Middle entries in a trilogy are always complicated. You don’t get that exhilaration of a new story, nor the joys of watching plotlines end; instead, you’re watching pieces move around, setting up the finale yet to come. They’re hard books to write, and hard ones to evaluate on their own terms. And if anything, Before They Are Hanged has an even bigger problem: the lack of obvious structure of The First Law trilogy. So many fantasy series have an obvious endgame – the destruction of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, the Iron Throne in A Song of Ice and Fire, the Last Battle in The Wheel of Time, and so forth. But The First Law doesn’t have any such obvious structure or endgame that’s apparent yet. There’s a country in peril of two different invaders (as well as a peasant uprising), the journey of a powerful wizard to retrieve a dangerous object, and a slew of more personal plotlines ongoing, and no immediately obvious place for them all to go.
And yet, for all of that, Before They Are Hanged works not just as a middle book, but as a book on its own terms, delivering an even better tale than The Blade Itself, outstanding character work, incredible action, great plot development, and such rich worldbuilding and evolution that you’ll be hard-pressed to stop for even a moment.
Much of that joy comes from author Joe Abercrombie’s outstanding ability to let his characters live and breathe, and more than that, to let them evolve and change. If The Blade Itself represented the setup for the series, Before They Are Hanged is the section where the characters begin to be shaped by – and shape – events around them in fascinating ways. Logen “Bloody Nine” Ninefingers begins to reveal exactly how he became the leader he once was held to be, as well as showing signs of the human being under the grizzled warrior. Sand dan Glokta, the mutilated prisoner, is still capable of brutal and horrendous acts, but also shows himself capable of incredible leadership – and surprising mercy. And Jezal dan Luthar, the arrogant swordsman, begins to see the world beyond himself for the first time. It’s all done wonderfully, with care and slow patience, and it gives the book a richness and warmth that’s often lost in the plotting of an epic fantasy trilogy.
But Abercrombie proves to be no slouch at all the trappings of the genre, either. Before They Were Hanged delivers some absolutely fantastic battle sequences, and Abercrombie shows himself equally capable of handling both the big picture as generals watch the fronts battle and the up-close and personal one-on-one combat, with the latter delivering some truly brutal and disturbing violence at times. More than that, he knows when to use it and when to leave it offscreen, allowing the incidents to occur when they matter most, and when they can impact the story or the characters as much as possible.
And then, beyond that, there’s the rich story, which manages to follow two very different martial fronts and a quest to the edge of the world, and weave between them effortlessly and yet perfectly, allowing each plot to come in at the maximum point where tension can be drawn out. More than that, Abercrombie lets each story follow its own pace, which lets the books feel less plot-driven and more driven by the characters and the world, something that so often fails in epic fantasy series. And yes, it’s all done with Abercrombie’s pitch-perfect mix of cynicism, black humor, character work, and skilled writing.
As I’ve said, I’m still not entirely sure where The First Law trilogy is going…but that’s okay. Because every storyline, and every character in them, is riveting enough on any number of levels to keep me reading, and render me excited that there’s more books set in this world, and had me opening up the third and final book within seconds of finishing this one. It’s all really become one of my favorite fantasy series in recent memory, one that draws on any number of inspirations while still feeling like its own unique, standout creation.