Before They Are Hanged – by Joe Abercrombie

After surviving The Blade Itself, I was tempted to abandon the First Law series for good – but no, who am I kidding, I had to go back and see how it developed, not to leave something unfinished if nothing else. So, does it get any better? Well, as I said the series wasn’t bad in the first place, just very frustrating for my tastes, and less revolutionary than it tried to be. The second book doesn’t depart too much from what we already know, but it does effectively build on its established foundation. To what end? Well, let’s see…

Title: Before They Are Hanged

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Publisher: Gollancz

Publication Date: 15 March 2007

Genre: Fantasy – Grimdark

Length: 441 pages

Standalone or Series: Second book of the First Law trilogy

Synopsis: The story picks up where the previous novel had left us. In the North, the troups of the Unions and their allies are now facing Bethod’s rampaging army; in the South, Glokta is working to prepare the city of Dagoska for the upcoming siege, while at the same time dealing with inner treacheries; meanwhile, the enigmatic wizard Bayaz is dragging his party – which includes Ferro, Jezal, and Logen – in a perilious journey to retrieve a magical artifact called the Seed. Of course, violence, pain, and misery are guaranteed for anyone involved.

Analysis: Before They Are Hanged is similar in style to The Blade Itself, and readers will recognize the same crude and sardonic prose, as well as the use of multiple points of views, all told in third person subjective; each character adds some personal flair or verbal tic to their own chapters (say one thing about Logen Ninefingers, say that he does have his catchphrases), but at the same time they all share a common feel – which is understandable, since, for all their individual differences, they are all grim and cynical as the world they belong to.

After a first novel so heavily focused on characterization, I was expecting more fast-paced action and engaging plotlines in this second book; and indeed, the story does get started to an extent, however the attention is still strongly focused on the characters, while events are always less important than the impact they have on the protagonists. Which ends up being a good thing, since we now get a more dynamic view of their established personalities, and some actual character development – of course fueled by additional ordeals and hardship.

Now if you remember what I said last time, it must be noted that despite their evolution the main characters are still not very easy to like; while I didn’t particularly care about their destiny, however, I ended up being at least a bit invested in their interactions, both among themselves and with the world at large; I actually enjoyed the uneasy dynamic among the members of Bayaz’s party, that provided some truly awkward, moving, and hilarious moment; not to mention the way Jezal’s pride gets shattered, opening some potential for him to even become an interesting character.

That said, not all story arcs are created equal, and while I was generally happy with the direction this second novel had taken, I was also occasionally frustrated with the habit of using the suffering of women as a mere plot device for the development of male characters. To clarify, I have no inherent issue with all sorts of Bad Things happening in a Bad World – but when someone (usually of female persuasion) is abused or humiliated I’d like to focus on their experience, more than on how some other character conveniently gets the chance to kickstart his redemption or downfall.

As for the setting and the plot at large, we are finally made privy to at least some of its mysteries – in a way that whets one’s curiosity more than it sates it. Particularly for what magic is concerned, Bayaz starts revealing some of his aims and background – but how much can we really trust his word, especially in a world where it’d seem wiser not to trust anyone at all?

Conclusions & Recommendations: After my rather cold reaction to The Blade Itself, I can say that this second novel manages to be somehow more engaging, despite sharing its relentless bleakness; if anything, it left me curious to read the end of the trilogy. Of course, if you found the entire premise of the first novel too offputting, you can’t really expect much relief here; on the other hand if you didn’t mind its general tone and were just wishing for more substance, go ahead and enjoy yourself, because this is the book for you. As for me, I’d have more to say on some underlying concepts of this series, and on grimdark in general, but I’m saving them either for the review of the third book, or possibly for a dedicated post.

Content Warning: Torture – Violence – Gore – Domestic abuse – Slavery – Rape – Cannibalism.

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