"We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged."
Heinrich Heine's cynical quote sets the tone for the second novel in Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy. The first novel dealt with a diverse group of point-of-view characters who discover that the empire that provides stability to their region is in danger of being destroyed by forces both within and without its borders. Before They Are Hanged picks up the story where The Blade Itself left off, with the characters who survived the first novel trying to unravel the political conspiracies and ancient mysteries that surround them. There is precious little forgiveness in the world of the besieged Union, and mistakes, once made, are generally fatal. Secretly, Abercrombie's characters feel generous impulses and may even want to show mercy to foes and friends alike. But the cost of doing the right thing is often too high for them to pay.
It is also often unclear what the right thing is. Take the intrepid adventuring party that set off at the end of the previous novel. A set of heroic misfits is on a quest to save the Union from the twin invasions of cannibalistic magicians from the South and disturbing, zombielike creatures from the North. This seems like a worthy goal. True, the Union is a sprawling, corrupt civilization prone to oppressing its citizens, but either alternative is worse. And the party is guided by Bayez, First of the Magi, a legendary figure who brought peace and civilization to the globe. But Bayez is not the immaculate figure of goodness the legends make him out to be, and his quest to save the Union may not be completely sane.
Meanwhile, the scarred and twisted Inquisitor Glotka is doing his best to complete his latest mission for the Inquisition. The torturer has been appointed superior of the city of Dagoska. This would be a great honor were it not for the fact that the previous occupant of the position was assassinated. Glotka's main job as superior thus consists of rooting out the conspiracy that killed his predecessor before it murders him too. In addition, there is the minor problem of an ongoing war in the region. Dagoska is under siege by a vast, well-supplied army, and Glotka has been ordered to hold the city without supplies or hope of reinforcement. In other words, Glotka's new job is a death warrant, and he must use every dirty trick at his disposal to stay alive.
The most honorable character in the novel, Major West, is having problems of his own. The dutiful commander has been ordered to escort the Union's Crown Prince Ladisla into battle with the Gurkish. The spoiled prince has, of course, been sent to the safest part of the front lines, but careful preparations are thrown into chaos when Ladisla decides he wants to win "undying glory" by making a bold move against the Gurkish. West is forced into a position in which he must constantly decide between following orders like a good soldier and opposing the powerful aristocrat whose whims may kill them all.
The three main plotlines sketch the outline of a dangerous, far-flung conspiracy that is poised to bring down the corrupt Union. Opposing the conspiracy is a loose alliance of mysterious figures whose agendas may also not be particularly healthy. Abercrombie's characters snatch at the loose threads of the conspiracy that surrounds them and over the course of the novel start to unravel the plots and forge alliances with each other. Some characters are bettered by their experiences, some become darker, and some refuse to learn anything at all. All, however, begin to face the consequences of their choices, both good and bad.
Before They Are Hanged lacks the polish of Abercrombie's previous novel, The Blade Itself. That book mixed the pared-down prose of hard-boiled detective fiction with the epic scope of a George R. R. Martin fantasy in a plot that steered refreshingly clear of most of the usual fantasy conventions. Now that Abercrombie is further into his trilogy, however, the familiar beats of an epic fantasy series are beginning to emerge. Characters who previously displayed intriguing degrees of moral ambiguity are beginning to learn Valuable Lessons, while some of the stock fantasy types of Diana Wynne Jones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland seem poised in the wings, waiting to take over the story.
Abercrombie's most interesting character, Inquisitor Glotka, remains a compelling figure, and the story line that follows his attempts to save the hopelessly besieged city of Dagoska is the strongest in the novel. Glotka has his moments of redemption, but on the whole he remains a cynical character who is refreshingly unfazed by the depths to which his fellow human beings will stoop.
On the other end of the moral spectrum, Major West goes through some sudden and surprising developments over the course of the novel. His determination to rise above the moral quagmire that surrounds him marks him as a typical fantasy hero, but his increased questioning of honor and duty adds an interesting dimension to his character. Torn between his principles and his common sense, he is finally forced to a breaking point. West's decision and its consequences are set to haunt him in the trilogy's next installment.
The novel's weakest part deals with the adventuring party. Despite his good intentions, Abercrombie cannot seem to resist the conventions of a dungeoneering quest plot, and it's a step down from his writing in the previous novel. But the resolution of this volume holds out promise of some twists in the final book of this trilogy.
Abercrombie's Before They Are Hanged is a strong follow-up to The Blade Itself. It lacks the previous novel's freshness and exploratory plotlines, but it provides a solid middle to what promises to be a noteworthy epic fantasy trilogy. And Abercrombie is a writer to watch: at his worst, he's still pretty good, and I'm interested in seeing what his iconoclastic cynicism and sharp prose can produce outside the heavy framework of high-fantasy conventions.