Before They Are Hanged follows the three primary story arcs that emerge from The Blade Itself. Inquisitor Glokta manages the siege of Dagoska and beyond through his sardonic internal dialogue. Colonel West and a small band of Northman struggle to survive the escalating war in the north. First Magi Bayaz leads his motley crew to the end of the world in search of a power to repel the rising menace of his age-old rival and the eaters of flesh that follow him.
As I indicated above, Abercrombie gives us more of the same with Before They Are Hanged – if you enjoyed The Blade Itself, then chances are high that you’ll enjoy Before They Are Hanged, if you didn’t enjoy The Blade Itself…well, you get the picture. I loved The Blade Itself and the often subtle (and often not) ways that Abercrombie plays with common fantasy tropes (all-knowing wizard, barbarian from the north, stuck-up nobleman, etc.) – he uses many of them, yet does so with a biting, satirical edge and seems to revel in taking the story in unexpected directions. Before They Are Hanged does all this (and more), but since this is the second book of the trilogy, the novelty of the approach has worn off. With the novelty gone, things almost become tiresome in places.
Characterization is where Abercrombie gets the loudest praise and deservedly so. We follow each of the story arcs through multiple points of view that give real insight into characters who feel authentic. Logen Ninefingers, the infamous barbarian from the north, expresses a soft side at odds with his appearance. Then in the next scene we see him in an insane, berserker rage, overtopping even the most stereotypical of northern barbarians. Glokta, the crippled torturer with internal dialogue to challenge Tyrion’s gold-standard of fantasy characters, actually grows a small heart that shows character growth both fitting and unexpected. These are but two of the best examples of Abercrombie’s gift with characters. Of course he can’t get it right all the time – Colonel West still seems unrealized and unconvincing in spite of Abercrombie’s effort to the contrary and I really hope that he has kept Ardee around for some reason, because I’m not buying it so far.
Plot is where Abercrombie usually earns his dings, and I have to agree again. We have a siege, a war in the north, and quest across a decayed empire. These plots are about as plain as I’ve described them (though events in the quest almost make up for the shortcomings). Without Abercrombie’s superior characterization and sardonic wit the plot would drag these books into obscurity instead of serving an adequate vehicle for what he’s really about.
The First Law trilogy is a single story told in three parts. Therefore it’s a bit unfair to attempt to judge Before They Are Hanged as a single book, rather than the middle section of a single story. I haven’t read Last Argument of Kings yet, but my impression at the moment is that Before They Are Hanged suffers a bit from the middle book syndrome. Still, the book is enjoyable and Abercrombie makes another assertion that he is an author to take notice of with Last Argument of Kings topping my list of anticipated reads. 7-7.5/10
Related Posts: The Blade Itself review, Review of Last Argument of Kings, Joe Abercrombie Answers Questions Five, Review of The First Law Trilogy, Review of Best Served Cold