Joe Abercrombie – Before They Are Hanged

After my first foray into what became known as “grimdark”, I was a little surprised at how tame it was. George R.R. Martin has ruined me I guess, so a protagonist who’s a torturer is nothing shocking anymore. But it was exactly that torturer that wouldn’t get out of my head. So I entered the second chapter in the First Law trilogy (which is really one story split into three books) and rejoiced at meeting Glokta, the Bloody Nine, and even Jezal again.

before they are hangedBEFORE THEY ARE HANGED
by Joe Abercrombie

Published by: Gollancz, 2007
Paperback: 584 pages
Series: The First Law #2
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Damn mist.

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 – and Inquisitor Glokta needs to find answers before the Gurkish army comes knocking at the gates.
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 mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, most feared man in the North, and most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, if only they didn’t hate each other so much, potentially deadly ones.
Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven – but not before they are hanged.

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I honestly didn’t remember much plot from The Blade Itself when I set out to read Before They Are Hanged, but that didn’t matter. It was for the characters that I returned, rather than plot or world-building. And again, it was the characters that got to shine in the second instalment, while the plot either confused me or left me indifferent. I have theories about what will happen, of course, but I’m not really all that interested to see if they’re correct.

Joining Inquisitor Glokta was wonderful, and seeing as he is still active as a torturer – promoted to Superior even – this is saying something. He gets to show his good side, his kindness and mercy, in Before They Are Hanged. Granted, he’s still ruthless and merciless most of the time, but occasionally, he risks everything just to help out someone else. That was an expected character development, but one that was fun to follow nonetheless.

Jezal also had it coming. I mean, this arrogant little shitface was so full of himself, it was only a matter of time until something happened to make him snap. And something does. His change was cheapened a bit by how abruptly it came to pass. Yes, a traumatic experience can do that to you but when I look at it from the author’s perspective, it almost feels like a cop-out. Plus, I like slow-burning developments, short moments here or there that betray a change of character. Jezal really snaps and is a completely different person from one moment to the next.

Now Ferro and Logen Ninefingers… that’s something I didn’t see coming. Ferro’s cold, cynical, but practical view of the world remains strong and it would have been ridiculous had she changed in any major way. But Logen tries to befriend her, if only because she is one of his travelling companions and it doesn’t hurt to know they’ll have your back when it comes to a fight (and it does, oh how it does). This blooming friendship was one of the best parts about this book, at least for someone like me. By now, you all know my buttons and buzz words. And putting grumpy, snappy Ferro opposite grumpy, sarcastic Logen is the perfect combination to put me in my happy place.

Plot-wise, a lot happens, though I’m not sure how important any of it really is. Glokta is charged with holding the city of Dagoska from the Ghurkish invadors, Logen and company are on a trip to… somewhere magical to get… some magical Seed or something… I don’t know. That’s the part that lost me a bit, mostly because I don’t remember too much about the first book. Bayaz has magical plans to save the world or something – again, I really didn’t care that much what they do just so long as it’s these guys doing it. And West is stuck in the army with crownprince Ladisla, a douchebag of epic proportions.

It’s difficult to say things about this book because all I end up with is: This was just so much fun. There are battles, and quiet scenes of reminiscence, there is a torturer with a heart of, well, not gold exactly, but maybe with a speck of gold somewhere on his heart, there are romantic sub-plots (some of which made me angry because apparently that’s all the female characters are good for in this series), and there is enjoyable dialogue, quippy banter, and some original insults.

All in all, I still don’t care much about the fate of their world, but I really fell in love with the characters. In a few months, I might pick up the last book in the trilogy and see what all the fuss is about – I hear people talk of great revelations and plot twists and whatnot. For now, I’m quite happy knowing that Joe Abercrombie, for all that he calls himself Lord Grimdark, is capable of a lot more than just writing brutal scenes in gritty worlds.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Second opinions:

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5 thoughts on “Joe Abercrombie – Before They Are Hanged

  1. maddaandhalfofthewholestory says:

    It’s so strange. Your view on the characters is completely different than that of my sister. She read about 40 % into the novel and quit it because of the characters – and the plot threads were very forgettable. She said that even if some might like them, she found them super annoying to read about as they did not wish to change their status quo from “we all hate each other” to “why don’t we try tog get along, at least while we travel together”.
    I sympathize with her sentiment on this because it gets tedious to read about characters that don’t make efforts to learn about others and are stuck in their own little bubble of comfort and grumpyness.

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    • Dina says:

      That’s interesting. Maybe I was in a particularly fitting mood when I read this? Of course, every reader brings a little bit of themselves into a book so maybe I read to much into them. Some certainly don’t want to change their status quo, but others do. As I said, Jezal is the most glaring example and although his change is 180 degrees, I liked seeing him in this new light.

      But if you try reading this book without liking the characters, I feel for you. Because then this book definitely won’t be fun. The plot just isn’t strong enough.

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  2. DJ (@MyLifeMyBooksMyEscape) says:

    The biggest problem I had with this series with the plot, too. First Law has to be on the finest character-driven fantasy series I’ve ever read, but I just couldn’t get over at how the story seemed to have to directions to it whatsoever, and I couldn’t have careless about it at times. All about the characters. Once I did finished the trilogy, the plot did make a lot more sense.

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    • Dina says:

      I am still surprised about this. I went into this series expecting mediocre characters but a great plot – and this turned out to be the opposite. I really have no idea what’s going on in the big picture, but I just really like Logen and Glokta. 🙂

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