Before They are Hanged, Joe Abercrombie

Before They Are Hanged, Joe AbercrombieBefore They are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

First Published: 2007

Pages: 570 (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: The First Law #2

Rating: 4/54/54/54/54/5

How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It’s enough to make a torturer want to run – if he could even walk without a stick – and Inquisitor Glokta needs to find answers before the Gurkish army comes knocking at the gates.

Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem: he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world.

And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, most feared man in the North, and most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, but,  if only they didn’t hate each other so much, potentially deadly ones.

Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven – but not before they are hanged.

Before They are Hanged was, for me, a big improvement on the first book. After the first book ambled along following various characters and promising an overarching plot if only they could ever all get together in the same room, Before They are Hanged, while still primarily character-driven, has a sense of direction to it, a much stronger narrative, and real stakes to be won or lost. The players are all moving towards something now, and it makes for a much more satisfying read.

True, some of the plot lines seem like shaggy dog stories and most won’t get resolved until book three, but I can see, roughly, where the story is going now, what the main themes and points of it are. It’s no longer just a disparate bunch of people scattered across the world all doing their own thing. Abercrombie is still reluctant to reveal too much of the main plot, but we finally get some more of the mythology of the world, an explanation of who certain characters are and why they are important. I do still feel that more could have been done to make me care about certain things – Khalul is evil because he is and because he broke ‘the second law’, but there’s no sense urgency to defeat him and it’s hard to care about the atrocities we’re informed he’s committing.  Overall, though, I felt much more drawn into the world and characters this time around.

Part of that is probably because the action has all but moved away from Adua, the rather generic-european-fantasy city of the first book. Glokta has been ‘promoted’ to head inquisitor of one of the union’s colonial cities in the south – a city of massive inequality and racial tensions, schemers and traitors, about to come under siege from the Gurkish armies, and he’s been tasked with protecting it. Major West is leading armies in the north against an invasion by King Bethod, dealing with army incompetence, poor supplies, in-fighting, oh and the enemy barbarians as well. And most of the other characters are off on a silly quest through the ‘old empire’, exploring ancient ruins, developing their characters, and learning lots of  world building and mythology.

Aaaad it’s probably obvious which plot line I found least interesting. Although I like most of the characters – well, Logen and Ferro – Bayaz’s quest to the edge of the world was the hardest plot line to become emotionally invested in. As I said before, it’s hard to care for the ultimate aim of  defeating Khalul, especially when Bayaz himself is shady as fuck. And the fight scenes seem a bit artificially thrown in  purely because trudging through the desert makes for dull reading. I also found Jezal’s sudden change of attitude from the whiny brat he was in the first book a little too sudden and too soon. I am interested, however, in Logen and Ferro and in what’s going on with apprentice magi, Malacus Quai. Will be interested to see where all those characters end up in book three.

All in all a better book than The Blade Itself. I still don’t feel that Abercrombie is the best fantasy writer ever, but I am looking forward to book three. Though I do wonder, after two books of very slow plot development, how he can pull a conclusion off in just one book without it feeling rushed.

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