In Brief: In this second book in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, established characters pick up the pace with war brewing on two fronts and a quest for a lost artifact.
Pros: The excellent writing and Sword and Sorcery feel continue from the first book. The author sticks with the same core characters and continues to develop them. The action is quick and deadly, the pacing and plotting are spot on. And you have to appreciate the gallows humor. No second book lull here.
Cons: Some readers seeking a deviation from the classic neo-European fantasy setting may be disappointed.
Review: The title of Before They Are Hanged, courtesy of an epigraph from the poet, Heinrich Heine: “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.” Yeah. That sums up the prevailing ethos of the main characters as well as the author’s thematic approach.
It’s a welcome approach, true Sword and Sorcery in the tradition of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber rather than Tolkien (although the nods to Tolkien are evident). Abercrombie continues with the main characters from The Blade Itself: Logen Ninefingers, practical barbarian from the north, Superior Glotka, the crippled inquisitor who was once a soldier and court favorite, Bayaz, first of the magi, Ferro, former slave and assassin, Captain Luthar Jezal, fencing champion and upper-class twit, Colonel West, self-made officer from the provinces, and the Dogman, renegade Northman tracker and archer.
The plot moves between these characters, splitting along three major movements. First, we have Bayaz and his unlikely fellowship of Logen, Ferro, and Luthar trekking across the continent in search of a lost artifact. Bayaz wants to use this stone to battle his peer in the Gurkish Empire, who’s set himself up as a prophet-sorcerer. Yes, it’s downright Tolkien-ish. As the group quests, Logen and Ferro attempt to pry details from Bayaz, while Captain Luthar feels sorry for himself. A lot of good characterization here, especially Logen and Luthar. The author also works in more of the history of this world and includes one of the more humorous trail-romance sub-plots I can recall.
Second, we have Colonel West and the Union Kingdom’s campaign against the Northmen. The tone here is very reminiscent of the later British Empire – the arrogance of the officers affecting their strategy and approach, the foppish Crown Prince along to make his political argument more sound. West, who has ascended to become the Field Marshall’s right-hand man, sees the disaster unfolding but can do little to prevent it. Meanwhile, the Dogman and the rest of the small band of Named Men who refused to bend knee to King Bethod of the Northmen decide to work for the Union Kingdom and West as scouts.
The final plot arc deals with Inspector Glotka, who has been sent to the southern outpost of Dagoska to investigate the disappearance of the previous inspector while assessing the city’s readiness for possible invasion. As we learned in the previous book, the Gurkish Empire is spoiling to avenge losses from the previous decade’s war. Like the Northern campaign and other aspects of the book, the Dagoska story seems to draw heavily from Britain’s historical past – particularly shades of the East Indies and African colonialism. The Kingdom forces are strictly there to take advantage of the southern trade routes. Their merchant class has grown decadent, and their military outpost despises and belittles the natives. None of this makes Glotka’s task easier. Soon enough the Gurkish lay siege, and Glotka assumes command of the city while searching for the conspirators.
So, there’s plenty happening, and the pacing and interplay between action elements and historical asides remain a strength. But the heart of Before They Are Hanged is the characters. They are a ruthless and flawed bunch, prone to self-loathing and violence. They question their values and choices. They dissemble and rationalize. They do stupid stuff and feel bad later. This is a very realistic crew.
If you had seen centuries of human stupidity and small-mindedness, had considerable power to affect change but saw the same mistakes repeating themselves, you might be cynical and bitter. That’s Bayaz, first of the Magi. Or imagine a slave girl who escaped a life in the brothels by scarring herself to dissuade clientele. Might such a person have severe revenge and trust issues? Enter Ferro. Or Captain Luthar, the privileged aristocrat, natural athlete and fencing champion… who discovers he’s quite frightened of real warfare and hates the adventuring life on the road.
Abercrombie continues his technique of moving between these characters throughout the different plot arcs, allowing the reader to experience them through other viewpoints. Seeing Logen Ninefingers through Ferro and Luthar’s p.o.v., or Colonel West through the Dogman provides narrative payoff. It also sets the stage for realistic and harrowing battle-scenes and great moments of dark humor.
As this book moves forward, the plot arcs converge and move towards resolution, and the author sets the stage for the third book in the series: the Union facing more war in the North and an invasion from the south. Bayaz and his anti-fellowship seeking a showdown with the prophet-sorcerer. Glotka still looking for some vestige of redemption. Reading the final third of the book, I found myself a little saddened, because I could see where Abercrombie is going – a grim and violent climax in Book Three to be sure. I was worrying about the characters and what will become of them. And isn’t that the high praise for any work of fiction?
Bottom Line: This book carries forward from the first with great characters and plenty of action and mayhem. Any reader of The Blade Itself will enjoy Before They are Hanged. The humor, trope-bending turns, and dialogue are added bonuses for the grizzled fantasy veteran. I am truly looking forward to the final book in this trilogy.