In Joe Abercrombie’s Before They Are Hanged, conventional fantasy goes back to the mud. It’s tromped on. Ground down in the dirt. There are people to kill and scores to settle. Conventional fantasy tropes are among the dead.
The Antihero’s Journey
Take the hero’s journey for example. In The Blade Itself, we run through the first four parts. Instead of one hero, it seems there are a handful. Adventure is sounded and a mentor is introduced. For the largest cast of characters, that mentor is Bayaz, First of the Magi; however, is Bayaz a mentor? He acts as one to Jezal dan Luthar; but there is something off-putting about Bayaz. Superior Glotka is also turned out of Adua and sent to the city of Dagoska, where he must uncover who murdered the previous Superior and defend the city against the Gurkish. There is really no delusion that Glotka is heroic and his storyline doesn’t distort the hero’s journey as much as others. Our final character is Colonel West. He has a mentor in Lord Marshall Burr; but, he also has a mentor in Dogman and the other Northmen. West gets a lesson in survival, killing, and rage. It pushes him to break his vows and transforms him into a cold, hard man.
As Jezal, Logen, Ferro, Bayaz, Quai, and Brother Longfoot venture into the old Empire in search of a weapon from The Other Side (think Hell), they have a series of tests and adventures. Trials are faced. Obstacles overcome. For Jezal, it seems real growth occurs. Even Logen and Ferro seem to be changing. If one were to look at this novel in a Lord of the Rings framework, this would be the party of the Ringbearer sent out. However, instead of looking to destroy the One Ring, they would be searching for the Ring of Power in the hopes of wielding it against Sauron. The antihero’s journey is unforgiving.
In the hero’s journey, the reward is earned; the treasure found. In Before They Are Hanged, that trope is subverted. Our band of heros find the island at the edge of the world; but what was a destination becomes just a point along their journey. For Colonel West the reward comes in the final book, The Last Argument of Kings. West is not seeking a reward and the one he receives feels empty due to his betrayal. Glotka gets his reward; but it is tempered as well with the introduction of a new rival from his past.
The Return, Etc.
While the main band of antiheroes return to Adua it is not in triumph. The rest of the hero’s journey is completed in the final book; but, is there a hero? Is it Bayaz, that old bastard? Jezal, the arrogant noblemen who seems to have learned humility and empathy? Great questions to return to.
Before They Are Hanged has a bit of an Empire Strikes Back vibe. Things kind of go to shit. The bad guys, in this case, Bethod, and the Gurkish have scored victories. The Union is on its heels. Where is there hope? Who will deliver them from evil?
I’m impressed with how Abercrombie upends the fantasy genre. Before They Are Hanged continues the tone of The Blade Itself and is fast-paced. Character-driven narrative wins the day.