Before They Are Hanged is the second book in The First Law Trilogy and the sequel to The Blade Itself, which I reviewed favourably here. In this middle volume of the sequence, Before They Are Hanged picks up the storylines left dangling from the first novel and develops them further. As with the first book, this volume often feels like a 'standard' fantasy novel with lots of standard tropes in use, but Abercrombie successfully continues to put a subversive spin on events which keeps things fresh and interesting.
There are three main plot threads in the book. In the Northlands, the Union Army prepares to face the forces under Beothed. They have enlisted the aid of Threetrees and his band of cutthroats and warriors, but Marshal Burr and Colonel West find their hands full with just keeping their feuding generals from each others throats and babysitting the preening, useless Prince Ladisla.
Meanwhile, in the South, the city of Dagoska falls under siege from the army of the Gurkhal Empire. Inquisitor Glokta, in the city to investigate the disappearance of his predecessor, finds himself orchestrating the defence of the city against a vast and powerful foe, but finds himself making alliances with suspect forces in order to ensure the city's survival.
In the West, Bayaz and his band of unlikely companions continue their journey to the edge of the Circle of the World, to recover a weapon of tremendous power. Their journey will take them through the fallen remnants of the Old Empire, an ancient city and a towering mountain range before their goal can be achieved.
Abercrombie's story rattles along at a fair old pace. With the characters introduced, there is no more need for scene-setting and the plot explodes with vigour. More happens in this 450-page novel than some writers struggle to squeeze into an 800-page tome, and it's all invigorating, page-turning stuff. There's a lightness of touch and plenty of humour in the writing which makes reading the book all the more pleasurable. The characters become more interesting, with Glokta particularly becoming a morally ambiguous person whom the author gives real character to, his decisive ruthlessness coming as quite a shock in some parts of the book. Meanwhile, in other parts of the story other characters undertake unexpected transformations. Meeting other people who know Bayaz forces from earlier in the world's history force the reader to reconsider their opinion of him, whilst another character undergoes a startling personality transformation which is kept quietly in the background, hinting at some darker force moving in the storyline which will be explored further in the final book of the series.
The only criticism that comes to mind is, once again, the lack of a map. This is even more of a problem in the second novel as much vaster areas of territory are covered. One of the problems of not having a map in the book is revealed by the fact that, until an offhand comment made in this volume, I was unaware that Midderland (the Union homeland and location of its capital, Adua) was an island. A second, even more minor problem is that a skirmish in an ancient, ruined city threatens to feel like the use of one standard fantasy idea too many. Luckily, Abercrombie's writing is strong enough to avoid this problem, especially as it provides some of the most memorable imagery in the novel.
Before They Are Hanged (****) is published by Gollancz in the UK in trade paperback and hardcover. A US edition from Pyr will follow, probably in 2008. The final book is entitled The Last Argument of Kings and is tentatively slated for publication on 1 March 2008.