The First Law 02 - Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

The First Law 02 - Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie 

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The First Law 02 - Before They Are Hanged
by Joe Abercrombie
Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It’s enough to make a torturer want to run – if he could even walk without a stick.

Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem – he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world.

And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, but a deadly one. They might even stand a chance of saving mankind from the Eaters. If they didn’t hate each other quite so much.

Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven – but not before they are hanged.
This story is a trilogy, so if you haven't read one, this are the links to the other books:


"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, thrilling, gritty and pretty damn awesome.

Glokta is an excellent torturer. Some would even say the best, but somewhere down his crooked path he made some rather nasty enemies. Such is life......

So, as a polite death sentence, he gets sent on a mission that is suicidal and near impossible to complete. Anybody else would fail. However, this is Sand Dan Glockta: the most ingenious torturer and manipulator to ever wear the Union’s colours. You can’t simply get rid of him. His enemies have made a terrible mistake in underestimating him. Physically, he is very weak. Mentally, he is brilliant and ruthless. You’d be a fool to cross him.

A party of haters

Abercrombie certainly likes to give a dark twist on what could have been a conventional fantasy series. Instead of having a company of friends and allies, there is a company of misfits who absolutely detest each other. Bayaz, the first of the Magi, has brought them together to recover a deadly weapon; it’s clearly for his own ends, but he has concocted a persuasive lie about his intentions. Despite his supposed moral superiority, he is just as bad as the rest. Indeed, the group’s members are mean, selfish and they’re all killers. This makes for an amusing, and somewhat unusual, group of travelers. The chances of a member being murdered are just as high as the party working together.

As the novel progresses this dynamic begins to shift. The hatred doesn’t evaporate, though it does develop into a mutual need to succeed and survive. They learn to rely on each other’s talents, and even go as far as to pay the odd compliment on each other’s killing skills. Such comradery! In the end, they’ve got each other’s backs. Either that or there all dead. It was a slow development that was appropriate to their personalities; it would have been very strange if these guys suddenly became best mates overnight. These just aren't the sort of people that have friends, at least, not for very long.

It’s all about Glokta, the nastiest bastard in fantasy.
Superior Glotka was once a hero. Those days are long gone. He now enjoys to torture in the same ways he was once tortured. But, he’s not malicious. It’s his job to torture. Someone’s got to do it, right? So why not an expert? Why not get some fun out of it? Except on his mission he learns to torture people in another way; he manipulates them emotionally and forces them to aid in his hopeless defence of Dogoska whilst he tries to uncover who murdered his predecessor. It’s not an easy task, but Glokta can handle it. He’s one tough, remorseless, bastard.

"Honour, eh? What the hell is that anyway? Every man thinks it's something different. You can't drink it. You can't fuck it. The more of it you have the less good it does you, and if you've got none at all you don't miss it."

I love his characterisation; it’s dark and powerful, but most importantly it’s utterly unique. I feel like I should hate this guy, though somehow he comes across as sorrowful. He’s a pragmatist; he knows what his weaknesses are, and he knows what he is. No other writer I’ve come across in fantasy can write such villainous characters that can so easily be sympathised with. Mark Lawrence certainly couldn’t pull it off in his Broken Empire Trilogy. I think Abercrombie has earnt his reputation as King of grimdark fantasy. What’s not to love? There’s war, political drama and evil vs evil. These early books are so much better that his newer stuff!

Don’t write off the fantasy tropes just yet, all you unbelievers. This trilogy shows that there is still an enormous amount of life left in some of them.

This dark sequel to The Blade Itself is everything I hoped it would be. I would be hard pressed to select a favourite out of the multiple plot threads featured in Before They Are Hanged, but I’m probably partial to the sequences featuring the Named Men. Again, there is an old school sense of wonder to this novel, despite the modern fantasy grittiness. There are some nasty surprises between these pages and many issues aren’t resolved in quite the fashion that the reader might have expected, or even had hoped for. But, as Logen Ninefingers would almost certainly say: you have to be realistic about these things. A great mix of epic and heroic, fantasy-heads can do far worse than giving this trilogy a spin. Unless they are averse to some swearing, violence, dark humour and the occasional rather, um, unrefined and comical hop in the sack. It is at times an uneasy and unsettling read, yet I can’t help but feel that this is part of its charm.

The action scenes are relentless and splendidly written, albeit somewhat gruesome on occasion. The book showcases everything from minor skirmishes to full scale pitched warfare. There is even a siege thrown in for good measure. Two wars being fought on two separate fronts inevitably equal a high body count. Abercrombie certainly appears to have a knack for this kind of thing. You’d think that the character development would suffer in all this chaos and madness. Oh, how wrong you’d be!

As the second novel in a trilogy, this could easily be seen as a bridging work. However, I enjoyed it even more than the first. There’s certainly a lot more going on. The Blade Itself was very good, but it didn’t really go anywhere and left the reader somewhat mystified as to where the story was headed. Before They Are Hanged rectifies this in spades, and there is a lot of progression. Here’s hoping Last Argument of Kings continues this run of good form and closes the trilogy in spectacular fashion.

Say one thing for Joe Abercrombie, say that he's a hell of a writer. With this, he proves that he earned his status as a Named Man of fantasy.

This picks up where "TBI" left off, and carries the characters and plot away in new and unpredictable directions. There's political intrigue, betrayal, torture, fights galore, broken hearts and twisted limbs, love, sex, laughs, and going back to the mud. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll refrain from talking about the travails of Collem West in Angland, of the Dogman and the rest of Ninefingers' old crew, of Glokta in a no-win situation on the edge of the Gurkish Empire, and of Logen and Bayaz's group on a journey to the End of the World.

Once again, Abercrombie deftly uses the tropes of heroic fiction in ways both satisfying and surprising. The fight scenes are top-notch, approaching the Bernard Cornwell-level of excellence. Abercrombie keeps the story moving, but it is driven by the characters. He never falls victim to the fantasy trap of privileging world-building over character and plot, or of using made-up words when perfectly good English ones will do (Stephen Erikson, I'm looking at you!). I learned more about the social structure of the Union and the North, but it was through the characters and not through needless exposition. The violent meritocracy of the North is contrasted with the rigid class stratification of the Union, with serious results.

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