Before They Are Hanged – Joe Abercrombie

From Publishers Weekly: 

Starred Review. This grim and vivid sequel to 2007’s The Blade Itself transcends its middle volume status, keeping the reader engaged with complicated plotting and intriguing character development. As savage Northmen invade Angland, the northernmost province of the unwieldy Union, honorable, hard-working Union soldier Colonel West watches his notions of civilized warfare erode in one horrible battle after another. In Dagoska, a southern city threatened by Gurkish soldiers and left undefended as Union troops head to Angland, dreadfully maimed Inquisitor Glokta employs tortures and deceptions to ferret out conspiracies against the king. Ignoring these worldly concerns, disreputable magus Bayaz of Calcis drives a squabbling little band through a wasteland in search of a relic that can open a gate to the realm of demons. Abercrombie leavens the bloody action with moments of dark humor, developing a story suffused with a rich understanding of human darkness and light.

I honestly feel like the last SFF reader on the planet who hasn’t read this series all the way through. That being said, I’m not exactly sure what the point of yet another review is, but whatever. Here it is anyway.

I read book one, The Blade Itself, a few months ago (before I was reviewing books). I enjoyed the book but I didn’t absolutely love it. From memory, if I had rated it, I probably would have given it four stars out of five, with some reservations. I didn’t reread The Blade Itself before I started Before They Are Hanged. I figured the story would come back to me as I read and it might be kind of nice to start the second book without fully remembering what bothered me about the first one.

In this case, that strategy was very beneficial. I feel like I went into Before They Are Hanged without any real premade annoyances and it really seemed to heighten my reading experience.

Enough of that. Now, onto the actual book.

Abercrombie is making a name for himself in the SFF world as an author known for grit, realistic yet epic battles and good writing. He’s made quite a fuss with his First Law books and Best Served Cold and it’s well deserving. Abercrombie doesn’t shy away from dirty plots or dirty writing. His battles are believable, his characters are all somehow flawed, and his morality is questionable at the best of times.

This book follows three distinct plotlines, which I will briefly touch on.

The most understandably moral character in Before They Are Hanged in Colonel West, who is thrust into a situation he’d rather avoid. Things happen and West ends up questioning honor and duty and all that stuff. West’s storyline was incredibly strong and while I didn’t think many of his plot twists were that unpredictable, they were done very well and incredibly enjoyable to read. West is probably the closest thing to a conventional fantasy hero in the book and the changes that overtake him are, quite honestly, fascinating.

Superior Glokta remains one of my favorite characters. Glokta is one cynical bastard and who could blame him, really? He’s an incredibly intelligent man given an impossible task. His storyline, in my opinion, was probably the most interesting and strongest. Glokta does have a lot of internal dialogue but that didn’t really bother me. Instead it seemed to add to his storyline and give it some depth, allowing me to understand his thought processes and perceptions of the world and activities around him.

I felt the weakest of the three main storylines was the adventurers, Ninefingers, Luther, Ferro and their ilk. The writing wasn’t bad, the plot didn’t falter and it’s not unenjoyable. I just felt that in this plotline, Abercrombie fell into more of the conventional fantasy clichés than anywhere else in the book. He couldn’t seem to resist the adventuring party wandering toward some unknown and not-fully-understood end. He redeems himself by his flawed cast going on this adventure, none of his protagonists are typical or even worth looking up to and at the beginning they hate each other’s guts. This line of the story seems more focused on development more than any of the others and while things happen, I felt the dialogue and growth of relationships and (in some cases) characters was far and away more interesting than the actual action they took part in.

All in all, I devoured this book and savored it. I loved Abercrombie’s writing. He doesn’t shy away from cynicism, the unconventional hero or plot line and grit in all of its many forms. Some of the points I touched on above did bother me, but not enough to really distract from the overall tale being told. Abercrombie’s writing is surprisingly simplistic, but done in such a way that the world pops and comes to life. This book seems to be focused on change. Each character seems thrust into some odd situation. Abercrombie does an amazingly job at realistically making his characters grow based on their situations. It will be interesting to see where these changes take them. He also nicely weaves together his three different plots into one overarching whole. 

With the three main plotlines scattered to different corners of his world, the landscape the tale takes place in expands. This was a true test for Abercrombie. When heroes are all roughly in the same area or land, it’s easy to make that land strong and understandable to his reader. When he’s now trying to mix in different cultures and worlds, it’s much harder. Abercrombie does a great job at making each area of his story just as strong as the last.

I loved this book and it’s well worth reading the series, though you need to start with the first book The Blade Itself and move onto this one to fully grasp the story. I will throw out one warning for potential readers: if you are easily offended by language, violence or… well much else that has anything remotely to do with those two, I’d stay well clear of Abercrombie. His grit seems to seep into everything from language to situation to… well everything.

I’m in a generous mood, so with some reservation I’m giving this book:
5/5 stars

9 Responses

  • Mark Timmony

    You're not the only person on the planet who hasn't read this series – I haven't either 😀

    I'll get to them… eventually >.>

  • Sarah

    haha – well it's good to know I'm not alone. :-p

  • Jared

    Great review – you should vlog it.

    Glotka's my favorite as well… I was really upset by the paperback covers that showed him looking a bit like Tom Cruise.

  • Sarah

    "Great review – you should vlog it." – you evil, evil bastard…. *wink

  • redhead

    you're not the last SFF person to read this series, that would be me. I've yet to pick up a single Abercrombie, but since he's the new hot thing, I suppose I should.

  • Phil

    Reading you review made me remember nice reading moments and made me grin 🙂

    Wish I could read it for the first time again.

  • Sarah

    Nothing ever brings back that "first time" buzz…

  • Melissa (My words and pages)

    Well, I still have the third book on my shelf to read. I was reading this with another book friend online. I have been waiting for her to read the last book. But I really enjoyed this book and the second one even more. I can't wait to read the third to see how it ends.

    I have to say Glokta is a great character with his negative & truthful thoughts. I have enjoyed following the crew as a whole.

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • Sarah

    I love Glokta. He's one of the best characters, in my opinion. I enjoy how cynical and honest he is… which, in his position, I'd be the same way. Very cool character. In general, I really enjoy how Abercrombie seems to be good at "keeping it real" with all of his characters. they all seem to be believable, flawed but not overly so.

    I can't wait to read book 3, either!

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