Before They Are Hanged – Review

The Blade Itself hooked me on the world of the First Law created by Joe Abercrombie. Once I finished it, I found myself needing more of Glokta’s dry-witted creepiness and the Bloody Nine’s stoic wisdom. Luckily, I’ve been tackling a back-log lately, so I didn’t have to wait to read the next installment. Here is my review for Before They Are Hanged.

  • Title: Before They Are Hanged
  • Author: Joe Abercrombie
  • Genre: High Fantasy
  • Audio Book Reader: Steven Pacey
  • Series: The First Law (Book 2)
  • Publisher: Gollancz (UK), 2007

Warning: Major Spoilers!

We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.

– Heinrich Heine

Summary

The novel picks up right where it left off. Most of the characters are scattered to the far corners of the world. The narrative is split between three distinct areas of the world:

(1) Colonel West joins a group of defected Northmen and the Union Army to take on Bethod and his encroaching army of Northmen.

(2) Bayaz and his company (which include Logen, Luthar, and Ferro) journey to the Edge of the World to find an artifact of the Maker that will aid them in defeating an imminent threat.

(3) Superior Glokta fights to defend the southern city of Dagoska from enemies within and without (the approaching Gurkish hordes).

Along the way, each character is tested. Colonel West falls for a woman below his station – something he condemned his sister for. Logen and Ferro find an unlikely connection. Luthar loses his looks. And, Glokta questions his motives as he walks the fine line between unlikely hero and monster.

Each campaign ends in failure. West kills the crown-prince, and discovers that Northmen aren’t the only thing threatening the Union. Bayaz and co. discover that there isn’t anything at the Edge of the World. And, Glokta learns that, while he could not save a city, he can save women from befalling ill fates and – perhaps – his future is in politics, not torture.

But, then again, what’s the difference?

Opinion

I’d be lying if I said I liked this one. I’d also be lying if I said I hated all of it. In truth, my opinion of this novel was fouled by the ending of the Bayaz/Logen story line. Perhaps this anti-climax serves some higher purpose for the rest of the series, but it felt like a pointless detour. Characters certainly developed, yes. Relationships were forged and broken, yes. That’s all one can ask for, usually, but it left me…cold…unsatisfied. This story line feels pointless and hints at a great anti-climax to come (hope I’m wrong).

I think this is due to the fact that there (still) isn’t much of a plot. The author is putting the characters in a situation and sees what will happen. This can be interesting, but without some meta plot or plan holding it all together it foreshadows an unsatisfactory ending to the trilogy.

In my opinion, only the Glokta and West story lines save this book. The inquisitor remains one of the most compelling characters in fantasy fiction. He inhabits the grey area between good and evil and we never quite know if we should love or fear him. West’s development has certainly elevated him from side character in the first novel to protagonist in this one. However, I feel that simply offing his love interest at the end is another wasted opportunity.

The novel is brimming with beautiful prose, gritty fight scenes, insightful self-reflection, and quotable one-liners. I just wish I didn’t read the final chapter.

Cons

The ending.

As I stated above, this ruined the entire book for me. Look, I don’t want to put you off, really, I don’t. Read this book – there’s much to enjoy – just skip the end. Whatever you imagine is better than the cold emptiness that the party finds at the Edge of the World.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope the final installment of the trilogy proves that all of this was for some cleverly devised reason.

There is nothing else wrong with this book. While there are certainly missed opportunities for character development (especially with the Logen + Ferro situation, and West’s new perspective on all things Northmen and peasant women), there is plenty to be happy about.

P.S. come to think of it, the lack of plot – while not an out-and-out con by itself – is becoming an increasing worry. I don’t think the author knows how it’s going to end. This always ends in disappointment for me… We’ll see.

Potentially Offensive Content

This novel is full of potentially offensive content – much like the first one, if not more so. The torture scenes are gratuitous, the battles are bone-crunchingly gritty, and there is the occasional “you’re-a-man-I’m-a-woman-and-we’re-covered-in-dirt-so-we-might-as-well” sex scene (that’s a technical literary term, that).

While this adds to the realism and horror of the prose (which is a good thing), it can certainly put some readers off. This is certainly not a novel for younger readers.

Pros

The characters.

I’ve come to realize that this is a hallmark of Abercrombie’s writing. His characters are deep, complex, and (something that’s rare in fiction nowadays) highly self-reflective. I love the way that Glokta – for example – can ask himself why whilst a prisoner is subjected to torture in the background.

He makes me care about the characters – even despite the fact that there’s a sense that some of them are merely floating along without a clear purpose. It is purely because of the characters that I’ll dive into the next installment.

Final Review Score: 6/10*

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The score would have been an 8 if it wasn’t for that ending…

The Last Word

What do you think?

Do you think I’m being to harsh? Perhaps you’ve read the entire series and you’re scoffing at my narrow view of things.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter.

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