Joe Abercrombie’s Before They Are Hanged is the middle book in his First Law trilogy, following The Blade Itself and preceding Last Argument of Kings (which has an official US launch date of Sept. 23, but is already available from some outlets). Much like The Blade Itself, Hanged is a book that I enjoyed reading for reasons I don’t entirely understand. When viewed separately its components all seem to be between weak and average, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts and it has left me eagerly awaiting the final book in the trilogy.
Having joined forces in the previous book, Logen (21 lvl. human berzerker), Ferro (23 lvl. fey fighter), Bayaz (30 lvl. demi-human mage NPC) and Luthar (5 lvl. human dumbass) set off on a quest to the literal end of the world. They are seeking a weapon of great power, though exactly what that weapon is only becomes clear once they are well on their way. What is known, though, is that they need the weapon to fight Khalul, a rival of Bayaz who has set himself up as a false prophet in the South and is the power behind the growing Gurkish Empire.
Sand dan Glokta, now Superior of the Royal Inquisition, finds himself on the frontlines of the battle with the Gurkish. He has been tasked with the impossible: defend an isolated city on a distant continent with no money, no reinforcements, and a possible conspiracy among the ruling council to hand the city over to the Gurkish. The reason for the lack of reinforcements is that a second a war in the North is also raging, which is where we find Major West in a different, though almost as difficult, situation. He must defend the northern borders from both barbarian invaders and the vastly incompetent crown prince Ladisla who, for better or mostly worse, has taken control of a third of the defending army.
Before They Are Hanged is a bit of a mystery for me. Without question, it was a fun read. But exactly what made it good is hard to pin down. The story is fairly standard, with no outstanding features or particularly unusual spin to distinguish it from the run-of-the-mill fantasy novel. As I implied above, the characters are also mostly stock. This does not mean that they are without depth and complexity, but even there the depth is the same sort of depth you often find in their character archetypes. I even found the twist ending to be predictable in outcome, if not the exact mechanism used to achieve that outcome.
And yet…I liked it. In fact, I read it from cover to cover in one day. The characters and relationships are well executed, particularly Glokta, who I found to have both the most compelling personality and subplot in the book. While the quest largely turns into an excuse for extended exposition on the backstory of the world and the northern war stalls for time until its conclusion in the next book, Glokta’s political, martial, and personal battles in the city of Dagoska keep the book afloat during all of the setup in the other two major subplots. It is also the closest view Abercrombie gives to the central threat overarching all of the plotlines, the violation of the rules of magic.
In Dagoska we can see the effect of Khalul’s violation of the Second Law and the great power the violation has granted his forces. Bayaz’s storytelling during his quest provides an example of what can go wrong when you violate the laws and shows why his intended violation of the First Law of Magic (which, surprisingly, is not “Don’t talk about magic”) is so dangerous, but only through Glokta’s subplot do we see why the Second Law violation is a threat when it is done correctly. Maybe this is why I see Glokta’s story as the most successful in the book; it advances the larger story through action instead of exposition and does so in a well-paced, interesting way.
Before They Are Hanged appears to be a standard middle book in an epic-fantasy trilogy, but it is well executed and entertaining to read. Though slow in places, there is enough plot progression to show glimmers that the final book, Last Argument of Kings, may break out of this mold and provide an exceptional story that is on par with the execution and writing in Hanged. I’d recommend reading Hanged on its on merits, but if Kings can follow through the series may become a must-read for fantasy fans.