Before They Are Hanged – Joe Abercrombie

Hannah read the second novel in the Third Law Trilogy. This book took each of the main people of the novel to the north, south, and edge of the world. Abercrombie still moves forward with his great ability to take a character’s trope and reinforce certain aspects while inverting all expectations in ways you would never expect. I love the way Abercrombie can handle grimdark with wit. He does a wonderful job at looking at characters as layered, complex people.

“He garnered secrets. He flattered, and he threatened, and he lied. It did not take him long to turn the weak-willed to his purposes, and the strong-willed against each other, for he was cunning, and charming, and fair to look upon. He heard the voices always, now, from the world below. They suggested that he sow discord everywhere, and he listened. They urged him to eat the flesh of men, and steal their power, and he did so. They commanded him to seek out those devil-bloods that remained in our world, spurned, hated, exiled, and make of them an army, and he obeyed.”

Some of the best work Abercrombie does in this book is build up the lore and background of what is going on in his world. Book 1 was limited to introducing us to the various characters, to set the stage for what is coming in this trilogy and likely beyond. The background was needed after the first novel, it added proper context and gave the book even more legs to the drama and storyline that is unfolding. I was on the edge of my seat learning this, and know that after I move forward in the story I could reread the sections in this book and gain more and more insight into the novels and their storyline.

On to the characters, where Abercrombie shines most. He has such a way with most of these characters, letting them live and breath and be fully formed humans. Whenever they make a mistake, I fully believe that the mistake is reasonable to them and something they likely won’t learn from. Because Abercrombie isn’t telling the story of heroes, but of people. And people don’t often become better in one book, or even a trilogy of books. These people are not going to grow through a full arc, but will be falling backward and maybe getting up if they can. But there are no promises.

San dan Glokta

“There can be no doubt that I’m a tragic figure. I used to be a shit of a man, now I’m a husk of one. Take your pick. “
“It still seems a strange decision, though, for the tortured to turn torturer.”
“On the contrary, nothing could be more natural. In my experience, people do as they are done to. “

Glokta is my favorite character. He is so complicated and interesting. He is a person who has become the torturer. He does what has been done to him. He doesn’t want to feel guilt ridden and he often doesn’t. Which is why when he does feel guilt, it often ends up hurting his goals and his position as a head Inquisitor. And it could potentially be his downfall. I found the way he moves through this world the most honest of all of them. He knows that the world is a dark place. He has participated in some of the worst of it. But he is still layered in an edge of humanity that he almost can’t burn off.

I also can’t help but obsess over how Glokta is an interesting character study. He was what Luther once was, or so he claims. He was shrouded in his own importance. Once that was taken away from him, he still sought out importance in any way possible. In other books, this character would be either a victim or a “husk of a man,” trying to strain at anything. But Glokta has let his life make him smarter and more cunning. He is working logically through the world and making sure he comes out on top. He claims he is a husk, but we still see so many layers to this character. He is complex and interesting, and we cannot help but wonder what he will do next.

Logen Ninefingers

“[T]he weapons suit their owners to the ground. . . The Northman Ninefingers–heavy, solid, slow, and simple.”

Logen is a second favorite of mine, but I feel like that is the point of his character. Logen is a man without his people. He is used to being a leader in the North. He is harsh, solid, and ready for anything. But Abercrombie does an excellent job of making him more complex than all that. He spends an entire novel essentially teambuilding with all the people he has been pushed together with. He wants Luther and Ferro to understand and want to work with the team. He is smart and tenacious, and he also tries to let people have room for growth and tries to push them into being prepared for a situation while understanding nothing can prepare them but experience. He is such an effective leader in these novels it’s no wonder he did so well in the North and made enemies.

I thought Abercrombie was extremely effective at both his main relationships in this novel. He sits with Luthar as almost the antithesis of a mentor. Luthar asks him questions, he relies on Logen, and he fights with him. But Luthar will forever see him as a barbarian who isn’t worth his time. Logen is willing to try and teach Luthar how to be an effective soldier while often telling Ferro they cannot rely on Luthar to pull any type of weight. He is trying his hardest while never truly being successful other then slightly warning Luthar before Luthar falls headfirst into a battle he is ill-equipped for. In a normal book, Luthar would heed Logen and fall on his every word. In this story, he is only willing to listen when it is the best for Luthar or when he truly fears for his life. Otherwise, they are two people who try to have respect for one another and then fail.

Which leads to Logen’s relationship with Ferro. I have quite a few critiques discussed later in this post about Abercrombie and the women, but I appreciated that he just gave us a sexual relationship between the two. I don’t think it is overly romanticized, moreso it is two people who are joining together at an opportune moment. Abercrombie isn’t showing romance in these grimdark novels, he is showing types of people who may choose to be together for a moment during war time. I appreciated that about the relationship and that Logen was able to have a modicum of fun when he has often been frustrated and downtrodden through most of the novels.

Jezal dan Luthar

“Damn her, then, she could keep her misery. He wasn’t about to start wallowing in self-pity. That wasn’t his way at all.”

Luthar will forever be the character who makes me laugh openly and honestly. He’s just so interesting and such a character trope in these novels. He is the man who would be the most likely hero in many fantasy novels. He wins contests. He is adored. He has one of the few love interests. But none of that saves him from Abercrombie. In the end he is not trusted by anyone, and he has been pulled unwittingly into being a real hero. And being a real hero takes real gumption and real honor in killing. And Luthar has none of these. In this book I found his mirror image to be that of the prince with West. If Luthar had gone to the North like he thought he would, he would have been miserable if he had been pushed into heroics. Luckily, he is put with Ninefingers, and he is much safer for it.

But the best parts of Luthar are the parts who fails to understand how unlucky he is. He is convinced his own “civilization” means he is better than others, with failing to realize he is the dead weight in the group. He despises Logen and Ferros’ relationship, and fails to understand how war and battle can make it so people are joined in different ways than he expected. He is certain that at the end of this he will get the life he is promised, and even though he is sometimes self aware enough to recognize what people think of him, it is layered in so much delusion and denial that any self discovery or growth fails him at in the end.

Luthar will forever be the inverse of the hero. The one who will never learn or understand, and who will fail because any opportunity to grow he pushes away from. Again, he is everything that Glokta could have been, and we may be able to see his own demise in these books.

Collum West

“That West knows what he’s about.”

The man who had the most interesting growth in this novel for me was Colonel West. West in the first book was more secondary than in this novel, his entire storyline connected to Luthar and Ardee. This book takes him out of the more central of his relationships and shows the failings of West. In the first novel we learn that he was abused by his father, and in the end slaps Ardee when she “pushes him” too far. He wants to be a hero, he wants to be a better person. In this book, we may learn that that is impossible for him. He begins as a beleaguered soldier, being pushed into scenarios where he has to fight tooth and nail to save his men. He is put with another idiot, the prince, and has to hold his hand while the prince takes them into certain doom in the North. He appears to always be the true good in the novel, the one who wants to fight for those who need it.

But Abercrombie will forever give us the inverse of character archetypes. Here, we cannot just have one pure good character. Instead, West is the character who has internal anger and fights against his own entitlement as the “good guy.” We see this failing through his relationship with Cathil. Men love West, but Ardee and Cathil sense the issue within West. He blames others for his failings. He blames the evils of the world for his own anger and hatred. And that burns inside him in a unique way that isn’t seen often in novels. We see someone who wants to be good, but there is a sense of something off. He is the character I am most interested in seeing where he ends up, because I feel like Abercrombie has an interesting story to tell about the rise and fall of a character through West.

Overall, West is supposed to be the company man, and through each of the books I get the sense that we will see him fall from the company he keeps. If Luthar is the “civilized” one of the characters, West is the one who wants to be civilized but will fail every time, and it may not go well when he does. We saw it slowly in this novel, and I have a sense there will be more to come.

Ferro and Ardee

“Bought and sold like meat by the butcher! Owned by someone else, and they do as they please with you, like they would with a goat, or a dog, or the dirt in their gardens!”

This is where I Abercrombie lost a little bit in my mind. I said in my last review that he needed to do better with his female characters, because he has a lot to work with. Ferro is an amazing inverse of the woman warrior. She has something to fight for but she is sharper around her edges than most books would do and she is not going to follow along. I enjoyed seeing her come into the group a bit more, see her expansion of feelings with Logen, and her having ownership of who she was.

And then Abercrombie lost me a bit. Ferro’s only growth is directly connected to Logen. He convinces her to stay, they start a sexual relationship, and then he is allowed to have fun while she is often relegated to worrying about what their relationship means. It feels almost out of character for her to enter into a relationship that she cares this much about, especially when Logen seems to accept it’s just for fun. I felt her character wasn’t given enough agency and enough reason to have this concern. She seems like the perfect person to have relaxed encounters. I wanted a better examination or a better inversion of her character if we were going to get this assessment.

And then there was Ardee. Ardee is a character that I loved in the first novel. Why wouldn’t we have an inverse of what the femme fatale or vixen character in a fantasy novel in Abercrombie? She was interesting because she was calculating and daring. She was willing to hate Luthar but still get him to come and be with her because she could act that way. And in this book it almost felt like she was being punished for it. She is shoved to the back third of the novel. We enter in on her being destitute and robbed of her home. She is thrown into the good graces of Glokta and he has to take pity on her. Overall, it took away any agency and anything interesting about her and felt like her character was being sacrificed in the novel to push her and Glokta closer together. And in the end, if this is your only other female character from both novels, it left me feeling chagrined and unsettled for how the women in these novels were treated.

Overall, I greatly love how Abercrombie writes. I am not the best with a second novel, I like the start and end of things, but I am interested to see where this is going. I hope we see some changes to characters and some development into the most interesting parts of these novels.

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