Before They Are Hanged is the second book of the First Law trilogy (see my review of book 1, The Blade Itself). There will be spoilers for The Blade Itself in this review.
We catch up with our various protagonists pretty much where we left them at the end of the previous book. The First of the Magi Bayaz is leading his group of misfits (who all hate each other) to the end of the world on a magical quest. Newly promoted Superior Glokta is settling into the city of Dagoska, which is on the brink of an overwhelming invasion which he has been ordered to stop at any cost – while investigating the disappearance of his predecessor. Major West, also newly promoted, is trying to babysit the Crown Prince Ladisla who seems to be trying to ensure that he gets every single man under his command killed.
This book suffers from a typical second-book syndrome. Although a lot happens and our protagonists gain some measure of self-confidence and acceptance of their lots, the broader situation remains similar to the end of the first book, but with far less hope – it feels suspiciously like the pawns being moved into place for the final book.
The characters that we know and love from The Blade Itself haven’t changed all that much, although their incessant swearing and self-absorption started to grate on me. Bayaz and Jezal lose much of their charm now that the questing party is in a situation that is beyond their control. Bayaz no longer seems like the wisest man in the world; he just seems irritable and sanctimonious, and Jezal’s lack of self-awareness and prejudices make me want to strangle him (yes, he gets better, but the change is way too slow!) I still love Logen Ninefingers and the rest of the Northmen, though. West is also tolerable, especially as he grows a spine. My favourite character is definitely Superior Glokta – his self awareness and sardonic wit are amazing, and he’s even starting to show signs of having a heart.
Abercrombie has a great sense of humour (both via his characters and his narration) and manages to balance the incredibly different viewpoints of his characters really well. His political intrigue is cleverly plotted. Sometimes he switches viewpoints a bit too quickly, but that’s a very minor issue.
I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t like the book – I did! I think Abercrombie’s attempts to make the characters realistic and gritty went too far, and ended up somewhat distracting, but the fact that he was able to provoke such strong frustration in me (as I feverishly turned the pages) proves that he’s a great writer. The character building was good, we learned a lot more about the world, the writing and pacing works well, and I’m definitely going to read Last Argument of Kings.
- “The Emperor’s Soul” by Brandon Sanderson
- “Last Argument of Kings” by Joe Abercrombie