Before They Are Hanged is the second installment in The First Law trilogy and it takes place directly after the events in the first book, The Blade Itself. What Before The Are Hanged doesn’t do is succumb to the ‘middle of the series’ syndrome as many second books seem to do. In fact, Before They Are Hanged is an even better book than the first.
Everything that was good in the first book (excellent story, fast-paced action, interesting characters) is honed to a fine edge here. All the characters from the first are back and Before They Are Hanged wastes little time getting on with their stories. The most interesting person is still Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, who has been given the task of defending the city of Dagoska from the encroaching northmen and from the traitors within who would help over throw the city. Glokta, as an Inquisitor, is at times brutal, ruthless and unmerciful. However, Abercrombie manages to portray him as a person worthy of sympathy despite the heinous things he does. It would be very easy to cast dan Glokta as a stereotypical Inquisitor, that Abercrombie chose to create such a complex, believable character is quite an achievement.
All the other characters are back as well, as the Magi Bayaz leads his party northwards in search of the ‘seed’ that can help defend the Union against it’s enemies, both human and otherwise. Along the way, we see the magic power Bayaz can command, but also the terrible cost he must endure, which helps explain why magic, particularly the strong kind, is not prevalent in the story. Accompanying Bayaz is the barbarian Ninefingers, the enigmatic Ferro whose bloodline is key to the success of the mission, and Jezal, the pampered, privileged swordsman who doesn’t want any part of the quest, but is going along anyway. The interplay between these characters is quite interesting, as the encounters they have are both bloody and life changing. Abercrombie shows the characters changing as a natural result of events, which isn’t necessarily easy. The quest itself takes them to some interesting places, which I’d really like to learn more about, and I hope we do in the next volume.
The last major character is Colonel West, who has been dispatched to protect Prince Ladislaw as he and his sycophants have been tasked with protecting the Union army’s southern flank against attack. In truth, Ladislaw has been placed ‘out of harms way’ in an effort to keep him from disrupting the operation of the army. However, things don’t go as planned. And when the balloon bursts, you’d swear you were reading a George R. R. Martin story. Abercrombie isn’t above killing off major characters if the story dictates, which it does. West’s story line is jam packed with action, both on large army vs. army scale to more personal one-on-one fights. In every case, Abercrombie writes a mean fight scene that doesn’t lag and has the right mix of violence and blood with being excessive.
One thing you’ll notice is that the backstory for these novels, the ‘history’ of the land, is not that detailed. You get the feeling that, while there are stories to tell, they aren’t hiding out under every rock, as in Erikson’s Malazan novels. This gives The First Law books a feeling of leanness that lends itself well to not only telling an action filled story, but to focusing on the characters and their stories without being burdened by explaining everything that has happened hundreds, or thousands, of years in the past. It’s a sparse canvas, with just enough history to make current events believable, and one that lets the characters take center stage.
About the only thing I can ding this book on, and it’s somewhat minor, is that there is one event that takes place in Glokta’s story that smacked of unbelievability. How Glokta manages to raise the funds needed to pay for repairs to the city’s defenses and to pay off mercenaries and such came out of left field and seemed to be the plot dictating the outcome. I realize that what happened is probably the setup for a payoff in the last book, but it still didn’t sit well with me.
I’m not usually a fantasy fan, but Before They Are Hanged is one of the rare books that I didn’t want to put down and pulled out to read whenever I could. It’s certainly a worth addition to the series and if you like great stories, fantasy or otherwise, pick up this book and the first if you haven’t already.