All right, I’m finally getting around to speaking my mind about this book. Sleep has been had, showers have been taken, the bird has been fed—it’s time to gush. It was really hard writing this review, in part because I have a goldfish memory and I let this one sit too long before writing it, and in part because reviews of books I really enjoy usually turn into fangirlish, detailed summaries, and that doesn’t help anyone. I should have taken more notes as I read, but in my defense, Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie is a bit of a page-turner, and I completely forgot that note taking was an option.
Dear Fantasy Fairy God[father],
I want a story in which the bad characters are sometimes good and the good characters are some times bad. I want it to be action packed and violent, with some tear jerking tender moments too. I want it to be familiar and unique. I want it to build up my expectations and knock them all down again in a way that doesn’t leave me frustrated and confused. I want it to be magical and realistic. I want it to be humorous and dark, intelligent and approachable. I want it to keep me up at night.
One Desperately Picky Reader
I don’t remember sending that letter, but someone obviously received it. Before They Are Hanged, the second book in The First Law trilogy, is a tremendously entertaining book, filled with paradoxes, twists, amazing characters, and a vivid, tangible world. It is one of the rare cases where the sequel is better than the original, and I would happily read it again, just on its own. In fact, I think I will do that now.
~ another week passes~
To start with, all the things that I wanted from this book, I got: Glokta and Jezal both grow as characters, Ferro is developed more and is given a thicker plot, and there is lots more action for the remaining Northmen of Logen’s former band. I was also delighted with the elevation of Collem West’s character to a more important position in the second book, and quickly grew to like him, despite his failings.
But because it’s way harder to review books that I love especially when, in this case, I love the book for the same reasons that I loved the first one, I’m going to fall back on the good old list:
Things That I Loved
– Dogman, Black Down and Harding Grim. There are specific scenes that I’ll get to below, but to start with, I just love their characters all around.
– The cooperation between Collem West and the above mentioned Northmen. It was too entertaining to sit through. I was squirming and giggling through all the chapters they were in.
– Glokta’s brief moments of human charity. They kept his character real, and away from the two dimensional sinkhole he could have fallen into, given his profession and constitution. Not that he doesn’t exhibit a delicious amount of nastiness, but his merciful moments are what enrich his character. Specifically the mercy granted to Shickel and Eider, and the general cynical sympathy he feels for the natives of Dagoska. His caring for Ardee near the end of the book is made that much sweeter for these previous acts of niceness.
– Logen’s awkwardness, even when he’s self-assured. Again, he’s given depth by being fallible in ways that even he can’t predict:
Impressive, no doubt, but Logen was nobody’s fool when it came to a spot of sneaking. He’d been known for it, when he was younger. Lost count of the number of Shanka, the number of men he’d come up behind. The first you’ll hear of the Bloody-Nine is the blood hissing out of your neck, that used to be the rumor. Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say that he’s stealthy.
He flowed up to the first wall, slid one leg over it, silent as a mouse. He lifted himself up, smooth as butter, keeping quiet, keeping low. His back foot caught on a set of loose stones, dragged them scraping with him. He grabbed at them, fumbled them, knocked over more with his elbow and they clattered down loud around him. He stumbled onto his weak ankle, twisted it, squawked with pain, fell over and rolled through a patch of thistles.
So perfectly imperfect.
– Glokta and Vitari’s shaky alliance. I think really any time Glokta interacts with a woman it’s amusing.
– Nicomo Cosca, because he shouldn’t have been as likable as he actually was, damnit. Also because I think he must be a little bit insane.
– That Logen genuinely tries to be a point of cohesion in the group, despite him being one of the least likely people to adopt such a position. His relationships with both Ferro and Jezal made me enjoy their narratives that much more.
– Glokta’s murder myster(ies). Watching him put the pieces together was great, but the so-expected-as-to-be-unexpected result was that much better.
– That Ladisla got what was coming to him in spades. Oh, that was beautiful in so many ways.
– Glokta’s violent determination to do the job he was assigned, not because he wants to, or expects reward, or even expects to live to see the end of it, but because he hates everybody, and opposing the people he has the power to oppose might be the only thing that makes him happy in the book. His throwing the ambassador’s head on the table made me happy as well.
– The mace that Jezal took to the face. Turns out that will humble a man, and it was exactly the sort of development I was hoping for him. I may have secretly clapped.
– The battles. Abercrombie has a great talent for describing battles in a way that put the reader right there, whether they want to be or not. Both the war in the North, and the siege in Dagoska, as well as the smaller fights that Logen, Ferro and Jezal play a part in are made real with great, dynamic action and description.
– That with every scene he’s in, Bayaz starts looking less and less moral, which is saying something, considering he didn’t have a whole bunch of morality to start with.
– When West pushes Ladisla over the cliff. I agree with Black Dow. I’m beginning to like you, West!
– Black Dow barking at West. And Shivers. Just any time Black Dow talks, really.
– The world building with Kanedias, Juvens and Glustrod. Rich history and myth bring a fantasy world to life.
– Logen and Ferro’s developing relationship and the best, most awkward sex scene I’ve ever read. I kept my fingers crossed for them to be together at the end, even though the story makes it painfully obvious that this isn’t the case.
– Dogman and Cathil and the tear inducing way their relationship ended. Damnit, Abercrombie! Stop making me cry!
– Shivers, and at this point I might as well just admit that I loved all the characters and just stop listing names. Specifically, I kept expecting it to all go south where Shivers was concerned, and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t.
– Threetrees vs. The Feared. ,¬¬,
– The fact that the quest, arguably the main plotline of the book, was absolutely fruitless. Bayaz’s subsequent temper tantrum was amazing.
– Harding Grim’s eulogy to Threetrees. Goddamn, I need a new box of tissues!
Things I Didn’t Love So Much
– Bulging eyes. Everywhere. Eyes bulging. To be fair, this isn’t so much of an “I didn’t like this” as an occurrence so frequent it became amusing.
– I never bought that West has a temper. A repressed violent streak, maybe, but Cathil says specifically that she can’t be with him because he’s too angry. I feel that if West truly had the temper that the books try to give him, he would have killed Ladisla far sooner than he did. If you ask me, he has woman issues, not anger issues.
– Bayaz, Logen and company tend to fall into a bit of a pattern of fight, rest, back-story. Again, it’s not that it ruined the story, but it did become noticeable, and then predictable. That said, the back-story had to be given somewhere, and where it was placed wasn’t unreasonable. I guess my complaint is that the regularity of it made me see some of the puppet strings, which reminds me that I’m reading a story.
– Zacharus and Cawneil. Of all the characters in the book, I felt they were the most superfluous. They really only exist to give Bayaz back-story which, again, was needed, but I was disappointed that their characters only amounted to that. At least Yulwei was a little more useful to the present story.
There’s not much more I can say. Before They Are Hanged is a sequel that lives up to its original, which is a hard thing for a sequel to do. I loved it for all the same reasons that I loved The Blade Itself and more, because it surpasses the first book. I had moments of squealing delight, misty-eyed sorrow and nail biting apprehension, and any book that can make me feel what the characters are feeling has definitely done its job.
Review for the third book, Last Argument of Kings forthcoming.