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Before They Are Hanged: Book Two of The First Law

by Joe Abercrombie

(Gollancz, £9.99, 441 pages, trade paperback, published 15 March 2007.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanHere's a book in which everyone has problems.

Sand dan Glokta, ex-Colonel of Cavalry, now a professional torturer in the office of the inquisition, has been given command of the city of Dagoska. His problems? Well his predecessor vanished without trace, the city is about to be besieged by the forces of Uthman the Merciless, Emperor of Gurkhul, it's riddled with traitors and the best soldier on his side is a mercenary with a reputation for selling his employers out the instant he gets a better offer.

Jezal dan Luthar, Captain in The King's Own Cavalry, has been ordered to accompany Bayaz, First of the Magi, on a lengthy and apparently pointless quest into the distant west. His problems? An assortment of companions he loathes, a trek through the lawless, dog-eat-dog wilds of the Old Empire, the loss of his chance for glory with his regiment (gone north to fight the forces of Bethod, King of the Northmen), and also the fact that, professional soldier or not, Jezal has never lifted a hand in anger in his life, and it's begun to look very much like he's going to have to. Soon.

Collem West, Jezal's old commander, recently promoted to Colonel on Marshal Burr's staff, is stuck right in the middle of that glorious campaign Jezal so longs to be a part of. His problems? He's a lowborn commoner, risen to rank on the basis of merit, and despised by the well-born aristocrats of the officer corps. The army is riddled with incompetents, factions, professional rivalries, and loaded down with levies of unfit, untrained, ill-armed gutter scrapings. Worst of all, West is saddled with nurse-maiding Crown Prince Ladisla, who is intent on military glory and incapable of organising an orgy in a brothel.

Logen Ninefingers, who occasionally metamorphs into the blood-crazed berserker known in the North as The Bloody Nine, is also accompanying Bayaz, and Jezal, into the west. His problems? Well he has to forge some kind of unity between his varied companions, particularly Ferro, the vicious half-demon huntress from the south, and Jezal, the dandyish play-soldier. He also has to keep The Bloody Nine at bay, as the last thing he wants is to wake up and find he has killed off all his companions and (he hopes) friends. Last of all there's the puzzle of finding out just what it is they're traipsing off into the west with Bayaz to find, and why it is that everyone they meet who seems in the know regards it as a really, really, really bad idea...

Bayaz, of course, has problems of his own, such as the hundreds of sorcerous cannibals who are marching with the armies of Uthman against the Union (which Bayaz founded, hundreds of years before), and the fact that puissant magician though he is you don't use magic without paying a price, and sometimes a very grim one.

This is a brisk tale and well-told. Abercrombie keeps the action snapping to and fro from one area to another, so that you're never kept in suspense about what is happening with any group of protagonists too long. There is, perhaps, a bit less humour here than in the first volume in the sequence (The Blade Itself), and what there is is very dark, but also effective. The real strength of the book however is in its characters. These are some of the most cynical people ever to appear in fantasy-fiction, and they spend a great deal of time striking sparks off each other with their doubts and skepticism, to great narrative effect. Abercrombie is doing good work with this story, and I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

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