the story becomes more of a way-station between books one and three. But Abercrombie takes the tension he’s built at the end of book one and (mostly) runs with it.

It’s a dark, punishing look at a world that’s on the brink of change. And according to the characters telling this story, it’s not going to be a change for the good. The Union is screwed, but they’re the facilitators of their own undoing. As a long-term ruling power, they’ve become lackadaisical, especially with their army, focussing more on pomp and ceremony than actual fighting skills, and it doesn’t take much for these weaknesses to be exploited.

For me, the story is carried by the characters. Abercrombie has really pulled his socks up with characterisation here – he’s challenged his characters to change, and they’ve bit back hard, resisting his push for it but undergoing it nonetheless. Ninefingers is still my favourite character (the Bloody Nine!), although Dogman and his crew are all very close seconds – I could happily read about their exploits, and their dialogue is excellent. Ferro took a while to warm to, but her harshness and dogged thirst for vengeance (regardless of self-realisation) endeared her to me.

Glokta is still the intriguing character he was in book one, but watching his edges being chipped away… this isn’t going to end well for anyone. The revelation (for me, anyway) were my feelings toward Luthar. I had no interest in this character in book one. He was a bland waste of space, and I had to consciously stop myself from skipping over his pages in book one (a hard task indeed). He starts off this way in book two, but his interactions with Ninefingers are some of my favourite. Luthar can still be a bit of a pratt, but if he’d have changed to someone of good character and compassion… well, that would have felt like a slap in the face as a reader.

The battles that take place within this book are grim, bloody and in-your-face, just as they should be. Abercrombie doesn’t shy from the horror, the ugliness, and the unfairness of war. Shit happens. A lot of bad shit happens. People die. Horribly. People live (also horribly). And those we want to live, die; those we want to die, live. That’s war. It’s not pretty. It’s not glorious. Abercrombie does it shitty justice.

There’s a lot at play here, and Abercrombie’s worked it well, giving us more of the characters and fleshing out the culture of this world and its roots. The Union is fighting (rather poorly) for its survival, but there’s war happening on all fronts here: Bayaz and Khalul, Glokta and Sult, Ninefingers and Ferro (sex/companionship as a battle), West and the pompous colonels, and all the internal battles of the main characters… it’s everywhere and I liked it.

There are multiple plot-threads in this second instalment but it’s not too messy. Each new sliver of information, each cross and double-cross adds to this ongoing chess game. They’re all playing – each character a king in their own game, but pawns in the games of others. It’s this… greyness of storytelling that kept me turning the pages – nothing is ever as black and white as it seems.

This isn’t a completely glowing review, as at times the pacing seemed a little off. There are times when Abercrombie really grabs you with his storytelling, then lets you go, asking you to wander around a bit while he gets his soldiers all in a row. I found that most of this was to do with what I like to call ‘politics-interruptus’. It’s the telling of what’s going on that drags at the book; yes, I understand there’s politics involved with this story, but we really did get our understanding of these machinations with book one (in slow, slow shovel-fuls), there’s little need to rehash it in book two. Give the reader some credit; we can carry the pseudo-religious-politico games through on our own.

Overall, Abercrombie’s written a fine second book in this trilogy. Before They Are Hanged was a story I wanted to keep reading, and while book three awaits, I’ll be taking a breather with another book before heading into the epic 700-pager that awaits with the Last Argument of Kings.

(On a Goodreads scale, I give this 4/5 stars).


Review: The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)

I didn’t read anywhere near as much as I wanted last year (I’m talking for pleasure, not work), so this year I’m setting about turning this around. I’m also wanting to read more fantasy (of the darker kind), as the novel I’m writing has fantasy roots. Aaanywho, I picked up Joe Abercrombie’s ‘The First Law’ trilogy, and as I’m about halfway through book two, I thought I’d chuck the review of book one up here.

So, here we go…

This is a 2.5 star rating, but I’m going to review this book as two parts because that’s exactly how it read to me – like two books… and sometimes even two authors, who put ‘The Blade Itself’ together.

I picked up ‘The First Law’ trilogy on a recent trip to my local bookstore. The sales clerk raved about it, and a quick check on Goodreads showed great reviews, so I was pretty excited to get started. Grimdark!

The blade itself

Here there be spoilers…

I have a like/hate relationship with this book. I began intrigued by the story, and with Logen Ninefingers especially (if it weren’t for him, and later his ‘merry’ band, I’d have thrown the book at the wall), but the further I moved into the book, the more frustrated and annoyed I became. The story started strong enough, Logen Ninefingers, talking with spirits, the Shanka – all good, then in came the world of the Union, and in particular Inquisitor Glokta and Captain Jezal Luthar – two very different peas in an almost farcical pod.

Glokta is an interesting character; once one of the Unions most famed soldiers, after 700 days at the “mercy” of the enemy, he’s a crippled, toothless shell of a man and now the best torturer the Union has. Abercrombie does well to make the reader believe Glokta is an old man; I was surprised to learn he was in mid-thirties. Glokta’s Practicals are also a nice touch to the man – Frost especially. At times, I was cringing at the amount of internal monologue Glokta has; less is more, and repetition can become tedious.

Captain Jezal Luthar is an awful parody. Godawful. The back of the dustjacket describes Luthar as a ‘paragon of selfishness’, but I found him to be lazily written. I’ve absolutely no problem with unlikeable characters, if fact, they often make a book, but Luthar is… well, did I say godawful? Especially when he’s marked against a character such as Ninefingers or Dogman, for instance (fleshed out and well-rounded). There’s room for shallow characters, but not room, I believe for shallow characterisation. Sure, he can really only go up from here, and there’s nothing BUT growth to be had, but Abercrombie shows he can write a great character, it’s more like he couldn’t be bothered with Luthar and that makes the book suffer in my eyes.

When I said farcical, that’s exactly what the Union is… with a few clichés thrown in for fun: a fat, dementia-riddled absurdity of a king; a ridiculously stupid crown prince more worried about fashion that his empire; the king’s guard (I’m talking 40-odd men here) who cower, whimper and almost piss themselves when their king is vaguely threatened (seriously? no one’s buying that); and a religious council (let’s call a sect a sect) who pretty much have their hand up the king’s bum like a puppet. Yes, I understand the need to make the Union appear as defenceless and gormless as possible, but this is beyond believability – I can suspend belief, I can, but c’mon!


The one man in the Union who does understand the ridiculousness (and danger) of the situation is Major West, a commoner risen above his station, much to the derision of the blue-bloods (yep, I see that cliché too). But him, I like.

350 pages in and it was a struggle; where was the story arc? Where was the plot? It was Ninefingers and his old crew that kept me turning the pages… well that and I’m stubborn. I was finishing this book, and I was going to be honest in my review.

Then something happened. The story finally kicked in. It had been wandering all over the place, almost as if it were trying to find its way. When Ninefingers, Bayaz, Luthar, and Glokta walk into the House of the Maker it was like they awakened the author. The writing (mostly) fell into place, and I began to see the story Abercrombie wanted to tell.

From here on in I read the book quickly; I was interested and intrigued, and even grew to tolerate the beige that is Luthar. The magic, both dark and curious, began to show its other hand, and the Eaters are a great creation. THIS is where the story should have begun. This is also where I realised the first 350-odd pages had been the longest character introduction I’ve ever read. From here, Abercrombie pretty much holds his own. The ‘Bloody Nine’ chapter is a bloody good read, and the scene where the Bloody Nine rises is a stand-out.

For me, the structure doesn’t do the story justice; I was close to giving up so many times but perseverance got me through. Thing is, a great read shouldn’t be about perseverance, especially when the last 150-odd pages were a good, and at times, a very, very good read.

I can’t forgive the amount of times ‘Er…’ appeared, though, I just can’t. Everyone says it. All. The. Time. If I’d have made a drinking game of it, I’d have been hammered a couple of chapters in. If I’d based the game on exclamation points, I’d be back in the mud. (Ping to the editors on that – less is more, less is more!!!!!)

drunk dog

Make no mistake, Ninefingers and his old crew carried this story for me; they were the only ones I was invested in.

So… here we are at the end of this review that will get two ratings: 1.5 stars for the first part, and four stars for the end. Nothing we learned in the first part, couldn’t have been given to the reader in a hundred-odd pages without losing any of the understanding of characters, culture and the history of the world Abercrombie has created.

I’ll start book two, and see how it goes. Though I’m now a wary reader.

Intimate Kisses

I received an out-pouring of birthday wishes today, which was wonderful, and always makes a girl feel special. So as thanks, I thought I’d give a little something back.

‘Intimate Kisses’ is a story I wrote a few years back for a tea zine (yep, you read that right) where they were looking for all things ‘tea’, and a friend of mine suggested to the publisher that a horror story would make for some interesting tea-time reading.

Subtle horror was the order of the day, and this is definitely one of my more tame tales, but…it’s just my cup of tea…


Dirt-covered and chipped, the antique teacup protruded from the front yard of the farmhouse ruins. Fine cracks ran through the faded porcelain like veins, crimson specks hiding its true colour. The handle was broken and partially buried. Two of the cup’s feet jutted from the ground like gold fangs.

It was content to wait. Discovery was guaranteed. Always. Two centuries of intimate kisses ensured it.

The morning breeze carried the hint of jasmine over the abandoned lot as the sun stole moisture from the ground. A field mouse scurried through the grass. Nose twitching, it shied from the cup.

A goshawk swooped, silent.

The mouse squealed once.

The wind’s next breath carried voices over the rubble. Taunting. Teasing.

“Mamma’s boy! Mamma’s boy!”

The youthful scorn washed over the ruins, and as the catcalls and laughter drifted past, the cup waited.


A curse beyond the broken fence.

A rock ricocheted off nearby sandstone.

The children’s words—“Mamma’s boy!”—hissed through the brittle grass. The ground trembled. Dirt fell from the porcelain exposing a tunnel into the belly of the cup. “Mamma’s boy! Mamma’s boy!” The curses stormed over the rim, twisting, scouring the memories of long-gone lips.

One gold-plated foot quivered; inched into the light. Caressed by the sun, it glinted.

Footsteps halted; changed direction.

Whispers churned within the teacup, its jagged handle ambush-ready.

Eclipsed by the boy’s shadow, the cup shook with the first brush of fingertips. The small, disfigured hand hesitated. The second touch showed the boy what he wanted to see. Treasure. Hidden treasure.

He began to dig, shifting dirt almost reverently.

Stubby fingers probed.

The handle curled like a scorpion tail.

The boy reached, nudged.

Dirt spewed over the rim and the tortured souls enslaved within the cup screamed in warning.

Flesh punctured. The boy flinched.

His sacrifice dripped into the cup, pumping tiny rivers of the boy’s darkest desires to its porcelain heart.

In one final push for possession, the cup clawed at the dirt with its feet, righted itself.


The boy lifted it carefully, and as he blew dirt from his treasure, he breathed life, and the promise of death, back into the cup. Cradled in stained hands, the boy’s blood, infected with thoughts of his cruel mother, pulsed through the cup’s veins.

Mamma’s boy! Mamma’s boy! The voices of the other boys snarled through him, tormenting. Always tormenting.

The chant was silenced by a small voice, sweet and corrupted. “Mamma’s boy,” it crooned, feeding the boy’s rage and vowing revenge.

It asked little in return. Devotion. Obedience. The boy’s soul for retribution.

At that promise, the blood on the handle’s jagged tip bubbled amongst the screams of those forever imprisoned inside. A single speck of blood burst free from the tip and speared into the porcelain, reforging the handle.

The cup began a new chapter in its journey. It would visit horrors on all who had wronged its new Keeper, creating nightmares they would not escape. Their suffering would restore the cup to its former glory.

It would drain the life out of the boy’s enemies. One sip at a time.


(This beautiful teacup was gifted to me from the lovely Elizabeth Wayne)

The Writing Process Blog Chain

My buddy, Andrew J McKiernan, tagged me into this Writing Process blog chain, and I don’t know whether to smack him or buy him a beer at our next writerly get-together. You can read all about Andrew’s writing process here, and as he was brought into this by Alan Baxter, you can read all about Alan’s process, too (guilt by association, Al!). It’s been a real eye-opener reading about the varied way authors approach their craft.

The idea behind this blog chain is for writers to answer four questions that discuss their work and their process (minus the tears and rocking in a corner, I’m guessing), then tag three other authors into laying themselves bare. I’ve enjoyed reading about the writing processes of other storytellers – each as diverse as the writers and the words and worlds they create.

Now it’s my turn to be uncomfortable…

1. What am I working on?

I’m currently working on the draft of my first novel – a horror story in a fantasy world. I know the term most used is ‘dark fantasy’, but I look at it as a horror story set in a fantastical world. I hate labels, by the way. The novel is based in the world of a short story I wrote for ASIM #48 in 2010 – The Whims of my Enemy. It’s a desperate, genocidal world, where the lines between right and wrong, of good and evil, are blurred.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That’s always a tough question to answer. The best I can give is ‘voice’. Every writer has their own; their own way of building their worlds, their characters, and how each interacts with others and the world they’ve created – we all bleed differently onto the page. If I look back at the short stories I’ve written, the unifying idea behind them would be horror versus hope, be it an internal battle or all-out bloody war. I’d say my writing examines how different people react and cope with truly horrendous situations, and how it breaks some and makes others. Do I compare or liken myself to other writers? No, that does no one any favours, least of all me.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Aah, I’m asked that a lot. Actually, it’s more: “My god, why?” And that’s more with me being a woman who writes horror (and a mum to boot!). I’ve dealt with this in a post here, but one of the simple answers is: it’s what flowed. No doubt my writing was influenced by my reading habits, which have always been on the darker side of fiction. There was very little chance I was going to be a romance writer (sorry, Dad!). Why do I write it? I love it. I love putting characters into ghastly situations to see what they’re made of… or what they’re not. And I hope it makes for an uncomfortably thought-provoking read.

4. How does my writing process work?

It differs. For short stories, I’m a ‘pantser’ – I sit down with an idea and just write. Sometimes I have an idea of where the story will go, sometimes not. I’ve even worked a short from end to beginning.

As for my novel, this has been the steepest learning curve, and to be completely honest, the scope of it has been more than a little frightening. I’m actually on what technically would be my second draft, as I chucked the first one – it took me 52,000 words to realise it wasn’t working, and that was due to me constraining the novel to the boundaries of the short story (not smart, I know, but hey, you learn from your mistakes). Still, those 52,000 words gave me a greater understanding of the world and my characters, so not all bad. While I had very detailed character lists and a basic story outline, I tried to ‘pants’ my way through this, and that didn’t work either. So while I now have a very vague chapter outline, I still like to let my characters lead the way – they know the story they want to tell. Sometimes they let me in on it, other times, not. I’ve been pleasantly (and unpleasantly) surprised on more than one occasion by the decisions and choices they’ve made.

This first draft also has a deadline thanks to the awesome Black Friday Wager group, which was set up as a way to help a bunch of us achieve our goals. So the first draft of my novel needs to be completed by Friday, June 13, 2014 or I owe Marty Young a bottle of scotch. Unfortunately for Marty, he’ll be the one ponying up a couple of volumes of Gaiman’s Sandman, as I will get this first (second) draft done!

So that’s me then. Now it’s time to tag three other amazing writers into this blog chain. If you haven’t read their work (or those of Andrew McKiernan and Alan Baxter), go out and find it – you’ll wish you’d done so earlier!

Over to you:

Devin Madson

Marty Young

Greg Chapman

(Note: Devin, Marty and Greg will post their responses to the question next Monday, March 10th)

Inkwell on an old letter