A few years back, Joe Abercrombie burst onto the scene with The Blade Itself, the opener to the First Law Trilogy, which I read and really enjoyed earlier this year. While I found the characters a cynical bunch, they were well fleshed out and enjoyable to read, and the book is still a major contender in the category for Best Debut I've read this year at the end of year awards. Abercrombie's writing was experienced, his dialogue witty, and his action scenes gritty and intense. The real problem was going to be topping his introduction to the fantasy world with a sequel.
Or so I thought.
Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It's enough to make a torturer want to run - if he could even walk without a stick.
Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem-he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world.
And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, but a deadly one. They might even stand a chance of saving mankind from the Eaters-if they didn't hate each other quite so much.
Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven-but not before they are hanged.
The briefest way I can describe this is a darkly humorous, fast-paced epic fantasy. Those of you out there who think these can't be combined, be prepared for a shocker.
Abercrombie has improved over The Blade Itself in every aspect. The writing is even more superb. The action is both more frequent and more grippingly realistic. The mapless world (I know he hates maps, but it would so complete the pictre) is nicely fleshed out.
But the characters are what we're here for. If they weren't so blasted entertaining, the book would fall flat on its face. Instead, Abercrombie's brilliant characterization creates some great moments, giving scenes from multiple, wildly different viewpoints and changing voice deftly with POV. The characters here shine beyond the first book, and they're all wonderfully dynamic and fleshed-out. Each time the viewpoint changes, I change my mind about who my favorite character is to read. Is it the rugged Logen Ninefingers (aka the Bloody-Nine)? Or is it the feral Ferro? Perhaps the beautifully spoiled Jezal dan Luthar? The "ferocious" West? Or (and I think this one's in the lead for me personally) the crippled Superior Sand dan Glokta? There are so many to choose from, and even though they all have their despicable moments as in the first book, they become truly believable. The most miraculous thing is that, over the 1000+ pages I've known them, I even sometimes root for these cynical, violent people. The best part is, they're all given interesting things to do, and they all do them in interesting ways. They do things that sometimes surprise me, but that I later realize were exactly what fits with their personalities.
All in all, this has been a great ride so far, and Before They Are Hanged is one of the best fantasy books I've read this year. I can't wait to see these characters again in Last Argument of Kings, the final installment. Now that I think of it, this may be a bad thing, since Abercrombie has no problems whatsoever with killing off major characters.
My rating: 10/10. Joe Abercrombie was right. This guy just keeps getting better and BETTER.
Coming Soon: Top Secret, but it's BIG.