Bitter and merciless war is coming to the frozen north. It’s bloody and dangerous and the Union army, split by politics and hamstrung by incompetence, is utterly unprepared for the slaughter that’s coming. Lacking experience, training, and in some cases even weapons the army is scarcely equipped to repel Bethod’s scouts, let alone the cream of his forces.
In the heat-ravaged south the Gurkish are massing to assault the city of Dagoska, defended by Inquisitor Glokta. The city is braced for the inevitable defeat and massacre to come, preparations are made to make the Gurkish pay for every inch of land… but a plot is festering to hand the city to its beseigers without a fight, and the previous Inquisitor of Dagoska vanished without trace. Threatened from within and without the city, Glokta needs answers, and he needs them soon.
And to the east a small band of malefactors travel to the edge of the world to reclaim a device from history – a Seed, hidden for generations – with tremendous destructive potential. A device which could put a end to war, to the army of Eaters in the South, to the invasion of Shanka from the North – but only if it can be found, and only if its power can be controlled…
I am a newcomer to Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series. Despite buying (and subsequently losing) all of his novels. I read the first book, The Blade Itself, and while I enjoyed it a great deal, I didn’t quite see the genius that so many of my friends and fellow reviewers saw. Then I read Before They Are Hanged. NOW I get it. This is a fantastic book, that had me hooked from the first page onwards. Joe Abercrombie is, frankly, a fantasy genius.
Naturally, I have difficulty reviewing this novel. Not because so much has been written about it already (which it has), but because it’s so good. Which leaves me tongue-tied. It’s not flawless, as very few books are, but damn Abercrombie can spin a grim, addictive yarn. And how do I review this without spoiling book one? I’ll try to keep it short(ish).
There are three threads to the story, and I’ll deal with each individually.
The first follows the “fellowship” (my word) that the First Mage Bayaz collected in The Blade Itself. The mage is accompanied by the Northern warrior Logen Ninefingers, the pampered fencer Jezal, the rather wild Ferro, an irritating navigator, and Bayaz’s apprentice. Their journey takes them on a long, perilous journey across this world in search of the Seed. This was, for me, the most interesting part of the story. I enjoyed the way the dynamic between the members of the group developed – often as the result of adversity. True, sometimes the fight-scenes went on a shade longer than I thought necessary, but overall I loved their story. Particularly Ferro’s and Jezal’s changes.
Ferro, who raises misanthrope to an art-form, has built a near-impenetrable wall between herself and others, but the longer she spends in the company of this group, and especially Logen, the more accommodating she becomes. She still thinks the “pinks” are mostly useless and soft, but she develops a type of attachment to them. Jezal develops, too, growing from the spoiled, pampered and practically useless swordsman into a more worldly character. Both of these characters change largely due to their contact with Logen, which I thought was great. It’s not often the berserker of any travelling party develops into its heart… Speaking of the characters, though, I thought Bayaz was quite different to his portrayal in The Blade Itself. It was quite a change, too, which sometimes made him feel a little off.
In the meantime, crippled inquisitor, Superior San dan Glokta has been sent off to Dagoska, tasked with finding out what happened to his predecessor and also the city’s defence against the marauding and besieging Gurkish, who would very much like to reclaim the city. Glokta is beset on almost all sides by treachery, conspiracy, greed and the general incompetence of others. His task is by no means easy, and becomes only more difficult as the Gurkish launch ever-more desperate attacks. As with The Blade Itself, Glokta’s scenes are accompanied by his internal editorialising (and misanthrope), which adds an interesting, colourful layer to proceedings. If you consider “black” a colour… We learn a little more about Glokta’s past, as well as witness some of his most brutal tactics and practices. Torture features prominently, of course, as Glokta investigates the death of the previous Superior and tries to get to the bottom of the conspiracy that could bring down Dagoska. If anyone had doubt that Abercrombie was the Lord of the “Grimdark” sub-genre of Fantasy, then Glokta’s actions and orders will forever destroy that doubt. (Speaking of, the author has finally joined Twitter, and his handle is, appropriately: “@LordGrimdark”.)
The final thread, which is really made up of two that are connected fairly quickly, features a handful of Northmen who used to follow Logen (they believe he is dead), and also newly-promoted Colonel West and a battalion of the army sent to prevent Bethod’s conquest of the South. The Northmen have been harrying Bethod’s army, and decide that they could offer valuable services to the army. This leads to the most audacious “job-interview” I’ve ever read – involving the kidnap of your potential employer… Unusual, but apparently very effective. Unfortunately for West and the Northmen, this portion of the army is under the command of Prince Ladisla, and never before has an army been led by such a feckless, simpering waste of space. They have been positioned far away from the presumed front, tasked with protecting a road to the capital city. Should be simple, safe, right? Well… No.
Ladisla and his fellow aristocratic captains are in love with the romanticised idea of warfare – grand charges, death only to the other side, and of course celebratory banquets after saga-worthy victories. Unfortunately, war is never like this. The pompous asses will be a thorn in West’s side right up until the end. Because Bethod’s forces are closer than they think…
The way Abercrombie writes Ladisla, and also his entourage, is often quite funny. Ladisla basically has the temperament, attention span and strategic mind of an excitable puppy. The inclusion of the aristocracy gives Abercrombie plenty of opportunity to indulge in poking fun at hereditary elites and all that entails (especially the bad stuff), which he does so well. In the second half of The Blade Itself it sometimes felt a little heavy-handed, but in Before They Are Hanged, I think it’s better woven into the story. Here’s one example, from when we first encounter the pompous idiots attached to West’s army:
“Either were hindrance enough to West’s mind, but neither one was half the obstacle that the third lot presented, clustered around the far end of the table. Their leader was none other than the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Ladisla himself. It was not so much a uniform that he was wearing, as a kind of purple dressing gown with epaulettes. Bedwear with a military motif. The lace on his cuffs alone could have made a good-sized tablecloth, and his staff were little less remarkable in their finery. Some of the richest, most handsome, most elegant, most useless young men in the whole Union were sprawled in their chairs around the Prince. If the measure of a man was the size of his hat, these were great men indeed.”
I’ve only picked up on a few of the characters that make up the diverse, colourful cast, and by no means could a review do the book’s expansive narrative justice (without such a review being immense in length). It would be easy to write thousands of words in praise of this novel. But I’d end up spoiling so many of the twists, turns and inspired moments. Needless to say, the novel is tightly written, expertly plotted, and all of the characters are believable, and offer interesting twists on classic fantasy types. Abercrombie’s prose style is superb, and very well-crafted.
The novel is filled with astute, acerbic observations – of aristocracy, warfare, society (there’s a particularly good execution scene near the end, which allows Glokta to wax philosophical about the discrepancies and inconsistencies in “polite” society and its mores). It’s a brutal book, certainly, but it is also intelligent, nuanced, and often quite funny. Before They Are Hanged is also the middle-volume of the first trilogy set in this world, but it didn’t suffer any of the normal Middle Book weaknesses. I was as satisfied at the end as I am after finishing stand-alones or final books in series. I never felt like I was just marking time until I could start book three, The Last Argument of Kings. Having finished this, though, I am desperate to get to book three…
There are four more novels set in Abercrombie’s fantasy world. I will read them all. And soon. Very soon. If you’re not reading Abercrombie’s work already, then you really need to start doing so. A contemporary master of the genre, this is an absolute must-read. I could gush for many more paragraphs, but I think I shall leave it here.
Very, very highly recommended.
The First Law Trilogy: The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings
More by Abercrombie: Best Served Cold (almost unanimously lauded as his best), The Heroes, Red Country