Review: Before They Are Hanged (Joe Abercrombie)

I’ll be completely honest, I went into Before They Are Hanged with pretty mixed expectations (I believe I actually gave a long-suffering sigh when I took it from my bookshelf). If you’ve read my review of book one in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, you’ll know how often I almost gave up on this series. If I hadn’t made it to those final 150-odd pages of book one, I’d never have picked up the second book in this trilogy.

I was wary, sure, I’d been burned with book one, and this was a longer book (although not by much), and my resolve to finish all books I start meant this could become tediously frustrating.

Before they are hanged

Spoilers ahead, so read on at your own risk…

So, Before They Are Hanged…? Now this was a story I could sink my teeth into. Where book one had been a chore, I down-right enjoyed this story. With trilogies, I’ve often found that the second book is where the story falls down, flails, if you will; where the story becomes more of a way-station between books one and three. But Abercrombie takes the tension he’s built at the end of book one and (mostly) runs with it.

It’s a dark, punishing look at a world that’s on the brink of change. And according to the characters telling this story, it’s not going to be a change for the good. The Union is screwed, but they’re the facilitators of their own undoing. As a long-term ruling power, they’ve become lackadaisical, especially with their army, focussing more on pomp and ceremony than actual fighting skills, and it doesn’t take much for these weaknesses to be exploited.

For me, the story is carried by the characters. Abercrombie has really pulled his socks up with characterisation here – he’s challenged his characters to change, and they’ve bit back hard, resisting his push for it but undergoing it nonetheless. Ninefingers is still my favourite character (the Bloody Nine!), although Dogman and his crew are all very close seconds – I could happily read about their exploits, and their dialogue is excellent. Ferro took a while to warm to, but her harshness and dogged thirst for vengeance (regardless of self-realisation) endeared her to me.

Glokta is still the intriguing character he was in book one, but watching his edges being chipped away… this isn’t going to end well for anyone. The revelation (for me, anyway) were my feelings toward Luthar. I had no interest in this character in book one. He was a bland waste of space, and I had to consciously stop myself from skipping over his pages in book one (a hard task indeed). He starts off this way in book two, but his interactions with Ninefingers are some of my favourite. Luthar can still be a bit of a pratt, but if he’d have changed to someone of good character and compassion… well, that would have felt like a slap in the face as a reader.

The battles that take place within this book are grim, bloody and in-your-face, just as they should be. Abercrombie doesn’t shy from the horror, the ugliness, and the unfairness of war. Shit happens. A lot of bad shit happens. People die. Horribly. People live (also horribly). And those we want to live, die; those we want to die, live. That’s war. It’s not pretty. It’s not glorious. Abercrombie does it shitty justice.

There’s a lot at play here, and Abercrombie’s worked it well, giving us more of the characters and fleshing out the culture of this world and its roots. The Union is fighting (rather poorly) for its survival, but there’s war happening on all fronts here: Bayaz and Khalul, Glokta and Sult, Ninefingers and Ferro (sex/companionship as a battle), West and the pompous colonels, and all the internal battles of the main characters… it’s everywhere and I liked it.

There are multiple plot-threads in this second instalment but it’s not too messy. Each new sliver of information, each cross and double-cross adds to this ongoing chess game. They’re all playing – each character a king in their own game, but pawns in the games of others. It’s this… greyness of storytelling that kept me turning the pages – nothing is ever as black and white as it seems.

This isn’t a completely glowing review, as at times the pacing seemed a little off. There are times when Abercrombie really grabs you with his storytelling, then lets you go, asking you to wander around a bit while he gets his soldiers all in a row. I found that most of this was to do with what I like to call ‘politics-interruptus’. It’s the telling of what’s going on that drags at the book; yes, I understand there’s politics involved with this story, but we really did get our understanding of these machinations with book one (in slow, slow shovel-fuls), there’s little need to rehash it in book two. Give the reader some credit; we can carry the pseudo-religious-politico games through on our own.

Overall, Abercrombie’s written a fine second book in this trilogy. Before They Are Hanged was a story I wanted to keep reading, and while book three awaits, I’ll be taking a breather with another book before heading into the epic 700-pager that awaits with the Last Argument of Kings.

(On a Goodreads scale, I give this 4/5 stars).

 

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