Joe Abercrombie – Before They Are Hanged (2007) Review

  • Genre: fantasy / grimdark
  • Series: The First Law, book 2

I am totally on board with this series now. Where book 1, The Blade Itself, felt rather basic, Before They Are Hanged is a fine step forwards for Abercrombie’s series.

Back in the world of Logen, Jezal, West and Glokta. Not much has changed, except that King Bethod has started his invasion of Angland, Jezal and Logen have left with the wizard Bayaz to travel to the end of the world, and Glokta arrives in Dagoska to clean out the trash. Where The Blade Itself concluded with all our characters converging in the King’s castle of the Union, Before They Are Hanged starts with everyone going on their separate quests after a thorough reshuffling.

Inquisitor Glokta, the Tyrion Lannister of this series, is the one very much alone, except for his merry band of Practicals. His storyline is a joy, not because I am fond in any way to read about torturers (and thankfully, Abercrombie does not push the gruesomeness over the edge), but because Glokta is a great character to follow. He is thrown into a city full of enemies and he’s sharp and cynical enough to unsettle everyone. There is a perverse pleasure in watching people try to deal with this man. Deep inside he is quite honorable and quickly measures up everyone he has to deal with. He knows how to push people’s buttons and is smart enough to prick through nonsense and false appearances.

Logen is no longer the lonesome barbarian. He is the thoughtful barbarian. In the problematic fellowship of Bayaz, Ferro and Jezal, Logen shows how he is a keen observer with deep experience with travelling in bands. He tries to keep all these difficult people together so that they have a chance at surviving. He becomes the teacher. You’ve got to be realistic about these things, as he would say. I even started caring about Jezal, and West is undergoing a remarkable journey.

What I am saying is that Abercrombie does a stellar job at characterization, especially through pitting difficult characters against each other. They are all flawed and carry a lot of baggage, and there is a general consistency to them that makes them believable and compelling. Not only that, but the arcs that they undergo are perfectly written out. In the sense of character arcs, Before They Are Hanged takes ten strides for every stride in The Blade Itself. The series is worth reading for Logen and Glokta alone.

I can’t say the same about the quest part of the book, which is a series of clunky infodumps. Wizards Bayaz and Quai talk about the past and about the ruins of an ancient empire which Abercrombie modelled on the Romans. This faux-medieval world is so obviously a mirror image of our own, also with the Gurkish Empire (Ottomans) and Dagoska (Constantinople), that I long for greater imagination. It is terribly mediocre; regurgitated stuff from decades of epic fantasy since Tolkien and the history is very shallow. I’m not seeing richness in it. The way the wizards talk about it feels as if this world was created only a few generations ago. And none of it seems relevant information for the reader at the time. The only good thing about these chapters are the development of Jezal and Logen, who grow and become more and more sympathetic.

I hope for the final book, Last Argument of Kings, that the characters remain as compelling as they are now and that Abercrombie finally shakes himself loose from that shallow, cliched world-building. If he can do that, then the result will be stunning. Abercrombie has some real talent, but not all the parts are spinning well yet.


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