Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie.
Book Two of the First Law.
Published by Gollancz, March 2007.
Review by Juzzza (Justin Thorne)
The Blade Itself (SFFWorld review HERE) is one of the finest debuts in Modern Fantasy and for this reviewer, is one of the reasons why Gollancz should be considered one of the leading publishing houses for genre novels today.
If Blade is an exploration of the pieces, then Before They Are Hanged is the set-up of the chessboard. I was extremely eager to immerse myself back into Joe’s dark fantasy and I am delighted to report that I was not disappointed.
The story continues in four main threads; Bayaz, the first of the Magi and his odd assembly of travelling companions seek the Seed; West is sent to face the ferocious Bethod and his hordes; Glokta and his Practicals are sent to the Southern City of Dagoska to investigate the disappearance of its previous Inquisitor; and the Named Men led by Threetrees, are still trying to decide who’s side they are on.
One reason why Abercrombie’s books are so compelling is that there is not a single, flawless character amongst the entire (and impressive) cast. Glokta is a self-obsessed, pessimistic, cynical, conniving and sadistic torturer, Logen is a barbarian with a dark past and a tendency to go into berserker rages – usually resulting in both friend and foe becoming a hacked-apart, bloody mess, West is a self-loathing woman-beater, Bayaz is prone to making individuals who cross him explode and Jezal is an egotistical snob with delusions of grandeur. And yet most of them are likable and, indeed, these characters give the author a grand canvas to show further development and these individuals have a long way to go to atone for their pasts (if indeed they want to).
Glokta is a brilliant character. Anti-heroes are nothing new, and neither are bad guys who see the light. The fascinating premise for the Inquisitor is that he was once the decorated hero, the winner of a tournament, a fearless, good looking poster boy for the Union. His fate is well documented in Blade and in the sequel; we continue to see glimmers of light in his character, only for him to revert back to his sadistic, self-serving tendencies. However, there is still hope and Abercrombie uses Glokta’s dialogue and POV to great effect, not only to drive the plot forward but also to study the man’s internal conflict at what, and who, he has become.
Glokta’s plotline starts out as a murder mystery as he investigates the disappearance of his predecessor and attempts to assert his authority in a city under siege where everyone is a suspect. An impressive array of supporting characters are introduced to the series, a highlight being the mercenary, Cosca, who has been appointed to help defend against the relentless Gurkish. Throughout Glokta’s plot arc, we have grand-scale battle scenes, politics, and more exposure to the Eaters and of course, the inquisitor’s battle against redemption. Much of what Glokta uncovers in Dagoska, will impact upon the Union and indeed, the rest of the vast world Abercrombie has created.
Bayaz, the powerful first of the Magi, continues on his quest to recover the Seed. Accompanied by his inept student, Malacus Quai, the battle-hardened Logen, the ferocious Ferro, the arrogant Navigator, Brother Longfoot and the snobby, inexperienced, Jezal. For this reviewer, this was the most fascinating plot arc in Hanged. On the one hand, Bayaz continues to reveal his past as the first of the twelve Magi, uncovers the history of his Master and the battles waged with his brothers, leading to the eventual fall of the Magi.
It is also within this group, that we have the continued development of two of Blade’s main protagonists, Logen and Jezal. We finally understand their destiny in Bayaz’s grand scheme and we watch as unlikely friendships and relationships develop as the troupe travel into dark lands to encounter countless enemies and old friends. Most impressively, we learn of Bayaz’s limitations and Jezal, finally, shows signs that he may fulfil his potential. Out in the wastelands, under constant threat of attack, with little supplies and bleak prospects, one has to learn to trust the friends one has, regardless of their heritage and appearance. The twists and turns for these characters are too good, numerous (and surprising) to spoil for the purposes of a review.
In the North, Colonel West is left behind with an inept, clueless, crown-prince and an ill-equipped, poorly trained army, to defend against Bethod and his destructive horde of Northmen. New characters are introduced to the series, West is thrown into bloody battles and when all seems lost, the soldier is joined by Threetrees and his band of mercenaries; Dogman, Grim, Thunderhead and Black Dow. This plot arc is an absolute joy to read as we watch West torn between his duty and the survival of the individuals under his care. We see more of that famous West temper and of course, the clash of two cultures as the Named Men try and fathom these soft Union soldiers and West tries his best to keep them (the Named Men) from beating the crap out of the nobility. Great character development and (much like Glokta’s plot arc), many of the discoveries made by West and the Named Men will impact the Union and the rest of the World.
With the turning of the last page, the Union is under threat from both the North and the South by sword and much, much worse. The main characters have evolved immensely and new alliances and schemes have been hatched. The reader definitely will have laughed, will have been surprised and delighted and maybe, just maybe, even shed a tear or two (unless you are a big tough man like me!) The final book in the series, Last Argument of Kings has a lot to do to tie-up all the various threads and if Abercrombie can maintain the level of quality displayed with Blade and Hanged… The First Law is set to become this reviewer’s favourite series of all time.
Blade focuses on the characters and only hints at the wider plot arcs and I was extremely eager to see if in Before They Are Hanged, Joe could open the series up in scale (and plot) whilst still juggling the impressive number of character-driven plot threads that he set-up so successfully in the first book. He does so effortlessly (or so it seems!) and has delivered a character-driven, adult fantasy set on an epic scale.
Abercrombie injects his sense of humour throughout but these laugh-out-loud moments do not detract from the fact that Joe has an incredible insight into the human condition. His characters are on a physical journey and one of spirit and learning. Battles and sex are handled with grit and realism and elements of the fantastic creep into the story as if they absolutely belong there. Joe’s background in movies is present in his cinematic style of storytelling that this reviewer is very much a fan of and indeed, appreciates in the works of James Barclay, Matthew Stover and Scott Lynch and fans of these authors should enjoy this series a great deal.
Before They Are Hanged is an excellent sequel from an author writing compelling, character-driven, adult fantasy, for readers who want to be entertained as well as challenged.
“Heads on spikes… never goes out of fashion,” – Cosca, Before They Are Hanged.