Before They Are Hanged (2007): Joe Abercrombie

★★★½

The First Law: Book 2

Wow, that got dark very quickly. The second instalment of the First Law trilogy spreads our characters out across the world, many of them facing insurmountable odds, and all of them, at various points, encountering an awful lot of violence. There is a lot of blood. This is not one for the faint-hearted, but Abercrombie’s sense of irony prevents it from getting too crushingly miserable. In her comment on the last post, Heloise noted that he undermines the conventions of the fantasy genre throughout the series, and I noticed more examples of this here: not so much in terms of characterisation, now, but in the plot itself. And yet this does feel very much like a ‘middle book’: while it begins with the feel of a new chapter, taking our characters away from the debatable safety of Adua and into foreign climes, it finishes with many storylines still in progress. Nevertheless, it manages to keep up the pace with aplomb, and raises more questions than it answers.

Spiralling out from the city of Adua, our characters take up their places on the board. Collem West has been sent north with the King’s army to confront Bethod’s Northmen. While many of his fellow officers seem to think this will be easy, West is from the North himself and knows that Bethod can’t be trusted to do the decent thing and lose the war. Tricky, shrewd and in league with unexpected friends, Bethod is more of a danger than anyone anticipates. West’s local knowledge should have made him invaluable, but instead he finds himself shunted off to play nursemaid to Prince Ladislas, the King’s useless elder son, who fancies himself as a dazzling commander. There’s some comfort for West, however, in the form of his own group of new friends: Logen Ninefingers’s old band. These men know the North, and Bethod, better than West ever could, and are willing to throw their weight behind the Union in trying to stop his advance. It’s an alliance that promises to make the storybooks – if they can pull it off, that is.

Their former chief, meanwhile, has no idea that his old friends are still alive. He’s currently slogging his way towards the Edge of the World with Bayaz, Jezal, and the firecat Ferro, in search of an ancient unspeakable source of power which may help them to defeat the forces of evil. However, this series (like Abercrombie’s work as a whole) is slightly cagey about defining things in such stark light as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, and that’s the way I like it. For example, Logen is probably the closest thing we have to a ‘good’ character. He’s done awful things, and is occasionally (literally) possessed by a bloodthirsty spirit, but for the most part he’s humble, frank, straightforward and quietly courageous: the glue that slowly begins to bind this disparate gang together. His companions are gradually becoming more relatable as well. Jezal is showing signs of maturing, largely thanks to an unfortunate incident which puts his life in perspective; and Ferro, if not exactly developing, is becoming more sympathetic, as we understand more about her past, and see that she still has some potential for human interaction. Bayaz remains an enigma, of course, as does his apprentice Malacus Quai (on whom more below).

Glokta, newly promoted to Superior of Dagoska, has a problem. His new seat is threatened by the formidable army of the Gurkish emperor, and his predecessor has mysteriously vanished without trace. Arch Lector Sult wants him to find out what has happened – oh, and hold the city at all costs. Naturally, Glokta has enemies all around him and can’t trust a single one of the ruling council of Dagoska; indeed, he doubts he can trust his own Practical, Vitari, who is almost certainly writing snide reports to Sult behind his back. In sweltering heat, with a merciless army on his doorstep, Glokta must solve the mystery of the last Superior’s death and unmask the traitors who are surely lurking in the city, waiting to open the gates to the Gurkish. Along the way, questions will need to be asked – and Glokta, as Dagoska is about to find out, is never afraid of asking the hardest questions of all. I will say, here, that Glokta certainly doesn’t shrink from doing his job, and is prepared to do ghastly things to get a confession (even if he knows someone is innocent), but I haven’t given up on him. I still think he’s one of the most interesting characters of the lot, with the occasional flash of honour and humanity. Essentially, he’s the Tyrion Lannister of this series: being an outsider, he has the clearest sight of all, and I’m not-so-secretly hoping he’ll end up on the throne at the end, when the dust settles.

Let’s talk about Ardee for a second. The sister of Collem West, she doesn’t appear much in this volume, but the fact she appears at all is telling. I thought there was something ‘off’ about her in the first book, where her sole purpose seemed to be tormenting Jezal, and I feel even more uneasy now. Although she’s only in a couple of scenes, she’s frequently brought up by other characters, whether that’s Jezal, mooning over her as he slogs across a dead continent with Bayaz; or West himself, stuck in the grim north, and regretting his treatment of her; or West’s fellow officers, who think of Ardee with a mixture of lust and fondness. It seems a waste to have created her, just to have other characters thinking about her… and Abercrombie doesn’t seem like a wasteful writer to me. What is the point of Ardee? It may well turn out that she has no real significance at all, but I’ll be disappointed if that’s the case. I think there’s more going on. She is extremely deft at understanding and manipulating men. With Jezal, in the last book, she behaved mockingly and contemptuously, understanding that this was most likely to fascinate him. With Glokta, she appeals to the remnants of the man he used to be, firing up his few remaining sentiments and encouraging a sense of protectiveness. What does she hope to gain? Why is she in Adua at all? What is her ambition? Is she acting for herself, or is she an agent for someone else – maybe the mysterious bank Valint & Balk? There must be more going on here. I’m looking forward to seeing whether the final book offers us any answers.

And while we’re on the topic of characters behaving strangely, what’s up with Malacus Quai? All is clearly not as it should be there. I think he must have been possessed, somehow – he’s clearly far more knowledgeable about Bayaz’s history, and far more confrontational, than he should be. The rather sardonic man we see now is a far cry from the downtrodden weakling in the first book. But when did it happen? He must have been dabbling in forbidden things – there have been dark references to ‘digging’ – but I’m not quite sure who, or what, has possessed him, and what this thing wants. Bayaz, whom I would have credited with greater observational powers, doesn’t seem to have noticed that his hapless apprentice has become a completely different person.

There will be spoilers in the next paragraph, so beware. I want to address what Heloise said last time, about undermining conventions. Abercrombie sets up situations that we’re familiar with, not only from fantasy, but from generic heroic stories. Glokta is sent to a city besieged by a huge army, which massively outnumbers the city’s defenders, and he is ordered not to let it fall. We’ve been trained to predict how that story goes. Glokta’s a clever man: he’ll come up with some scheme to save the city, snatching it from disaster at the last minute. Won’t he? It turns out that Abercrombie is a bit more of a realist than that. Glokta, having once been the kind of dashing fellow who’d do anything for honour, is now older, wiser and a good deal more circumspect. Sometimes, as we see, insurmountable odds really does mean ‘insurmountable’. Then there’s Bayaz and his team, slogging across the vastness of the world in search of an ancient relic that could turn the tide. We know stories like this: they’re the backbone of modern fantasy, in which a team of handpicked companions set out to save the world. There and back again – it’s one of the most famous stories in modern fantasy, after all! Abercrombie takes us through their trials and sufferings… and then flips the script and asks us what happens if the sacred relic isn’t hidden where it was meant to be. Was it was all in vain? I still don’t know. But this is a world where the fairytale ending doesn’t happen. You don’t save a city, or a realm, or the world, simply by following ancient prophecies and being a good sort.

In fact, few of these characters are good sorts. Not one of them is universally good, and most of them are violent, ruthless, and self-serving. But they’re people who have adapted to the world in which they find themselves: a world which, in the North, prizes brute force and leadership; and, in the South, rewards duplicity and flamboyance. The question is whether they can adapt again as circumstances change. Jezal, for example, does seem to be adapting and I wonder how he’s going to cope from now on. I think Bayaz has further plans for him – I think the old magus sees a crown on Jezal’s head, and I don’t know whether it’s just coincidence that Adua’s current royal family seems to be undergoing a bit of a decimation. We’re meant to think that this is the doing of the ‘baddies’, of course, but I’m not entirely convinced that the battle lines between ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are as cleanly drawn here as we’d expect. In fact, given the glee with which Abercrombie slaughters sacred cows, I bet they aren’t. Maybe there’s more to Bayaz than meets the eye too.

Onto the last book now, and eager to find out what fate has in store for all our characters.

Buy the book

The First Law Trilogy

The Blade Itself
Before They Are Hanged
Last Argument of Kings

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