I’m just gonna say it folks: this book was a big disappointment for me. And that was a big surprise because I enjoyed The Blade Itself a lot. BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED picks up just after the events of the first book, with Sand dan Glokta taking up his position of Superior in the soon-to-be-besieged city of Dagoska; Logen, Bayaz the mage and the rest of gang traipsing off westward on a quest Bayaz is still very cagey about; and Collem West and Threetrees’ crew up north on an inevitable collision course with Bethod’s army. Bear with me here, cos there’s a bunch of story lines and perspectives in this book and I’m gonna do my best to talk about each one, as well as the bits and pieces I liked and disliked about the writing.
So my biggest disappointment in this second book was the sheer amount of lore dumping we’re subjected to, and any scene with Bayaz in it was particularly bad for this. Pretty much any time Bayaz opens his mouth for the first three quarters of this book it’s to vomit out paragraphs upon paragraphs of history about some long-forgotten war or a once-majestic city now fallen into ruin. I’m not against this in principle and a lore dump can be very interesting if done well, but the irksome thing about the way it’s done here is that there’s no reason for anyone to care, because neither we as the reader or the characters really know where they’re going or why, so none of the reams of lore he spews out means anything in the context of their journey. We do get drip fed a bit more detail about what Bayaz is up to as the book progresses, but for me it just felt like I was watching this motley crew of reluctant adventurers going on a very long, pointless walk with no clear reason or motivation for far too much of this book.
Despite that I thought there was some good character development in this story line. I particularly enjoyed seeing Ferro take some tentative steps towards dismantling some of the defensive barriers she’s so far put up around herself, even if it is against her better judgement. Jezal dan Luthar likewise undergoes some noticeable changes in this book. I’ll avoid getting into specifics because spoilers, but the important part is that this progression is written well; I found it very believable that these characters would undergo the changes they did and in the way they did. There are definitely identifiable turning points in their character arcs, but nobody changes their entire personalities overnight because of a single epiphany and even at the end of the book, the core of who they are is still there, even if they’ve noticeably changed in other ways.
I enjoyed Glokta’s story line for the most part. He was my favourite character in the first book and his story is still the most interesting for me. I think that’s just for the simple fact that he rubs shoulders with so many scheming wankers in the upper echelons of Aduan society, all jockeying for power and influence. I love that shit. Even so, I was often disappointed by Abercrombie’s execution of the things that really are low-hanging fruit for me. I don’t think he delved into the gritty, grimy world of the traitors of Dagoska as much as he could have and so much of that ruthless world felt unexplored and I ended up feeling a bit unsatisfied as a result. Hints are made at the end of the book that the scheming, bribing, blackmailing and backstabbing are going to be amped up in the next book, but the execution felt so crude and rudimentary and I just felt disappointed by it. This really is low-hanging fruit for me, an author doesn’t have to try particularly hard for me to love this stuff, but it just didn’t work for me here.
Collem West and the Northmen fight a few battles with Bethod’s army, but this story line was pretty forgettable for the most part. I just didn’t care very much and these were the parts where my attention drifted the most. Except when I got actively frustrated by some of the side characters; mainly Generals Poulder and Kroy who, frankly, are just cartoon characters whose only character traits are that they’re jealous of each other and argue every chance they get. They’re so one-dimensional and cartoonish that whenever they started fighting I just pictured them rolling around Looney Tunes style in a cloud of dust, fists and feet poking out as they scrapped with each other.
There were flashes of things I really loved. I feel like they’re possibly things other people might find a bit weird, but I often find joy in the corners of stories that hint at larger things and one of my favourite sentences in this book takes place when Jezal is changing into an outfit someone has laid out for him; ‘he pulled on the clothes that had been left for him. A fusty-smelling shirt and breeches of an ancient and absurdly unfashionable design’. To me this shows that the world is alive, that fashion exists and that it’s not static, that people have tastes that change over time; that despite all the war and killing and plotting people in this world still think about such mundane things as what clothes are fashionable. This one tiny morsel of world building did so much more for me than the pages and pages of grand monologues from Bayaz about the sweeping histories of fallen empires.
Overall this was a major departure from The Blade Itself. I thought the characters in that first book were vibrant, the writing was engaging and the world was fascinating, but everything that made it so enjoyable was absent in this second instalment. There were aspects of it I liked and some isolated moments I loved, but overall BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED is a shadow of its predecessor. I only hope this was simply a case of Middle Book Syndrome and the final part of the trilogy takes us back to the highs of that first book.
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