Joe Abercrombie – Before They Are Hanged

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 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 Angland border 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 and worst-led army in the world.

And Bayaz, the First of the Mahi, 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 strange companions, 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.

After making the mistake of reading book one of Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy, The Blade Itself, without having book two and three at hand, when I went on my London book splurge I made sure to not only buy those two books, but the first standalone novel in Abercrombie’s world, Best Served Cold, as well. I quickly read this book, but then the dreaded morning sickness took over and well, you know the rest of this story! I loved getting back to these characters, however, and I hope to get stuck into the next book fairly soon after the baby gets here.

As with the first book there are three main arcs: one that follows Glokta, one that follow Major West, who’s joined by Logen’s band, and an arc that follows Bayaz whose party includes Logen, Jezal, Ferro and of course his apprentice and the guide Longfoot. And, again as in the first book, all the arcs are entertaining, though my personal favourite parts were Glokta’s stay in Dagoska and Logen’s crafting of bonds with Jezal and Ferro. Especially the romance thread between Logen and Ferro is at once hilarious, touching and heartbreaking. I also liked spending so much time with West, he’s awesome and one of the few truly honourable men in the books so far.

Before They Are Hanged is very character driven. We see far more of the world than we did before, but even through these travels – which are mainly focused on West and Bayaz’ group; Glokta moves around, but we don’t see him travel – the characters and their development and interactions remain key. While most characters show growth, in my opinion, Jezal dan Luthar shows the most. Not surprising as he needed to do a lot of growing up. But it goes beyond just that. He seems to find his better side and learns loyalty to other people than himself. This is mainly done through his interactions with Logen, who in his own gruff way seems to mentor him. I really liked the group dynamic in this party of misfits and I do wonder where they’ll go in the final book of this trilogy.

We finally figure out what Bayaz is up to, though these discoveries also make his “good guy” status more dubious. The further along we get in the book, the more I started to doubt that Bayaz is actually the somewhat benevolent figure he claims to be. In retrospect, I don’t why I’d be surprised at this as I said myself in the review for the first book that the characters are ‘grey, greyer and black’ with not a speck of white among them, not even the honourable Major West. But Bayaz’ turn for the darker does conjure up questions about his true intentions and where his quest will lead his party. I can only surmise it won’t be good.

Before They Are Hanged doesn’t suffer from middle book syndrome; yes, there is a lot of set up and moving around, but it doesn’t drag at all. It can by no means stand alone, however, without having read book one this won’t be a satisfying read. Yet it is a great follow up to The Blade Itself and it ramps up expectations for the final book in this trilogy, Last Argument of Kings. Abercrombie’s storytelling is addictive, once you’ve started the first book; you’ll be hooked until you’ve read them all, which for me is the mark of a great writer!