Fiction Reviews

Before They Are Hanged

The First Law: Book Two

(2007) Joe Abercrombie, Gollancz, 17.99, hrdbk, 562 pp, ISBN 978 0 75287 429 6


While the previous novel in this series, The Blade Itself set the scene and, perhaps consequently, was a little slow to get going, I found this book more rewarding. It benefits form the groundwork already having been done and so making way for a great deal of development for all concerned. The backdrop, as with The Blade Itself, is a pre-industrial age world with a legacy of magic and mystery about it, and where continents are at war. Life is hard in just about every region save for the lucky elite, and even they are not guaranteed an easy ride.

The first book introduced the character of Logen Ninefingers who is continuing a journey he was led on inadvertently by the First of the Magi, as well as Bayaz, and an assorted group of travellers: Jezal dan Luthar, proud, somewhat selfish and used to the good life, Ferro who is aggressive and a sharp shot with a bow and arrow, Longfoot the navigator who is never short of words and Quai, Bayaz's somewhat nave apprentice.

Meanwhile, elsewhere the men Logen previously led, Dogman, Threetrees, Grim and Black Dow, who are unaware he is still alive, find themselves plunged into war assisting the newly promoted Colonel West who has been assigned to try and keep the inept Prince Ladisla and his poorly trained and armed troops out of trouble. They have been placed in a region where Bethod and his invading army are unlikely to go.

Sand Dan Glokta has been promoted to Superior of Dagoska and is charged with finding out what happened to the previous superior, Davoust, who disappeared one night never to be seen again. It is his job to carry out a no-holds-barred investigation into those around him to find out the truth whilst dealing with the threat of an oncoming invasion by the Gurkish, the people who tortured him and left him crippled and in constant pain.

The characters in this novel benefited from being introduced in the first one. This enabled the story to hit the ground running. Once again, it is written in a gritty kind of style with the use of language varying depending upon the characters at the centre of the action at the time, one example being that of the group of Northmen whose rich slang includes 'back to the mud' (meaning dying) and 'Named Men' for individuals with a notable reputation. It is a nice touch and serves the characters well as it sets them apart and helps establish who they are and their way of thinking. While the Northmen are looked upon as barbarians by those around them, it is interesting to see how they interact with characters such as Lord Marshall Burr and in particularly, Colonel West who ends up needing all the help he can get. Again in the first novel I did not find Colonel West particularly memorable, or developed, but in this sequel he comes to the fore as he tries to avert disaster despite overwhelming odds and remain true to his principles.

Another character I was not all that impressed with in the first novel was Jezal dan Luthar who is prim, proper and utterly selfish, and who ends up taking a trip he is not entirely sure he wants to venture on at the bequest of Bayaz, the first of the Magi, and is forced to prove himself in battle - something he has never done before. Again, the character develops with him having to deal with the repercussions of battle and, of course, being away from the life of luxury of which he is used.

I can also say the same for Sand dan Glokta, who was a most unappealing in the first novel - crippled and with a tortured past (an unpleasant experience) and an unequally unpleasant job as an expert torturer. There was one scene describing a method he uses to extract the truth out of an unlucky captive that made me squirm, but it served its purpose in illustrating what had to be done to make people talk... The type of situation the writer had placed Glokta worked perfectly and utilised his military background and interrogation skills. Further it added a 'whodunit' element to the tale and where the resolution is surprising.

Bayaz is used well, providing the sorcery element in a story that has more swords than sorcery. He reveals his use of magic in the first book and while it is evident in the second, his also tells the tale of how magic was misused in the past and how it came to wreak havoc on the world. The backdrops of the abandoned places he and his party travel to are described effectively and there are elements of intrigue as relics of a past sophisticated civilisation, now long since gone.

While I found the first novel a little hard to get into, it was reading this follow-up that made it worthwhile. Having a knowledge of the characters before picking up this novel was a great benefit and seeing them utilised effectively made for a rewarding read with the main strength of the book being development of the protagonists. They find themselves out of their depth and having to deal with situations that are either out of control and/or are the consequences of their actions, but they still have to get on with what they are doing, where they are going and realising their goals. Expletives are used throughout the book but it is not swearing for the sake of it. As with the first book, this is a dark tale featuring violence, torture and other dark elements. I was enjoyed this book and once again find myself awaiting the next instalment. As this is part of a yet-to-be-completed series I cannot comment on the ending but would say that it so far these novels most rewarding. Having said that if you have not read The Blade Itself then do so first.

Sue Griffiths

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