“We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged” – Heinrich Heine
Before They Are Hanged is Abercrombie’s second entry into the twisted and grim world of The First Law. It follows on from the three story arcs that The Blade itself stylishly led towards. Bayaz, the first of the Magi is venturing to the end of the Earth with his bizarre collection of distinctive personnel for reasons unbeknown to all apart from the Mage himself. Superior Glokta has traveled South to infiltrate the politics of an allied nation, hoping to find out what happened to his ill-fated predecessor and preparing defences for the attacks soon to be initiated by an advancing and ultimately imminent rival army. The remaining narrative intertwines the stories of the rough-living, legendary warrior group of Threetrees and the Dogman with the troubles in the North where the Union is tackling the Northern King’s great forces. Here we follow the action of “the worst-armed, worst-trained and worst-led army in the world”
For one of the narratives arcs, three points of view presentations are followed, often within the same chapter switching between actions and opinions. The second has two viewpoints from very different characters summarising the happenings in the unwelcoming harshness of the cold real world with battles looming. The final is presented by Superior Glotka alone. A former dashing fencer who was tortured, crippled and now is an inquisitor/ torturer. Trust me, you would have to wake up pretty early in the morning to outsmart this gentleman! He is perhaps the finest creation in this series, for his tortuous past, achingly uncomfortable present and also his internal monolgues which are as highly gritty as they are humorous. I mentioned he is the only POV section in this arc, but his internal thoughts are often so comically different from his statements and actions that it is like two amazing viewpoints. His character is outstandingly well written. There is also a pretty distinctive juxtaposition in his presentation of events and environments. He still sees beauty in the world in his descriptions of things and then a second later could be commanding a subordinate to cut off a traitors body part.
I very rarely read other reviews before writing my own, but I did catch one snippet from a status update that was very apt. It stated that Abercrombie’s stories are full of “bastards that grow on you.” I think that that is a perfect analogy. I honestly shouldn’t care about most of the people written here. Why do I truly care about vain, flamboyant, selfish officer Jezal when something bad happens to him? Perhaps he deserves all he gets for his previous outlook and analysis of existence. Why do I care about Logan Ninefingers? He seems like an average warrior guy with scars encompassing his body, who people say was pretty handy with a sword and did some damning things in the past. I really cared about the majority of the main characters. Although a few fantasy character tropes are presented, spoilt King in waiting, mages, Devils etc… Nothing at all seems cliche and that cannot be said for a lot of modern fantasy works.
My review of The Blade Itself raved about the characters and from my previous paragraph, you can see my opinions there haven’t changed. If anything, my views have been reinforced and heightened about how much of a knack Abercrombie has for this aspect of his fantasy work. Although not really too negative and off-putting, I did comment on the lack of action throughout the first book. Action wise, Joe truly has raised the bar high here. Battles, sieges, and The Bloody Nine – all are expertly presented and adrenaline pumping. It doesn’t all need to be full guts gory and bloody to have an emotional dark impact either, and there are a few moments here that are poignant in their effectiveness for that reason. I call this the (just made this up but it sounds cool) “pushing Bran from the Tower technique,” very intricate actions that have long lasting effects even though the act in question was simple. In addition to the lack of action, my other grating issue with The Blade Itself was the world and the histories, although not hollow, did seem a bit unfulfilled. I was unsatisfied that there was still no map, but a lot of the above has been rectified here. Most of Bayaz et al’s scenes are travel based (the end of the world isn’t close) so we are presented cool stories by the characters to pass the time at campfires. Bayaz talking about the history of the world, his relationships with other important, almost legendary figures and his past failings are memorable. A scene that stood out to me was very simple, perhaps twelve pages where an ensemble discusses their scars. So not only have the already complex characters become deeper, the world and its past are filled in pretty well here. There is also a bit of a “love story” here to look forward to.
I was highly satisfied with the majority of what I read here. Abercrombie is a genius is his moulding of characters and of all things “grim”. Normally, the ending of a story can add a star to my rating. The finale to one of the arcs of this book had the opposite effect. I will not go into details but I will be interested in the comments to see if people agree and/or know the narrative I am discussing. I felt let down and almost like I had wasted my time waiting for that culmination. This is probably a 8.5/10 but “Last Argument of Kings” must give me a reason for the arc ending this way. If it does, I will re-evaluate what I have written in this little section. To conclude, this trilogy seems to be a character driven fantasy that is unequaled in the genre. Gripping, gritty, thrilling and pretty damn awesome.