Page Turners

Continuing the Quest with Before They Are Hanged



In the face of…you know, everything, I’ve decided to lean into a sort of self-care mode. Lots of guilty pleasures, and finding any sort of comfort media I can get my hands on. Which, has taken the form of me kind of deciding that a big chunk of this year is going to be devoted to rekindling my lover for sci-fi, fantasy, and pulpy noir stories. Leaning into this geeky aesthetic is quite comforting in the face of a world that is falling apart more and more every day, and this has given me the push to continue a few series that I haven’t touched in a bit. Because tackling novel series on this site isn’t something I often do, because I feel like talking about the same books again and again can be a little boring, so I like to spread out entries. Which, can result in me finding a book that I like quite a bit, and then kind of forget about it by the time I finally pick up the next book in the series. For instance, last year I read the first book in the highly popular First Law series written by Joe Abercrombie. I liked the Blade Itself quite a bit, even though by the end of the book I found myself surprised at how little actually ended up happening in it, ultimately introducing you to an interesting world and interesting characters, setting them up for a future adventure. And, at the time I felt a little worried that I would forget important details by the time that I finally picked up the second book in the series. But, thankfully, that didn’t end up being the case, and when it came time for me to pick up Before They Are Hanged I slipped right back into the wonderful world that Abercrombie has crafted, ready to hit the ground running.

As with the first book, this one tells several concurrent storylines, spread all around this world, primarily focusing on three groups of characters in the North, South, and West. In the North we have the continuing war fought by the mighty kingdom of Adua against some upstart barbarians led by a man known as Bethod. We follow an Aduan knight we met in the last book named Collem West as he helps lead a doomed military campaign against an enemy that his people don’t respect or understand, until everything falls apart. At which point he meets up with several men of the North, who are also working against Bethod and who end up helping West out, specifically a gifted tracker known as Dogman who gradually gains influence in his tribe of barbarians until he reaches the point of becoming their new leader, all while Bethod continues to crush the Adua military. Down in the South we follow Glokta, a member of the Royal Inquisition who in the last novel had been sent to an Aduan colony that was about the be captured by a massive Southern Empire. Glokta finds himself having to navigate a city about to be destroyed, native people who loathe him and his people, and the few Aduan people living in the city trying to keep it from falling. And, along the way he starts to piece together a potentially magical and nefarious plot occurring deep inside the threatening Empire.

Which, brings us to the story in the West. In the first book we were introduced to a wide variety of characters, several of whom ended up coming together by the end of the story before being shipped off to the West on a quest. The mission is led by Bayaz, a powerful and long-living wizard, and included his apprentice Quai, the barbarian warrior Logen Ninefingers who has the ability to speak with spirits, Jezel dan Luthar a famous swordsman with no real battle experience, a guide known as Longfoot, and a violent woman named Ferro who has demon-blood in her. They are set to go as far West as possible in order to regain a powerful magical artifact which could help turn the tide of the various wars. Bayaz is convinced that the Empire to the South is being led by a fellow wizard who is trying to take over the world, and thinks that this weapon will be the only thing to stop him. But, that means they’ll have to cross the Western continent, which used to be a mighty empire, but which has fallen into civil war and decay in the ensuing centuries. So, they make their way through a wild country, bonding and making realizations about themselves, before finally getting to their goal, and realizing that they’re probably going to have to come up with a better plan to save the world.

I’m easily finding myself becoming a pretty big fan of this First Law series. Which, is a smart move, because Abercrombie seems to churn these books out at a staggering pace, launching multiple stand-along novels and two trilogies in a shockingly short amount of time. So, there’s a lot of this world to dive into. But, one of the things that I find myself getting so drawn in by is his way of taking very familiar fantasy elements, and just doing fun and different things with them. The first book felt like a bunch of fantasy archetype characters running into each other, and this book takes that dynamic and send them out on what seems like a typical mythical quest, only for almost every aspect of that to get turned on its ear. We have a great mission to get some sort of magical McGuffin, which ends up seemingly destined to cause some sort of magical genocide. We have Jezal seemingly ready to participate in some sort of heroe’s quest, only to be disfigured and have his entire disposition changed. And we have two hardened killers perhaps find some sort of tenderness together, which may in turn hurt them worse than they’ve ever been hurt in battle. It’s all great stuff, and manages to continuously get me to assume I know where the story is going, based on typical fantasy trappings, only to pull the rug out from under me and take me on a much different, but much more exciting ride. Plus, the novel does something that I’m sure has been done before, but which felt new to me. Fantasy by and large is trapped in a very medieval era, largely inspired by Western society. So, any time I see a story that attempts to change that script is going to catch my attention, and seeing a whole society that seems to be based on a fallen version of Rome certainly was enough to do that. I could read an entire novel set in this Old Empire that our protagonists explore throughout this book, and it really helps cement what I’m growing to love about Joe Abercrombie. He takes something familiar, and twists it just enough that I have no idea what’s coming next. And, I’m excited to continue following him down this path.


Before They Are Hanged was written by Joe Abercrombie, 2007.

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