Before They are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie
Posted October 13, 2010on:
This is the second book in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series. Click here to read my review of the first book in the series, The Blade Itself.
Before they are Hanged has a whole ton of totally awesome, and a teensy bit of not as awesome. As a middle book in a series, it most definitely suffers from “ inbetweenness”. It’s not a beginning, and there aren’t any endings. There’s a lot of travelling, a lot of thoughts on “what’s really going on”, some wild and frightening reveals, and all the characterization some readers felt they didn’t get in the first book, now that all the world building is out of the way. Incidentally, I also learned my limits for how much violence I like in a novel. Not only is knowing your violence limit a good thing to know, I’ve now come to end of the “teensy bit of not as awesome”. The balance of Before They are Hanged isn’t awesome, it’s epically and totally awesome.
Before They Are Hanged picks up immediately after The Blade Itself ends, with our characters being sent in all sorts of different directions: Major West heading North to help fend off the Northmen, Glokta being sent south to Dagoska, and Bayaz heading West to the end of the world. Sure, the novel suffers from a major case of inbetweenness, but it’s still in my top 10 books I’ve read this year. And fledgling fantasy writers take note: as much as you hate editors and insist your 900 page novel is perfect the way it is, this is how it’s done. This is how you cram 1200 pages of awesomesauce into less than 600 pages.
As per the blurb on the back of the book, a number of book bloggers have grabbed onto “And Bayaz has this group of people, and they all hate each other! Isn’t that funny?” . . I need to put that to rest. These characters hate plenty of things, but not each other, and that part at least, isn’t funny. They act just like people tossed completely out of their comfort zone would act. Luther feels like he’s surrounded by filthy savages who can’t possibly know the first thing about anything, Logan is curious about Ferro and sees Luther as a hilariously naïve little puppy, Ferro has no idea how to interact with people who don’t treat her like shit, and the big Bayaz reveals are horrible, tragic, and addictive. These people may find each other weird and annoying, but they don’t hate each other. A little cliché perhaps, but they all have something to learn from each other – even Bayaz, even Quai. With the help of a truly annoying navigator, they are traveling to the end of the world to find something that had been hidden as far from possible from man. Which begs the question: what can this thing do, that those who made the world felt they couldn’t destroy it, but that it couldn’t be found either? I can’t get enough of the whole Bayaz plotline. The story starts off, and we think he is this total white hat, this nearly immortal magician who has only everyone’s bests interests at heart, who just wants to fix things and save the world. And that isn’t the case. Not by a long shot. I totally need a prequel starring him and the other apprentices.
Meanwhile, in the North, Bethod and his savage armies are in the process of invading Angland. If there is a group of people in this book who hate each other, it would be the Union Generals stuck defending useless Angland . Crown Prince Ladisla, who has never left the royal city in his life, demands command of a unit. Major West and the Prince take their untrained troops to the western front, as far away from Bethod as possible. And were do you think Bethod shows up? Right there, of course. Predictable perhaps, but what’s the point of sending a useless prince to the battle, if that isn’t where the bad guy shows up? They are ever so slightly rescued by Threetrees and his shrinking band of Northmen, but not before some epic slaughter and political disaster.
And in the steamy south, Glokta has been assigned the ever fun task of discovering treachery and corruption in southern Dagoska, before the city is overrun by the southern Gurkish Empire. Glokta has a special place in his heart for the Gurkish. He longs to pay them back for how they changed his life. Dagoska feels like an old fashioned British colonial town – the civilized whites take over the best parts of the city, run the place, and treat the “savage” natives as third class citizens and force them to live in the slums. The native Dagoskans wonder if maybe the Empire might be the more merciful masters. Nice little social commentary maybe? Dagoska also houses a few of the Gurkish Empire’s “special” weapons. And they are special, and I won’t spoil the surprise other than to say they give whole new meaning to the word surrender.
(Are you feeling the need for a “meanwhile, back at the ranch. . . “ right about now? I am)
Politically, the Union seems bent on protecting Dagoska and Angland, both relatively useless pieces of land. The fact that they do a crappy job of defending those areas leads me to wonder if it’s all one big distraction. We get hints that the government is after something else, making a show of trying to win, maybe just killing time, maybe something completely unexpected is going on behind the scenes, and I have no idea what. And I like that.
There are the three main plots. There are plenty of politics, plenty of corruption, plenty of subplots, enough plenty to go around have leftovers. You’d think the book would be long, boring, heavy, and hard to follow. But it isn’t. Abercrombie works his slick magic, making nearly every subplot easy to follow and keep track of.
Abercrombie has quickly made a name for himself in the fantasy genre, and there’s good reason. He consistently turns tropes on their heads, given new meaning to “epic fantasy”, is obscenely entertaining, and if we’re very lucky, he’ll never go back to his day job.