Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
I really enjoyed The Blade Itself, and it certainly caught my attention enough to keep me going with the series. It had plenty of flaws though, and happily a lot of those are ironed out in Before They Are Hanged (although a few more are added), and is overall a better book and one which has me chomping at the bit to get my hands on the third in the trilogy.
Before They Are Hanged picks up not long after The Blade Itself left off, and contains three primary storylines. In the North we follow the troubled Union war against Bethod, the King of the northmen, from the points of view of the seemingly decent, but internally tortured, Union solider Collem West, and see his attempts to reign in the disastrous strategies of the moronic Prince Ladisla. We also follow the Northern scout Dogman, who has defected to the Union along with the rest of his crew, under the leadership of the legendary Rudd Threetrees, to bring down their old foe Bethod. Another storyline is in the city of Dagoska, a Union held city on the northernmost tip of the Gurkhish continent, under assault from the army of Gurkhul and their avaricious Emperor. Inquisitor Glokta is sent to discover the fate of his predecessor in the city, who had mysteriously vanished, as well as protect Dagoska despite the terrible odds against it. The third storyline is the most traditionally fantastical, and follows Bayaz’s expedition to recover the mysterious ‘Seed’ in the far West of the land, a journey which brings his retinue to the Old Empire, a once proud land destroyed by infighting and civil war. We follow this storyline from the points of view of Jezal dan Luthar, the obnoxious young fencing prodigy, Logen Ninefingers, the most feared man in the north and surprisingly good man, and Ferro Maljin, the former Gurkhish slave dragged along on the mission by the promise of vengeance against her former masters.
It was great to see more of the interesting world Abercrombie has developed in Before They Are Hanged, especially considering that the majority of The Blade Itself was all set in one place, the Union capital Adua. Although all fantasy lands are, to a greater or lesser extent, going to be based on real world civilisations, it can get a little bit too blatant for my liking in ‘The First Law.’ The Old Empire is basically exactly the same as the Roman Empire, with the Gurkhish Empire standing as the increasingly common Islamic Empire. Although the Gurkhish aren’t quite as blatant as Peter V. Brett’s Kraisians, there’s still a huge similarity that feels a bit wearying. That said, I’m nonetheless intrigued by the world of ‘The First Law’, which has a pretty interesting history. Where many fantasy novels like to shroud their world’s past in mystery, the presence of Bayaz, a semi-mythological figure in the world of ‘The First Law’, as a major character gives us a greater insight into this world’s past than we would have otherwise, while still keeping enough mystery to keep our interest.
My favourite storyline in Before They Are Hanged was the Northern one, with the hopelessly incompetent Union giving the whole thing an infuriatingly futile feeling which I enjoyed. The Glokta stuff in Dagoska was good too, lacking the ‘middle’ book of inaction that fantasy trilogies can sometimes succumb to. The most disappointing storyline was sadly the one I was most excited for, the search for the Seed, which despite containing a lot of great individual scenes and moments, didn’t really hold together too well as a narrative, and ended in a clumsy and anti-climactic manner.
Abercrombie is a great writer, with rigidly unpretentious dialogue and savagely dark sense of humour. It’s very readable and compelling, easy to get through without being dumbed down, a skill which he shares with Brandon Sanderson and Peter V. Brett.
Probably the biggest improvement between The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged is in the characterisation. West in particular grows from a fairly dull character to probably the most screwed up and interesting of the bunch. I also highly enjoyed Dogman and his fellow crew of Northman warriors, with the fearsome reputation of this band contrasting well with the highly human and funny side we see to all of them, even the terrifying Black Dow. Glokta’s story arc is quite ‘Tyrion Lannister’, but I can live with that, and Logen and Ferro gain new depths too. Probably the biggest change is that Luthar becomes bearable, although this transition is extremely clunky and doesn’t feel nearly as organic as it should.
Before They Are Hanged is a great book, even better than the original, but it still doesn’t lack for flaws. I nonetheless have high hopes for the third book whenever I get around to it, because if Abercrombie continues his pattern of improvement it should be absolute cracker.