REVIEW: Before They Are Hanged -- We should forgive our morally gray protagonists, because they're such a blast to read about

Before They Are Hanged Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before They Are Hanged is very much a "second of three" book, but in all the best ways. I think that Abercrombie found a very sweet spot in balancing the mini-arcs of this book-in-itself with the overall series arcs. And of course the characterization and grimdark setting were in full force, which is the whole reason I've been enjoying this series so far.

One of the pleasures of The First Law as a genre fan is that one can read certain of Abercrombie's characters as deliberate twistings on typical high-fantasy characters. For example, the "quest" arc featuring Bayaz, Logen, Jezal, and Ferro is very "Lord of the Rings"-esque, even featuring a forced detour through the ruins of a civilization fallen to a nameless disaster. Only, if Bayaz is the Gandalf figure, he's a Gandalf who's kind of an asshole, in love with himself and the romanticized Golden Age of the past. And instead of questing to destroy an object of supernatural evil, they seem to be questing to seek it out to use as a weapon for Bayaz's own side of a fantastical war: one which, even though the other side seems obviously evil (sacrificing slaves to cannibalistic zombie-wizards, anyone?) it's not at all clear that Bayaz is really on the side of the angels.

Meanwhile the war-hero-turned-torturer, Sand dan Glokta, has been promoted to Superior of the Inquisition in the Byzantium-like city of Dagoska. Glokta's storyline is a mystery with more than a few elements reminding me of Greek tragedy, of all things. Basically, Glokta is a very clever man, whose cold pragmatism almost-but-not-quite covers a lingering sense of decency, but he's trapped in a web of conspiracies both vast and petty, that force him to move disastrously or to become yet another "body found floating by the docks." Watch and cringe as his few impulses towards mercy or truth nearly destroy him, yet remain strangely fascinated.

If anything is more straightforward in the fantasy department, it's the storyline of the "Named Men" and Collum West, who are on a collision course ever since the Union army shipped north to fight the power-mad self-styled King of the Northmen, Bethod. One might have predicted even in Book 1 that Bethod, having obviously made deals with eldritch forces beyond mortal ken, was going to have the upper hand against the squabbling feudal lords of the Union, and yeah, no spoilers to say that it happens. Still, even here there's lots of interesting character development, especially for West. Not for nothing does he have an old friendship with Glokta; whereas Glokta gets entangled through his introspection and inquisitiveness, West gets similarly entangled, but through his integrity and moral certitude. He tries to protect those that need protecting, and it gets him into many interesting situations.

In terms of the writing itself, Abercrombie remains a very interesting writer when it comes to narration. Each POV character's chapters have a slightly different narrative style. The most obvious are Logen's narratives, having short choppy sentences befitting an uneducated Northern barbarian, and Glokta's, with the vast majority of dedicated introspection befitting a circumspect and brooding Inquisitor. Abercrombie adds fullness to the voices of all his characters by peppering their speech with certain turns of phrase that mark out their cultures and identities. Logen has Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers..., "you have to be realistic about these things," and of course, "Still alive." Glokta has Body found floating by the docks and (at least in the excellent Audible version) a lisp from his missing teeth. Ferro has (again in the Audible narration) a distinguished French-sounding accent and, of course, "fucking Pinks."

As with The Blade Itself, I listened to the Audible version of the book, again read by Steven Pacey. Pacey is a great narrator, adding even more richness to the idiosyncrasies of Abercrombie's prose, and lending each character a distinct voice. At points it seems more like listening to a play being read than a book, due to all of Pacey's emotive narration.

Now that I'm 67% of the way through the First Law trilogy, I can wholeheartedly recommend it as one of the better ones on the scene. Plus, it's blessedly finished unlike some also-excellent ones (*cough*Kingkiller Chronicle*cough*). I definitely will pick up Last Argument of Kings (Book 3) and the other stand-alone works that follow up the main story. The Circle of the World is a far too interesting place to leave any story untold!

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